As UCF was fighting for a conference championship and their first undefeated season in school history, news broke Scott Frost had agreed to become the next Nebraska head coach. The internet erupted criticizing media outlets for publishing reports while a team is playing for a title, but we have to ask ourselves who is to blame when a coach agrees to join another team during the season.
A school’s college football head coach is the most important coaching position in sports. Not only does a college football coach have the on-field responsibilities of a traditional coach, they are also responsible for recruiting, fund raising and setting the general tone for the entire program. With the exception of a few universities, football is the cash cow that plays a large role in funding the entire athletic department. Having the right or wrong head coach, can elevate an athletic department, or set it back years.
A prime example is what Nick Saban has done at Alabama. The Crimson Tide had only had one winning season in the previous four seasons prior to Saban taking over as coach. While Alabama had a rich football history, Saban helped turn the program into one of the best we have seen in college football history.
Given their impact on universities, it is understandable that coaches hold a lot of power, but the recent coaching carousel shows this power is creating a lot of casualties. Keep in mind these are 18-22 year old college students, who have very little power when it comes to coaching searches. NCAA rules stipulate (in most cases) players have to sit out a year if they transfer, regardless of coaching changes. Just like there is a window of time for recruiting, it is time for a coaching change window.
We look back at the last 24 hours of the Frost era in Orlando as proof.
A Not So Championship Saturday
Holding back tears, Frost explained the dilemma of being the hottest coaching name in the country.
“They should give you time after the season to make decisions,” Frost said after UCF won the AAC. “They don’t. These things happen at the wrong time. The one thing I wasn’t going to do was sacrifice my commitment to this team. I’ve been game-planning and coaching, doing the best I can for these guys, then decisions land on you. They’re hard decisions.”
With confetti still on the floor, Frost called a team meeting a few hours later to tell his team he was leaving for Lincoln. Less than 24 hours later, Frost was introduced as the new Nebraska head coach. As Frost was taking questions from Nebraska media, his old UCF team was in a room waiting to find out what bowl they were headed.
Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos admitted in the introductory press conference, he met with Frost in Philadelphia on November 18, the night before UCF played Temple. On the same night, Bleacher Report’s Lars Anderson reported Frost and Nebraska were closing in on a deal. Neither Frost or Moos elaborated on when an official deal was reached, but the meeting took place while UCF still had three games remaining on their schedule.
In the following weeks after this meeting, ESPN’s Chris Fowler and other outlets would report Frost to Nebraska was a “done deal”. News officially broke as UCF was playing Memphis for the AAC title, but the train had left the station long before that. A day that should have been about UCF being the only undefeated team in college football, quickly became about the coach who had already packed his bags for Lincoln. UCF is now in a dilemma entering arguably the biggest bowl game in school history as the Knights take on Auburn in the Peach bowl.
Why There Needs to Be a Hiring Season in College Football
In an ideal world, Frost and other coaches would not agree to negotiate contracts until after the season, as we have seen this is not realistic. Frost himself implied there needed to be a system in place that allowed coaches to consider making career moves in the off-season. The NCAA would be wise to create a calendar similar to the way recruiting works. The NCAA has a dead period for recruiting where a team is not permitted to have any contact with recruits.
Now more than ever, there needs to be a dead period in coaching searches which allows teams to finish out their season without months of rumors as their current coach is meeting with prospective teams. Just like in recruiting, a school would be penalized for meeting with a coach during the season. This would mean the early signing period would be no more, as the “coaching search period” starts in January after the title game.
As we have seen over and over, the current system hurts Group of Five teams the most. In 2016, Houston started out 5-0 including a dominant opening win against Oklahoma, but went on to lose three games amidst rumors Tom Herman was leaving for a Power Five gig. Herman was named Texas head coach the day after the Cougars lost in the AAC title game.
This is nothing new for Houston who watched Art Briles leave the team for Baylor in 2007, as Briles turned around things in Waco prior to things ending in flames amidst a fury of scandals. In 2011, Houston headed into the Conference USA championship undefeated, but lost in the title game amidst weeks of rumors that Sumlin was leaving for greener pastures. News broke while Houston was playing for a conference title that Sumlin was headed to Texas A&M.
UCF’s 2017 season is an exception to the rule as Group of Five teams trend downward after hot starts. Fans are torn between wanting to have a great football season, and risking their head coach being plucked by a school in a more prominent conference. Players deserve to be able to enjoy historic seasons, rather than looking over their shoulder for their coach to bolt.
Memphis started the 2015 season 8-0 and was previously the highest ranked Group of Five team ever in the College Football Playoff rankings. The Tigers then lost three of their next four games. Justin Fuente was announced as Virginia Tech head coach in late November, and it is hard to imagine it did not impact the team on the field.
The coaching carousel even hits prominent Power Five schools as Oregon is without a coach for their bowl game after Willie Taggart bolted Eugene for Tallahassee after just one season (and less than two weeks before their bowl game).
Coaches Are Always Going to Leave for Bigger & “Better” Things
This is not about preventing coaches from taking jobs at bigger schools, or even serving the remaining years on their contract. For the most part, Power Five jobs are always going to be more attractive than a Group of Five position, even if the grass is not always greener as Sumlin found out at Texas A&M. What the discussion needs to be about is for coaching transitions to happen during its own season rather than the football season.
Unless your school is on the losing end of things, the coaching carousel promotes interest in the sport, and has become similar to NBA free agency in that fans are starting to have more interest in coaching hires than the actual games. It is time for the NCAA to stop the wild wild west that college coaching searches have become, and give it its own season. There is a time and a place for everything, but coaches leaving town when the confetti is still falling is a bad look for everyone.