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Broken Promises, Useless Contracts: The Current State of Coaching

by on January 14, 2010 7:00 AM

As a professional lifer in college coaching I am unhappy about the current state of my profession. The big money and media attention has altered the pressures and the dynamics of the job.

The word "coach" has been a title of respect. A college or high school coach has a great responsibility; he or she needs to remember that the sport is a part of a larger academic life for the student-athlete. The word "coach" should encompass the roles of educator, mentor, guidance counselor and manager of on-field duties.

Years ago many of the men got into coaching in spite of the low pay. To give you some perspective, in 1966 Joe Paterno shook hands with Penn State President Eric Walker and was told the pay was $20,000 a year.

There were no negotiations, no agents, no buyout clauses, and he was a tenured member of the faculty. Tenure was a bit of a safety net — and a reminder that the coach was part of an academic institution and not bigger than the institution.

A coach with tenure. That idea seems quaint by today’s standards. Who needs tenure when you can pack your bags and bolt for the next job?

The past few days have seen seismic movements in the world of college football coaching where vacancies have occurred at two of the more notable programs in the country.

Pete Carroll bolted USC for the NFL. Some have suggested it is because the NCAA posse is heading towards campus to sort out a myriad of allegations. Pete Carroll has asserted the fact that it was time to move on to a new challenge.

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The vacancy at USC did not last long.

A year ago The University of Tennessee took a shot at a young coach who had been fired following a 5-15 stint with the Oakland Raiders. That coach, Lane Kiffin, rewarded Tennessee for its hiring of him by bolting after one 7-6 season for the vacancy created at USC.

The University of Tennessee paid out more than $5 million in coaching salaries (not to mention several million dollars to buy out the previous coach’s contract). At a time when universities are cutting staff and faculty, Tennessee spent more than $7 million to win seven games. A year later it is right back where it started.

This profession has lost touch with the reality of the world around us, and some coaches have lost touch with what the mission of our profession should be.

It wasn’t too long ago that we saw head coaches' salaries go past the $1 million dollar mark — they have now surpassed the $5 million mark with no sign of slowing down. We are starting to look as arrogant as the Wall Street bankers raking in seven-figure bonuses.

The astronomical explosion in coaching salaries continues at a time of 10 percent unemployment in America and exploding tuition costs burdening working class families.

I am not saying that every coach should take a vow of poverty or stay at his school for three decades, but we must remember what has made ours a noble profession. It is the mission of our profession: the use of sport to help young men transition from high school and prepare them for the world that awaits them after college.

Coaches walk into a recruit’s home and talk about how they will look out for that young man’s future. When the parents or guardians pass their boy on to college, they put his welfare into that coach’s hands. The expectation is that the coach will help to guide him through a very formative time.

A year later the same coach is off to another job for more money and left behind are the young men he promised to nurture towards their future. The coach talks about a “dream job” or a new challenge, and everyone gobbles it up.

To be fair, you can not solely blame the coaches. On the flipside, we have seen coaches fired after just two or three years — not even enough time to recruit a class that reaches its senior year. In football it is hard to put your own stamp on a program until you have a senior class that has risen through the ranks of your system.

Both university administrators and coaches know the contracts aren’t worth the paper they are written on. From the moment the contract is settled, the cost of the buyout is set. Schools and coaches all know what it will cost for either side to get out of the contract.

As coaches we can complain about the hair trigger firing of administrators, but the more we skip town, and the more we bail on the student-athletes the more we should realize that we are adding to our own problems.

The freedom to move around and the big paydays all come with a cost — you never get anything for free. What we’ve lost is the stability of our profession. In the end, the student-athletes are the ones left holding the bill.



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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