Oklahoma Football: Schools taking on risk with spending spree on coaches

NCAA Football: Oklahoma Press Conference
Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Thoughts on the wild boom in coaching salaries and other issues as OU pursues its next head coach.

Even as the College Football Playoff takes shape, mega-contracts for college football coaches are dominating headlines in the sport.

The mere hint of coaches like James Franklin of Penn State and Michigan State’s Mel Tucker emerging as candidates for other openings have prompted their employers to fork over lucrative deals pushing nine-figure sums spread over 10-plus years. In other cases, powerhouses such as LSU are giving coaches like Brian Kelly monster compensation packages to lure them away from the Notre Dames of the world. The University of Oklahoma saw its coach, Lincoln Riley, poached away in the last few days by USC with arguably the most extravagant deal of all.

The allure of hiring a superstar coach to fix all of your program’s problems makes sense in important ways. Players pass through schools in a short window of time, but great coaches have longevity. They’re the protagonists in college football stories.

Meanwhile, the Alabama Crimson Tide are enjoying an unprecedented run of success thanks to their massive investment in Nick Saban 15 years ago. That’s the model everyone wants.

Now put yourself in the shoes of athletic directors charged with hiring new coaches. Throwing a huge contract at a big name is an easy way to get boosters off your back. The fiscal prudence of that kind of move doesn’t matter to you because you’re not answering to shareholders. Hey, if the hire doesn’t work, you’re probably getting canned anyway. A financial mess would be the next AD’s problem.

In other words, the people making these hires are getting paid to make a handful of key stakeholders happy, not to hire the best coach for the program. That environment fosters a lot of dumb money sloshing around in the coaching market, especially with gargantuan deals on the way for conference media rights.

Maybe you get a Bama situation. On the flip side, you might have rented an overpaid egomaniac for as long as it takes until you can buy him out. Not to mention, giving coaches guaranteed mountains of money doesn’t exactly inspire them to work harder.

Keep all that mind as OU athletic director Joe Castiglione vets candidates to become the next head coach of the Sooners.


A few other scattershot thoughts on the Oklahoma Sooners’ coaching search:

*Another risk of hiring bigger-than-life coaches: The worst scandals in the sport seem to happen when they’re in charge. In the last decade alone, we’ve seen sordid affairs take place at Joe Paterno’s Penn State program and Baylor under Art Briles. There’s just not enough accountability for how those programs are run when the coaches have that much power.

*Bob Stoops has done some of the most important work in his career on OU’s behalf this week. He said a lot about the events of the last week and the past season in this episode of his YouTube show:

He also didn’t say some things that stood out. Anyway, sounds like we’ll know who OU’s next head coach is by Sunday or Monday.

*Zach Barnett of Football Scoop did a good analysis of the stakes involved in this hire. He makes a solid case for what seems like the most seamless candidate in Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables. Meanwhile, Jason Kersey of The Athletic ($) argued that keeping quarterback Caleb Williams in Norman should take top priority.

I’ve given a lot of thought lately to the idea of what OU should try to accomplish now – how to shape this situation into an opportunity to strengthen the program. Frankly, the Sooners could bring in many quality coaches to stop the bleeding. Some coach out there might even be able to convince Williams and players in the transfer portal to stick around. Do that, and OU might even make it back to the top of the Big 12 in presumably its last season as a member of the conference.

But if I’m Joe Castiglione, I want to hear the candidates’ visions for building a roster to compete in the SEC when the time comes to move. As much as I wanted to see what the Sooners could do under Riley in the SEC, you could make the case that he would have faced a steep learning curve in that regard.

The deterioration of OU’s offensive line over time points to one emerging issue. The unit seemed to slip a little more each year from 2017 to now. To be fair, subpar OL play appears to be an epidemic in football, but there’s still no denying the erosion up front at OU. You can potentially blame the OL’s decline on position coach Bill Bedenbaugh, but he owns such a strong track record overall. It’s fair to ask if Riley was giving the OL coach enough roster spots and providing an adequate strength-and-conditioning program to keep the group in top form.

Without a plan to stop that slide up front, OU will struggle to handle a tougher regimen of defensive linemen every week. Whoever gets the job needs to start evaluating those issues now.