The Business of Coaching Changes

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Every year, somewhere between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, college football’s recruiting carousel turns anew. The millions of dollars invested in winning football means higher expectations on coaches, which translates to greater turnover in the profession.

Consider the Pac-12. Oregon State’s Mike Riley is a rarity, entering his 12th consecutive season as Beavers head coach. And even he left Oregon State after his first stint there after two seasons to pursue an opportunity in the NFL.

Other than Riley and Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, the Utes’ head coach since 2005, the Pac-12’s next-most tenured leader is David Shaw.

Shaw’s been Stanford’s head coach since 2011.

A vacancy at one program means another program will have its own to fill not long after. There are exceptions; Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez worked as a TV analyst in 2011, the season prior to taking over for Mike Stoops.

But more common is the domino effect that began at USC last fall. The firing of Lane Kiffin early into the season led athletic director Pat Haden on a well-publicized, two-month search that ultimately landed on Steve Sarkisian.

Sarkisian spent the previous five seasons at Washington. Once a national powerhouse, the Huskies went winless in the campaign prior to Sarkisian’s hire. The 0-12 finish was the proverbial rock bottom of a slide that lasted nearly a decade.

When the Huskies were last nationally relevant circa 2000, Washington’s current upperclassmen were third and fourth graders. So when Sarkisian and his staff were recruiting prospects, the pitch of Washington as a team competing for Pac-12 and national championships was an abstract.

It required high schoolers buying into the coach’s vision. At Washington, the Huskies are seeing it pay off. They finished 9-4 last year, the program’s best finish since reaching the Rose Bowl in the 2000 campaign.

“It’s harder for some kids to understand that it is a business, because these guys recruited you,” Washington offensive lineman Ben Riva said. “They came into your home and talked to your parents, called you every week. To see that guy go, it’s hard for some kids.”

As part of a football family, Riva said he understands the process but added not everyone adjusts easily.

Coaching changes are a growing reality, but that doesn’t mean transitions are any less difficult.

“I don’t think it’s ever easy,” Sarkisian said, comparing his departure to a break-up with a girlfriend. “You do it the best way you know how and just try to be up front and honest. You try not to disrespect one school or another school.”

The “why” that motivates coaches to pursue other opportunities depends on situation: pay, potential, proximity to a hometown or favorite city. But as Sarkisian alluded to, sometimes the “how” when a coach takes another job is as important.

Arizona State’s Todd Graham saw that firsthand in December 2011 when he came under fire for leaving Pittsburgh after one year. Graham came under scrutiny for texting players about his departure, which Panther players publicly criticized.

Arizona State became Graham’s fourth stop since 2006. He left Rice for Tulsa after one year, then took the Pitt job in 2011 after four successful years with the Golden Hurricane. The coming season is his third with the Sun Devils.

Graham said Thursday he learned from his Pittsburgh exit.

“People know there are things I’ve done, obviously,” he said. “When parents ask me, ‘Coach, what are your plans?’ I’m extremely honest with them about that.

“But we’ve made a commitment…Paid off our house. Paid a large contribution to the school’s capital campaign. We wouldn’t be doing that if we weren’t here for the long haul.”

His own past mistakes are something Graham said he now applies when teaching his players.

“Everybody makes mistakes, and I don’t claim to be perfect at all,” he said. “You make mistakes and you’ve got to take responsibility for them, so I talk very openly about them…That never changes, whether you’re 18 or 45.”

Nevertheless, such questions are going to arise, and not just for Graham. Because the pressure and paychecks have truly made college football coaching a business, the possibility of a coach leaving always exists. When that inevitability occurs, the players are left to adjust.

As Sarkisian said, transparency can lessen the blow. Before his departure for USC was publicized, he called the Washington team together to give them the news firsthand, Riva said.

But there’s still a sting.

“At first, it was kind of like a sigh, ‘Ugh, what are we going to do?'” Riva said. “We had just won the Apple Cup…and [Sarkisian] brought us together and was like, ‘I’m going to SC, I’m sorry, I love you guys, blah blah blah.'”

Seinfeld taught us that a “yada yada yada” can have different context depending on tone–or in this case, a “blah blah blah.” Riva spoke not derisively of Sarkisian, but more matter-of-fact.

In others words, businesslike.

And to maintain business as usual, organizations must quickly move on when a leader departs. To that end, less than two weeks after Sarkisian’s exit, Chris Petersen was introduced as Sarkisian’s successor.

Riva said the Huskies embraced Petersen’s emphasis on “work ethic,” a quality that defined the coach’s teams at Boise State.

Of course, for Petersen to come to Washington meant Boise State was on the search for a new coach after eight years.

Like USC with Sarkisian, Boise State turned to a former assistant familiar with the program. Bryan Harsin returned after a one-year stint at Arkansas State.

And for Arkansas State, Harsin’s departure leaves the RedWolves with their fourth first-year head coach in as many seasons. Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss) and Gus Malzahn (Auburn) left Arkansas State after a single season in 2011 and 2012.

Ironically, the Arkansas State locker room might find kindred spirits in USC. When the Trojans opened spring practice in March, Sarkisian became their fourth different head coach to lead live workouts in a six-month span.

Ed Orgeron took over as interim head coach upon Kiffin’s dismissal, leading the Trojans to a 6-2 regular season finish. He resigned upon Sarkisian’s hire, leaving offensive coordinator Clay Helton to coach the Las Vegas Bowl.

USC rallied around Orgeron down the stretch, with some players publicly endorsing his candidacy.

The state of flux the USC locker room found itself in over the past year forced the Trojans to rely more on one another for leadership, defensive lineman Leonard Williams said.

Such is the one constant in a turbulent landscape. Staffs may change, and even some players may transfer out of a program. But teammates gain familiarity with one another.

Williams is entering his third season at USC; in that time, the Trojans have had three defensive coordinators. It’s understandable then that the squad would learn to lean more on each other.

Yet as college football becomes increasingly businesslike, personal connection hasn’t completely eroded. That’s even true for the coaches, as Sarkisian described.

“I’m happy for the University of Washington. I’m happy for those players,” Sarkisian said of the transition to Petersen. “When you’re a coach…you don’t really pull for different teams. You just watch games and get a feel [for how they play]. I can honestly say, I’m going to be rooting for [Washington] in the fall.”