Who Are These Guys?
By BJ Bennett
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As college football becomes more prominent in society and the power and pull of those who lead it grow as well, various socioeconomic questions need to be asked.
The major college football head coach wears many hats, and all of them are stamped with a school logo and a sponsor stitch. The functional and perceptual embodiment of the program, head coaches don't take jobs; they take a proverbial oath of office. Upon introduction, they immediately become the main fundraising arm for their respective university and the glorified guidance counselor for 85 thrust-into-the-spotlight young men. More so, the whims of a specified public oftentimes rests on their shoulders.
The day in the life of a coach, even in the off-season, is more detailed than a packaging invoice. It's a constant pressure-cooker, one with fleeting and fluid job security. Each new season is an interview, each Saturday is a progress report. Every spectator is, in some respects, an employer. The fall, which extends well into winter, is its own obvious animal. The critical-circus of recruiting carries into spring football, which takes coaches right into booster season.
"You try to find time where you can have some peace and have an opportunity just to relax a little bit. Normally for me, after our summer camps..." admitted Georgia head football coach Mark Richt on a recent tour stop. "Once the fourth of July hits, I can't hardly help it. I think about football 23 hours a day anyway. After mid-June will be a great time for us."
For the coaches who can handle the rigors, the rewards are quite significant. Mack Brown and Nick Saban, for example, have annual salaries of over $5 million per season. Considering University of Alabama president Robert E. Witt's recent yearly salary of $487,620 and the state governor rate of $121,000, there are a number of critics of the rising incomes college football offers. The recent rounds of realignment and the correlated television-contracts and school payouts have placed more of the game's finances square in the public eye.
"How many people watch you give a final exam? Well, I have 50,000 watch me give mine every Saturday!" Bear Bryant once asked of Texas A&M professor Tommy Mayo when questioned about his pay.
With so much money at play, and even more at stake, in the big business of college football, the importance of winning is an at all-time high. The Alabama athletic department had a net income of over $31.6 million this past year, tops in the nation. The figure is especially telling considering the university has just the 5th largest-enrollment in its own conference and is the flagship school for a state that ranks only 23rd in the country in population. The University of Tennessee, which is at least similar to UA in infrastructure and state demographics, had an athletic net income of just over $14,000. Translation; it pays to be successful on the gridiron.
Lost in the shuffle of big contracts and bigger bills is how to value the humanistic role a head coach has on his team. Wins are obviously rewarded, should ethics be as well? Ideally, we would all like to view coaches as great example-setters and molders of young men. A considerable amount of responsibility comes with the deferred authority a team full of impressionable college students gives their head football coach. Many players look up to their coaches as father-figures, adults who help guide them forward in life. The recent Bobby Petrino saga addresses this very tug-of-war. Big picture, the duty to instill life lessons into the leaders of tomorrow scoffs at the trivial-charge to win football games.
"He made the decision, a conscious decision, to mislead the public on Tuesday, and in doing so negatively and adversely affected the reputation of the University of Arkansas and our football program," Razorback athletic director Jeff Long said upon announcing Petrino's firing. "In short, Coach Petrino engaged in a pattern of misleading and manipulative behavior designed to deceive me and members of the athletic staff, both before and after the motorcycle accident."
How much should college football coaches be paid? How should they be evaluated? Do the unrealistic demands of administrators and fans adversely effect the interactive efforts of coaches and thus the development of the young-adults they mentor? And if coaches have willingly or unwillingly developed into some form of an appointed cultural representative for a region, how strong should our feelings for them be? It's a fascinating cultural discussion. It's a question there simply may not be one right answer to.
"I try not to get too high or too low one way or another, what people might be saying," explained Richt at the Peach State Pigskin Preview in Macon. "My goal really on a daily basis is to try to live my life in a way that I think would please the Lord. I try to keep my faith in Him, not in what I do. I think a lot of people get caught up in becoming what they do and then when what they do is a little shaky here and there, it's shakes the foundation of their life. I try not to let that happen, I try not to get to high off of what people might be saying about you as well."
For Richt and the Bulldogs, the start of last season was the prototypical example of the modern emotional merry-go-round that is college football coaching. Despite being the school's winningest coach since since the early 1920s and the patriarch of the SEC, an 0-2 start in 2011 after a handful of mediocre years seemingly put Richt square on the hot seat. An ardent portion of the UGA fan base, and some in the media, were clamoring for a change. After falling to South Carolina in an outing where they outgained the Gamecocks by more than 40 yards, Georgia rallied to win ten games in a row. The Bulldogs won the SEC East and advanced to the SEC Championship Game.
Early last year, Richt went from being a mere high-profile person to a point of contention amongst millions. Few things dehumanize individuals like the passion that comes with winning and losing -- especially in areas like the Deep South where so many are so emotionally-invested. In the SEC, family crests come with a trademark. The expectations and spotlight that come with such leadership can take a toll. But as all coaches can attest to, it's part of the process of both emerging and staying put in a landscape as tumultuous as any.
"That was a real stressful situation. A little bit different," recalled Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin about an earlier stint in College Station. "Looking back on that, going through those nine games and then being without a job right after that and putting that much into it was one of most stressful times of my life. I know it was probably the most stressful time in my wife's life. As a matter of fact, I think the first game she couldn't even stay. She had to leave, she was so sick to her stomach about what was going on. Looking back on that it was a time that really, really helped me as a person and helped me professionally to deal with some things and put me in some pressure situations where you had to make some decisions and some smart decisions."
It's a profession where the only history is recent history. A down year or two can quickly have you apart of it. Two college football Hall of Fame members, Bobby Bowden and Phillip Fulmer, experienced that sentiment firsthand at the end of the last decade. Bowden won 411 games in his career, claimed two national championships and led the Seminoles to top four national finishes in 14 consecutive years from 1987-2000. Bowden single-handily turned Florida State into a national power, completely changing the fortunes of the university along the way. He, Bryant, Joe Paterno and Eddie Robinson would likely form college football's coaching Mount Rushmore.
"In my opinion, FSU wouldn't be FSU without Bobby Bowden. I'm not saying that lightly. If he wanted to coach until he died on the field, and wanted to be buried at the 50-yard line under the Seminole head, FSU should honor that. I'm sad to hear that news," stated former All-American lineman Andre Wadsworth.
Fulmer spent 17 seasons as the head coach in Knoxville and 15 years as assistant, in addition to playing guard for the Volunteers from 1968-1971. He led UT to the 1998 national championship and a perfect 13-0 record. Like Bowden, he was forced out after a few lean years. Upon the end of his career, Fulmer had been on the sidelines of Neyland Stadium for 422 home games.
"I feel like I just lost one of my ribs, my kidney or something. I feel like I lost a family member. I mean, nobody has died, but that's what it feels like right now," offered 'Vol All-American Eric Berry.
It's a business where relationships are forged in the most adverse of competitive conditions, then severed in the sheer austerity of a meeting room. The time away from home, the unrelenting pressure, the demands of the commitment, the stage that comes with; coaches are well-aware what they are signing up for...are we?
Right, wrong or indifferent, the role of a college football team plays at a major university has never been bigger. Money gained goes towards facility renovations, various campus improvements and enhanced student life. The exposure of a national platform introduces branding opportunities that simply couldn't be purchased. School and state pride is on the line.
"It's kind of hard to rally around a math class," Bryant once concluded.
Coaching is a small fraternity. From coast to coast, assistants and head coaches alike know peers from decades in their past. More importantly, they know the sacrifice. As college football becomes more prominent in society and the power and pull of those who lead it grow as well, various socioeconomic questions need to be asked. Of them, some may even be more important than a check of the final score.