College football coaches have been losing jobs for the past month, including Jim McElwain at Florida, and as the season hits the stretch run numerous athletic directors have to be considering whether it is time for them to make a change, too.
Most will wait it out until the end of the regular season. Some could move sooner. And some ADs have likely begun laying the ground work for hiring a replacement, just in case.
Often the decision to make a coaching change comes down to wins (not enough) and losses (too many). But costly buyouts and long contract extensions add a financial wrinkle. Then there is the matter of timing. Would waiting be a disservice to the players? Can an early firing shift the focus away from the current lost season and on to the promise of a better tomorrow?
And this season, for the first time, there is also an early signing period for football recruits to consider.
All of these factors are likely in play in places like Tennessee, Arkansas, UCLA, Texas A&M and elsewhere.
The first schools to make a coaching change this season were UTEP, where Sean Kugler resigned after an 0-5 start on Oct. 1, and Georgia Southern, which parted with Tyson Summer on Oct. 22 with the team 0-6. At Tennessee, the Butch Jones watch has been in full effect since the Volunteers were shut out at home by Georgia on Sept. 30. The Vols have lost three more games since, but AD John Currie has stood pat.
Gerry DiNardo, a former coach at Vanderbilt, LSU and Indiana who does consulting work for schools searching for a new coach, said just because a coach has not been fired does not mean an athletic director is not busy working behind the scenes.
”I would suggest to you if I’m an AD I can do a better search with my coach under attack then I can by firing a coach,” said DiNardo, who is an analyst for the Big Ten Network. ”As soon as I fire the coach, then everyone switches to the search. So I’m distracting my opponents. Meanwhile, I’ve already decided I’m firing him and not only that, I’ve got three agents waiting to negotiate with me.”
Contact between coaches’ agents and search firms ramp up this time of year, trying to gauge which active coaches might be interested in soon-to-be vacant job.
That’s a long-term play. An AD must also consider what’s best in the short-term for the current team.
”There may be team dynamics that (the public is) not aware of,” said Todd Turner, the former Vanderbilt AD and president of the search firm Collegiate Sports Associates.
If an AD believes that even during a losing season the coach is maintaining order in his program, making a change might not be urgent. But it can’t be solely about pleasing players, who often are loyal to their coach.
”There’s no price that you could pay that’s more important than having the trust in your coach,” Turner said. ”That he represents your university. That he’s a fit. That they are great caretakers for the university’s name and image as well as the student-athletes’ well-being.”
Turner was not speaking directly to the Florida situation but he probably could have been. McElwain and the school went separate ways last Sunday after an odd week in Gainesville. Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin acknowledged that McElwain’s 22-12 record in two and half seasons with the Gators was not the sole factor in the breakup.
McElwain had a $12.5 million buyout, though a settlement was being negotiated, Stricklin said.
The finances of firing a coach have changed over the last 15 years as big buyouts and quick contract extensions for coaches have become the norm. McElwain received an extension after last season. Florida still owes South Carolina coach Will Muschamp, who McElwain replaced, $1.575 million.
Jed Hughes of executive search firm Korn-Ferry has worked with Texas and Southern California on recent coaching searches. He said the market is skewed to favor coaches because the pool of proven candidates is not deep, and a little success can get stakeholders excited.
”There’s a lot of pressure on that athletic director,” Hughes said. ”Most of the time it might not be that athletic director making the final decision. Could be somebody above him, maybe the president or maybe somebody on the board that’s intimately involved.”
Then when things go sideways with a coach, an athletic director must weigh the cost of paying to get rid of him against what it might cost in fan and booster support to keep him.
DiNardo and Turner agreed that most Power Five programs can find the money to pay the buyout. In some places, wealthy boosters might be willing to pitch in.
”I don’t know that the money is ever the real reason,” DiNardo said. ”I think the perception of the money at times may be the real reason.”
This year another factor has come into play for AD’s looking at making a change: For the first time, high school prospects will be able to sign with schools from Dec. 20-22.
”In a perfect world, you would have someone in place in time to positively affect the ability to sign players for the early signing period,” Stricklin said.
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