Nostalgia and Money Keep College Football’s Coaching Carousel Turning

Hard Rock Stadium before the Miami Hurricanes vs Notre Dame, Nov. 11, 2017.
Hard Rock Stadium before the Miami Hurricanes vs Notre Dame, Nov. 11, 2017. Phasornc/Wikipedia

The end of the 2021 college football season not only means bowl dreams for winning teams but rollicking emotions amidst abrupt reality on campuses across the country. 

27 college football teams changed head coaches in the last ten days, with some notable programs (it’s going to be okay, Oregon) left without a leader for the time being. At least 12 more institutions decided to either extend or retain coaches. In a reach to maintain relevance, for example, Michigan State handed second-year coach Mel Tucker a 10-year, $95 million contract. 

We won’t have nearly enough room here to analyze all that action, but we can take a look at a few of the higher-profile moves. With so much emotion in the air, let’s take a look at the ever-tumultuous college football landscape through “change.”

“Time may change me/But I can’t trace time,” Changes, David Bowie

One of the more interesting twists on this year’s merry-go-round is the change that didn’t happen. 

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The University of Michigan hailed Jim Harbaugh as its returning savior in 2015. Six years in, the program achieved only mediocrity — a 3-9 combined record against the Spartans and Buckeyes, a 1-4 record in bowl games, and a 2-13 mark against AP top ten teams. 

In 2020, tremors turned to disaster as the Wolverines went 2-4 with the last three games canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Instead of walking away, however, Harbaugh took an unprecedented pay cut and leveled the axe himself. He let the old guard go to bring in up-and-coming youth: Defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, safeties coach Ron Bellamy, defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale, and running backs coach Mike Hart.

Going into this season, Harbaugh had never defeated Ohio State, and Michigan had never reached a Big Ten Championship game. After Blue lost a heartbreaker to Michigan State on Oct. 30, Jim Harbaugh’s head seemed ripe to fall. And then, Nov. 27 arrived.

Vying for a ticket to the Big Ten Championship, Michigan did something they’d never done against Ohio State under Harbaugh’s leadership: They won. There was a purpose on primetime that the team had rarely displayed during the coach’s tenure. And it didn’t happen at the click of a button, according to Wolverines Wire.

The team practiced for Ohio State daily. Coaches installed ‘Beat Ohio State’ signs in the locker room. They ran a ‘beat Ohio’ drill in practice. And then, they punched a ticket to the College Football Playoff — a semifinal meeting with Georgia.

It remains to be seen if Harbaugh can maintain this momentum, but in just one game, the coach transformed from prodigal son back to conquering hero. 

“The future’s in the air, can feel it everywhere, blowing with the wind of change,” Wind of Change, The Scorpions

Phil Knight has bankrolled the University of Oregon to the tune of $1 billion. The Nike co-founder’s name and influence are plastered across the institution, most recently with the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerated Scientific Impact. The couple chipped in $500 million to ensure that the collaborative, cutting-edge effort to tackle societal challenges would be built on the banks of the Willamette River. 

Some of the biggest recipients of this philanthropy are the Duck football team, easily recognized in different shades of neon, green, yellow, white, and black. The Nike brand forged Oregon’s national recruiting reach and Knight’s dollars expanded Autzen Stadium, the team’s Eugene home. Knight even signed on to hiring Mario Cristobal in 2017 and contributing to staff raises that ensured continuity.

Under Cristobal’s leadership, the Ducks replaced USC as the most dominant recruiter in the West. Five stars rolled in from the home state, Utah, California, and Hawaii. This led to a 10-year, $85 million extension offer approved by Knight, according to The Oregonian. Year one would pay over $7 million and rise each subsequent year. The largest deal ever offered to a Duck football coach wasn’t enough to buy Cristobal’s heart, however.

Cristobal is a Miami native, playing on the offensive line for two ‘Canes national championship teams, and serving as a University of Miami assistant under Butch Davis from 2004 to 2006. He’s also be earning almost $8 million per year, a thank you for moving back home. 

Cristobal went 35-13 at the O, leading the team to three Pac-12 North titles, two Pac-12 championships, and a 2020 Rose Bowl win. The coach will be quick to hire assistants and assemble a new force of nature to uproot the talent-rich Florida swamp.

Meanwhile, the Ducks already lost three ESPN 300 recruits after Cristobal announced he was leaving Monday. Fans are reeling and the Knights are left spurned for a second time since Chip Kelly split town for the NFL. 

“You better start swimmin’, or you’ll sink like a stone, for the times they are a-changin’,” The Times They Are A-changin’, Bob Dylan

After Bob Stoops abruptly retired in June 2017, leaving behind state-of-the-art improvements and an unused, brand-new, statesman-sized office, no one could’ve predicted how that he’d return as an emergency interim head coach four years later. 

The coach’s handpicked replacement, the then 33-year-old Lincoln Riley, led Oklahoma to even greater heights. The Sooners would win the Big 12 Championship every season under Riley until this year’s loss to bitter rival, Oklahoma State. They made three College Football Playoff appearances in five years, going 55-10 in that stretch. 

Just a week ago, though, Riley opted for generational money in Southern California over a prairie legacy. He’ll likely infuse the Trojans with offensive creativity with top recruits for the first time in Pasadena since Pete Carroll. It’s a somehow logical coincidence that one of Carroll’s contemporaries helped to right the Sooners’ ship.

“Who’s to say that some new fresh ideas don’t improve the team?” Stoops said on Fox’s Big Ten Championship pregame show, a parting shot as his former heir sailed away. 

OU wasted no time in reaction, hiring Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables just days later. Venables is considered a top defensive mind — a stark change from Riley’s offensive wizardry. In the go-go Big-12, going against the grain to gain a defensive advantage amidst endless shootouts could be an answer. 

This is Venables’ first head coaching job and a return home (a theme it seems now in the college game), having served on Bob Stoops’ staff from 1999 to 2011. Venables has been a hot name in the coaching circles for a while and he follows a familiar pattern: both Stoops and Riley were first-timers as well. 

As recruiting season begins, and the bowl season beckons right around the corner, there’s a belief born from an almost perpetual cycle of hope, exhilaration, contentment, and heartbreak. Around and around in a tilting whirl, the pieces change, but the places remain the same.

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