Ho-ho-ho! The silly season of college coaching changes has begun - and with a bang. As early as September Clay Helton got the axe at U.S.C. and in October Ed Orgeron - who two years ago beat Clemson for a National Championship - was told that he was not welcome to return to L.S.U. next fall. With those prize jobs opened up it was only a matter of time before the “coaching carousel” began spinning.
L.S.U. wanted Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma, but U.S.C. beat them to the punch, and so the Tigers grabbed Brian Kelly away from Notre Dame. Which now leaves two more top-tier openings for some lucky soon-to-be multi-millionaire coaches.
Each of these four men have been or are becoming the highest paid public servants in their respective states. In fact, almost every state in the Union can boast - if “boast” is the right word - that a state university employed head football or basketball coach tops the payroll list of governmental workers.
The governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, earns $130,000 to administer the 25th most populous state in America - a state that, according to the Worldometer website, is more populous than about 100 countries. New Head Coach Brian Kelly got an early Christmas present of a contract worth a reported $9.5 million per year for the next 10 years. Edwards would have to be in the governor’s mansion for seventy-three years to earn what Kelly will earn for the 2022-23 season even if he goes 0-12.
By pointing this out it may appear that I am not a fan of college football. I am. I loved watching the conclusion of the Auburn-Alabama game this past weekend, especially because I thought that Auburn was going to put a stake through the heart of Alabama’s playoff chances. But I especially enjoy watching rivalry games that don’t get the fanfare of the Iron Bowl or Bedlam or the Red River Shootout. A game like Harvard-Yale has a very different feel, and offers a sense of what college football used to be and will never be again.
I am not an East Coast WASP, but every year that rivalry draws me in like metal shavings to a magnet. This is a big game for small programs, and that’s a lot more fun than small games for big programs (case in point: Georgia v. Charleston Southern - not even Bulldog fans could sit through that). Pretty much none of these players at Harvard or Yale will ever suit up on Sundays, but they always put everything they have into their rivalry game.
The problems with big time college sports, and big time college football in particular, are not new. The tail of big time college football has been wagging the dog of higher education in America for many years now, and, according to college sports historian Murray Sperber, the post-World War II college football boom led schools like Harvard and Yale to walk away from the mess that would certainly follow.
Those schools, as well as institutions like the University of Chicago, which was a co-founder of the Big Ten, chose a different path that has kept them from being a part of the arms race of big time college programs. They will never be offering coaches millions of dollars nor will they try to lure semi-pro athletes with state-of-the-art facilities. But neither will they have athletic departments that are drowning in red ink: the school that just gave $95 million to Brian Kelly has an athletic department that is in debt to the tune of $230 million.
The combined endowments of Harvard and Yale (leaving out the miniscule-by-comparison University of Chicago’s $11.6 billion) are right around $100 billion, and their acceptance rates are among the most selective in the world. How could it be that without the allure of big time college sports, without big name coaches, without 100,000 seat stadia, and without huge television contracts, these schools have still found a way to draw students and benefactors?
When pondering a “how could it be” such as this I often think of my great friend, the quick-witted and legendary coach and teacher Mr. Rory Hennessey ‘78. Mr. Hennessey - whose son R.J. ’01 played football while a student at Yale - always seems to find the right word or phrase. In this case I think I’ll go with his classic response for situations that are obvious and yet no one wants to say the real answer. After laying out the facts, Rory will, with a twinkle in his eye, respond with one simple word: “Curious.”