Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Kids don't need degrees to learn loyalty overrated
A record-tying 53 players with at least one season of eligibility remaining said adios to college football and applied for this year's NFL draft. This after the same number left in 2008, followed by 46 last year.
It just proves that kids don't need a degree to learn the lesson their coaches and schools have been teaching by example: Loyalty is overrated.
Think about it. The list of coaches whose departure would catch anyone by surprise anymore has exactly three names on it: Mack Brown at Texas, Jim Tressel at Ohio State and Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech. Joe Paterno is more invested in Penn State than any of them, but as the recent retirement of his rival and pal Bobby Bowden at Florida State reminded us, age catches up to everyone.
There have been 22 coaching changes dating back to the start of last season, not counting Urban Meyer's "gone-today, here-tomorrow' stunt, with vacancies still open at East Carolina and Louisiana Tech. That means this season's game of musical chairs will have more than the average number of participants for the last decade (19), but still well short of the 32 coaches who changed places in 2000.
What those numbers reflect is the kind of impatience and instability previously associated only with the pro ranks. To be sure, the exits of Mark Mangino from Kansas, Mike Leach from Texas Tech and Jim Leavitt from South Florida -- each because of alleged misconduct toward players -- caught most people by surprise. But they might just be one indication that after years of being held hostage by coaches, their employers are intent of taking some of the power back.
Mangino, the consensus national coach of the year just two years ago, and Leach revived moribund programs and lifted them to new heights. Leavitt built South Florida from scratch. The circumstances surrounding the departure of each were different, but each school's willingness to cut a successful coach loose so quickly would have been hard to imagine not that long ago. But the same could be said for the notion that an unproven, largely inexperienced coach like Lane Kiffin would land jobs at Tennessee and Southern California in successive years.
A job like Tennessee's used to be a destination, but now it's just another way station. Vols fans were overjoyed when the school chased out Kiffin's predecessor, Phil Fulmer, but suddenly it looks like a case of you don't know what you've got until it's gone.
Fulmer played for Tennessee and worked as an assistant there before taking over as head coach for 13 years. In all, he invested 35 years of his life in the place, winning one national and two SEC titles en route to producing a 152-52 mark. And unlike Kiffin, he never looked at the job as a line on his resume that would impress his next employer.
It took a while, but even the traditional powers have started playing the game the same way.
Notre Dame became enamored with Charlie Weis because of his Irish heritage and ties to the school -- Weis was a student there -- and even doubled the length of his contract only a year into his tenure before figuring out he wasn't the right guy. Michigan bowed to pressure a few seasons ago and chased off Lloyd Carr, and by the way, how's the Rich Rodriguez experiment working out so far?
The most relevant example for this new era might be Alabama, where school officials kept casting about for coaches with even the most-tenuous connections to the glory days of Bear Bryant, then finally gave up and sprung for the top hired-gun available. If nothing else. Nick Saban turned out to be the right guy at the right time.
But even as he talks about building a second dynasty, you'd have a hard time filling up the stadium in Tuscaloosa with people who genuinely believe he'll stick around long enough to accomplish it. Change the name of the coach and the school, and judging by the increasing number of kids who are departing before the time, filling up the sideline with players wouldn't be that easy, either.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org.