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Draft King Analysis
December 8, 2012
Lou Pickney,

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At the conclusion of the Army/Navy game, the 2012 college football regular season will come to an end. Of course, as any even casual observer could tell you, the college football coaching carousel has been spinning for weeks, with the latest twist there being Tommy Tuberville jumping ship from Texas Tech to fill the vacancy at Cincinnati. Ellis Johnson took a Southern Miss team that went 12-2 in 2011 to a disastrous 0-12 season in 2012. In a case of rewarding bad behavior, Southern Miss paid Johnson $2.15 million dollars in a buyout to send him packing. How did the Golden Eagles pay for that? They sold what was to be a home game for them in 2013 against Nebraska to the Huskers to play in Lincoln instead. The cost: almost identical to the buyout price.

No worries for Johnson, though, as he has settled back into his familiar defensive coordinator role, joining Gus Malzahn's staff at Auburn. The coaching ping-pong type changes often lead to modifications to systems that could leave a prized recruit suddenly not fitting an incoming coach's new scheme -- or method of coaching. That happens all the time, forcing some hard decisions to be made. Ryan Mallett was lured to Michigan out of Texarkana, Texas, which made sense when Lloyd Carr was the head coach. But when Rich Rodriguez replaced Carr, suddenly Mallett didn't fit. He transferred to the University of Arkansas, but because the NCAA allows as little freedom or leverage to players as possible, he had to sit out a year.

As the legendary George Carlin once said in a fantastic routine, "The table is titled, folks; the game is rigged. And nobody seems to notice. Nobody seems to care." That, in a nutshell, is modern-day college athletics as far as the coach/player dynamic goes. Perhaps most memorable was Tommy Tuberville in 1998 at Ole Miss saying that they would have to carry him out of Oxford "in a pine box" -- only for him to leave two days later to take the Auburn job. Words are meaningless when they're not enforceable.

One thing that has always fascinated me about college recruiting is how good some coaches are at it. Some guys are phenomenal recruiters but mediocre coaches. Ron Zook immediately comes to mind; he had an uncanny ability to convince top-level talent to play ball for him, to earn their college education at his school, passing up higher profile programs (particularly in his stint at Illinois) to join his team. Other guys are outstanding coaches but don't have that ability to close the deal in recruiting the elite talent you need to have to win big on a consistent basis.

Coaches who are great recruiters who leave for the NFL put themselves at a distinct disadvantage. A great example of this is Nick Saban, who turned LSU into an elite program and ultimately a BCS Champion in his time there. What is entirely glossed over in the movie The Blind Side but explained better in the book is how charming Saban was with the family of prized offensive tackle prospect Michael Oher. If Saban hadn't left LSU for the Miami Dolphins, Oher would have gone to Louisiana State, and the movie probably would never have been made -- not without the Ole Miss family tie-in connection that made for a proper Hollywood ending.

In the NFL, in the modern era (post 1993) of salary caps and a strong invisible magnet pulling every team toward 8-8, recruiting is barely a blip on the radar. Yes, the right team and system can convince a guy to pass up a more lucrative opportunity, ditto for the notion of a "hometown discount" for a guy to stay with his longtime team, but in general the ability to recruit is night-and-day different in the NFL vs. college.

Nick Saban
Nick Saban isn't shy about speaking his mind.
(John David Mercer - USA TODAY Sports)
Why do you think Saban came back to college football, despite infamously saying "I'm not going to be the Alabama coach" and facing the daunting task of rebuilding a Crimson Tide team coming off the double-whammy of probation and the Mike Shula era? I was living in a Birmingham suburb at the time and remember the local TV coverage of his arrival after taking the job and this slightly taken-aback look on his face at the hubub over him exiting his flight. But he knew how rabid and demanding the Crimson Tide fan base was and how whatever he did would be compared with the impossible-to-match legacy of Bear Bryant. Despite the challenge, the reality is that Saban is a charmer when he wants to be, and soon enough he had built the Alabama program back to prominence and ultimately into the national powerhouse it is today.

The whole notion of recruiting is interesting, forcing guys who present gruff, demanding, even hostile exteriors to morph into charming salesmen. The process is quite amazing. It's not far from how even the most abrasive guys can create a façade of likeability when trying to win the interests of a woman. But with football coaches, for every Tony Dungy there are ten Bill Parcells types, foaming-at-the-mouth angry and vitriolic and borderline abusive -- especially when it comes to addressing linesmen who have the misfortune of being lined up near them following a bad call.

Hardass coaches succeed in general because they push their players to their maximum potential, or at least that's the theory. Sometimes it doesn't work out so well: Mike Leach, never known for being a "player's coach" type, alienated star WR Marquess Wilson this season at Washington State to the point that Wilson quit the team. And it's not like Wilson was a scrub: he's the school's all-time leader in career receiving yards.

And, ultimately, therein lies the rub -- coaches can come and go, jumping from job to job like they're rolling the dice in a game of Monopoly (I rolled two fives: I get to move again!) But players who have the misfortune of having the coach that recruited them end up getting canned or walking out on the team in order to chase the next big opportunity have little recourse when the new coach is the equivalent of Coach Buzzcut from Beavis and Butt-head. Transfer? Sure... if you're willing to sit out a year. That doesn't work for you? Have fun at the I-AA/FCS level.

Ultimately, though, there are a select few men who are the coaching equivalent of Man-E-Faces from the He-Man cartoon series, with the ability to switch from "Irritable With The Media" mode to "Charming The 5-Star Recruit Out Of His Soft Verbal To His Home State School" mode to "Berating Players Who Might Need An Extra Push" mode seamlessly. And for those few guys who can pull it off effectively, and most importantly also have the coaching ability to get the most out of their motivated, elite recruits, their multi-million dollar contracts prove to be well worth the financial risk taken by the schools that employ them.


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