The below article originally published in the June issue of Arkansas Money & Politics
When it comes to big-time college sports, Arkansas State University and the University of Arkansas rarely operate on a level playing field. The Razorback athletic department pulls in nearly seven times more total revenue than the ASU Red Wolves.
There is one place Arkansas’ largest sports programs stand on equal ground: each school’s head football coach has a contract demanding the same amount of money for cutting out early. If the Hogs’ Bret Bielema had decided to break his six-year contract last year — his first on the job — he would have owed the U of A $3 million. Three million is also what the Red Wolves’ new coach Blake Anderson would pay to leave ASU during his first year. This symmetry is all the more striking because Bielema’s and Anderson’s salaries aren’t even close: Bielema makes $3.2 million a year, Anderson makes $700,000.
Conversely, if they leave at the behest of the schools, the coaches can look to pocket some walking-away money.
It’s all a matter of strategy and context, a common game played by universities across the country. Still, fans can be certain of one thing: in the world of coaches’ contracts, terms for parting ways matter every bit as much as the salary.
In the biggest conferences, a $3 million buyout provision isn’t all that large. In a conference as relatively small as ASU’s Sun Belt, though, this kind of number is almost certainly unprecedented — much like the situation in which ASU football finds itself on the whole.
“When you’ve gone through what we’ve gone through the last few years,” ASU athletic director Terry Mohajir said, “you learn a little bit.”
Since 2010, ASU has hired four different coaches. The first — Hugh Freeze — had a first-year buyout of $225,000. For his successors, that figure jumped to $700,000, then to $1.75 million, and now to $3 million. Where it ends, nobody knows.
Decades ago, things were simpler. Major college football coaches typically signed one-year contracts, which would roll over to the next year if they did a good job. Things started changing in the 1980s with the advent of bigger broadcast deals and the proliferation of cable sports programming. As multi-year contracts prevailed in the late 1980s and 1990s, “the institutions began looking for a commitment from the coach,” U of A athletic director Jeff Long said. At first, “it was really a one-way street and now it’s evolved into a two-way street on the contractual buyout terms.”
In business terms, the institution is looking for security after investing in a risky asset — the head football coach — that can either add or lose a great amount of revenue. Perversely, either one makes the coach more likely to leave. A chronically underwhelming coach is likely to be fired by the school, while star performers are lured away by institutions with more elite programs.
Buyout contracts therefore typically work in two ways. If a university fires the head coach “at its convenience,” legalese often translated to “too many games were lost,” the school usually gives the coach a ton of money to go away. Bielema, for instance, would be paid $12.8 million if he were fired in this context in his first three seasons. For Anderson, the number is $3 million if he’s let go in his first year. The University of Central Arkansas’ Steve Campbell would be paid $7,000 a month for the remainder of his contract ending Dec. 31, 2017, if he were fired; and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff’s Monte Coleman would get his annual base salary of $150,000 paid to him over 18 months.
In the 21st century, major college coaches’ salaries — and attendant buyouts — have grown hand-in-hand.
You’ve seen them.
Maybe they were sitting in the corner booth at Andy’s, near the window at McDonald’s, or camped out near the bathroom of some mom and pop roadside diner.
Grey-haired, huddled over cups of steaming coffee and the morning’s newspaper, these men speak in quiet tones for hours. Whatever the topic, they know it inside and out. They know the people who call the shots, and they know their grandchildren too.
When it comes to Alabama and Auburn athletics, these are the kind of circles I imagine Wimp Sanderson runs in. The former University of Alabama basketball coach has plenty of friends in powerful places – guys like Jimmy Rane, who’s on Auburn’s board of trustees, and Pat Dye, the former Auburn head football coach. Sanderson is a featured guest on four regional sports radio stations.
So I feel he’s qualified to speak on behalf of the speculation that next year Bobby Petrino will coach Auburn. Speculation that has only been fueled by current Arkansas coach John L. Smith and SEC blogger conspiracists.
“They’re not gonna make a change at Auburn,” Sanderson said in a phone interview. “I know what I’m talking about.” It might have been the worst September in the history of the Auburn football, but that 1-3 start isn’t enough to get Tigers’ head coach Gene Chizik canned.
For starters, “it would be very difficult to let somebody go who’s won the national championship in the last four years,” said Sanderson, a Birmingham resident. Moreover, a coaching change would jeopardize an extremely strong incoming recruiting class – ranked #7 in ESPN’s rankings. Finally, Chizik is receiving plenty public support from Dye and Auburn Athletic Director Jay Jacobs, who played football under Dye.
With Alabama, Georgia, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M still on its schedule, Auburn won’t have an easy time making a bowl game this year. When it comes to Chizik’s job security, though, his most dangerous game may be his next one.
If, on October 6th, Chizik loses to a sputtering, Bobby Petrino-less Arkansas, no amount of friends in high places may save him.
The question: Did it hit ground first? At any point, did it bounce back?
Yes, it turned out.
The Razorbacks, though, could be falling for a while.
There were too many loose ends in Arkansas’ 52-0 loss in Fayetteville. Not even a healthy quarterback, cornerback and fullbacks would have tied them.
The game still had not slipped out of grasp in the early second quarter when, down 10-0, from Alabama 42 yard line Allen misread the Alabama defense and forced a deep pass over the middle to tight end Chris Gragg. Safety Vinnie Sunseri – with such a name, I’d expect him to play for Rutgers, the New Jersey school Arkansas plays next – intercepted the ball and returned it 13 yards. Allen, making his first start, could have made the far more simple throw to an open Knile Davis, who would have run it to near the first down marker.
It’s likely Tyler Wilson, Arkansas’ injured star quarterback, would have made the safe throw.
This isn’t a jeremiad on Arkansas’ unseasoned quarterbacks, who have done about as well as can be expected, all things considered. They had nothing to do with the spotty special teams play. They weren’t going to stop a 6-4, 320-pound Australian defensive lineman named Jesse Williams from putting the entire Hogs’ offensive line on the barbie. They weren’t the ones unable to get around the three preseason All-Americans on Alabama’s offensive line, or wrap up bruising tailback Eddie Lacy behind the lines.
Wilson would not have helped in these departments.
UPDATE: Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long made two revelations on Tuesday night that made Petrino’s firing a no-brainer. Still, before those discoveries were made, there would have been much deliberation…
Battered, bloodied, bruised.
Bobby Petrino’s reputation took quite a tumble last week in the tangled aftermath of his motorcycle’s crash 20 miles southeast of Fayetteville. For a few days it looked as if the Sunday wipe-out could actually help raise the tough guy image of Arkansas’ head football coach.
On Tuesday, Petrino showed up at a press conference looking like he had just gotten into a brawl with his entire offensive line. Wearing a neck brace, and likely a little dopey on pain meds, he emphasized it’s still all about creating a winner out there on the spring practice field while sneaking in some banter about avoiding brain damage despite failing to wear a bike helmet. Then, a couple days later, the world was introduced to a 25-year-old University of Arkansas employee named Jessica Dorrell.
And the bottom fell out, and didn’t stop until Tuesday night, when it was announced Petrino’s Arkansas coaching days were over. It was a decision the majority of Sync magazine voters supported.
Obviously, he damage from this scandal extended far beyond Petrino’s cracked neck vertebra and four broken ribs, far beyond the pain he inflicted on his own wife and four children, or Dorrell’s fiance. It became a public matter on March 28 when Dorrell was hired as student-athlete development coordinator for the football program, moreso when Petrino forgot to tell his boss, Jeff Long, she’d joined him on his Harley-Davidson for a Sunday evening joyride. University policies usually don’t smile on supervisors promoting mistresses. Nor do employers typically take to an employee’s lying.
Long, the athletic director, has determined Petrino’s ultimate fate at Arkansas. He must go. There’s has been much to weigh, and Long will get flak from many Arkansas fans for making this final call. The 51-year-old Petrino has built a complex legacy – has a college head coach ever been forced out on as much of a high note (as far as on-field success goes)? For every plus Petrino had, there seemed to be a minus. To wit:
A previous version of this column ran in Sync magazine.
It doesn’t seem a Sunday night motorcycle crash has altered the M.O. of Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino. Although confined to his hospital room on Monday night, he still reviewed paperwork from a recent spring practice. By the next morning, he was watching practice live, four broken ribs, cracked vertebra, sprained neck and pain meds be damned. A few hours after that, he fielded questions from the press and even cracked a joke about the extent of his injuries: “Yeah, I don’t think I have any brain damage, but that’s yet to be seen. If I start not punting at all in the games or something, then we’ve got a problem.”
Petrino may have been joking, but I’m pretty sure one person not laughing was the coach of a private high school school only two and half hours from Fayetteville who has built a national reputation by refusing to punt among other unorthodox strategies. Kevin Kelley believes punting on fourth down is nearly always a bad idea, even when pinned deep in one’s own territory with 20 yards to go. Economists say the numbers back Kelley, who has won multiple state championships with Little Rock’s Pulaski Academy while putting up absurdly proficient offensive statistics.
While Kelley’s football philosophy has been much trumpeted by media – Time voted it the 33rd-best invention of 2009 – actual football coaches haven’t followed suit. Although some college coaches have made pilgrimages to Kelley’s office to learn his secrets, none seem to have incorporated his strategies into their own playbooks. Former Texas Tech Mike Leach might have been the college coach most publicly open to Kelley’s ideas, according to this Associated Press interview, but he was fired before he could implement them. Leach now coaches at Washington State University and may become the first major college coach to deliberately use Kelley’s methods.
Why do you think college coaches haven’t already tried Pulaski Academy’s system? Despite a wealth of data confirming its superiority, are coaches on the whole still creatures of habit who put more stock in intuition than freakonomics? On the whole, I think adopting such a new-fangled approach just seems too risky for multimillionaire coaches with more to lose than a high school P.E. teacher coaching on the side. Risk aversion as a rationale doesn’t stick in Petrino’s case, though. He had plenty more to lose Sunday evening when he got on his motorcycle without a helmet [but with a 25-year-old hottie].
So, to shake things up, I’ve imagined delving into the future to find some of the most provocative stories of the year 2020, and I examined what 2011 events led to them.
In brief, I found what in nine years will turn out to be the biggest stories of 2011.
Four years ago, Bobby Petrino arrived in Fayetteville and started proving himself from the start. Arkansas’ new coach promised to unite a fan base that had been fractured in the months preceding Houston Nutt’s ignominious departure, and started fulfilling that with a 5-7 season throughout which the team markedly improved. Ryan Mallett came aboard the next season and began smashing every passing record in sight on the way to an 8-5 finish and a Liberty Bowl win. In 2010, Arkansas rose yet another level with 10 wins while losing to defending national champion Alabama and eventual national champion Auburn in fairly tight games. Yes, the Hogs lost to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, but reaching a BCS bowl was another sign things were pointing up. Anything seemed possible for Petrino, who’d done the near-miraculous in three years.
Now, this season.
10-2 should be a great record. It should represent consistent excellence. Yet something doesn’t sit well.
It seems every time one of these games comes around, visions of Thanksgiving Day, 1971 are conjured.
In this particular rendition, Oklahoma played the irresistible force, Nebraska the immovable object.
No. 1 Nebraska entered the heavily hyped fray with a defense – filled with with seven first-team All-Big Eight selections and four players who would earn consensus All-America honors – that to this day many still consider the best in college football history.
The No. 2 Sooners countered on their home field with the nation’s most productive offense, a Wishbone attack averaging 45 points and 563 total yards per game (481 on the ground).
When the dust cleared in Norman, Okla., that superlative defense was left standing. Nebraska won 35-31.
Fourteen years later, the programs switched roles entering another late November showdown in Oklahoma.
This time around, No. 2 Nebraska boasted the nation’s highest scoring offense, with a ground attack racking up 395 yards a game. No. 5 Oklahoma countered with a highly potent running game all its own. But the Sooners’ defense, led by nose guard Tony Casillas, linebacker Brian Bosworth and defensive end Kevin Murphy, was even more impressive.
Oklahoma won 27-7 after holding Nebraska to 161 yards.
It is yet to be seen if No. 1 LSU’s defense will enter the pantheon of the game’s great defenses, as Nebraska ’71 and Oklahoma ’85 have. But in leading LSU through an undefeated first 11 games, a gauntlet including Oregon, West Virginia and Alabama, it so far certainly seems likely. As the Tigers look down the scope at their Nov. 25 game with No. 3 Arkansas, a team to which they have lost three of the last four seasons, they take solace in a defense superior to any of its predecessors.
The legacy of Arkansas’ recently vaunted offense, which has routed its last three SEC opponents, is harder to divine. It suffered mid-season hiccups in lackluster wins against Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, on the heels of failing a test against Alabama, the only team with a defense comparable to LSU’s.