As the pressure and money in college football ratchets up, schools increasingly feel they have no choice but to win now at all costsBy Laine Higgins Dec 3 Wall St Journal
Lincoln Riley was only halfway through his introductory news conference as Southern California’s new head coach on Monday before he was asked how rapidly he could turn around the Trojans program, which has struggled to a 4-7 record this season after ousting the coach in September. “I’ve only been here a few hours,” Riley said. “But in this day and age, it can happen quickly.”
Riley, who shocked the college football world this week by defecting from Oklahoma to USC, immediately set out to prove that things can change fast. That same day, he headed to Stockton, Calif., the home of a five-star running back recruit, Raleek Brown, who he had previously committed to Oklahoma. Now, Riley wanted Brown to head to L.A. with him. By the end of the evening, Brown had posted a photo on Twitter of himself wearing a USC shirt, Riley’s arm slung around his shoulder. By Thursday, Brown had decommitted from Oklahoma and flipped to USC.
A dizzying week in college football—which also featured Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly leaving South Bend for a $95 million contract at LSU—was a showcase for the chaos that has been unleashed by a wave of convulsive changes in the game. With big money flowing freely from television contracts and sponsorships, schools desperate for championships are flush with cash—and can’t afford not to spend it on the hottest coaching hires. Schools looking for ever-bigger paydays are jumping between conferences after Texas and Oklahoma’s decision this summer to leave the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference. The College Football Playoff is on the brink of expansion. At the same time, college athletes can make money from endorsements and are freer than ever to transfer if the mood strikes. That makes it easier for empires to be built—or dismantled—by rapid roster transformations.
All of these forces combine to create an environment where teams no longer feel like they can bide their time with a good coach if a great one is lurable. More than 17% of coaches in the top tier of Division I football have been dismissed this cycle, with schools forking over more than $90 million in “dead money” to cover their former coaches’ buyouts.
“You’ve seen a significant shift,” said Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick on Tuesday. “ I don’t have the answer…but we better be asking if this is what we want college football to be.” Swarbrick said that Kelly never gave him an opportunity to counter the offer he received from the Bayou Bengals, which includes a bonus structure that could push the coach’s compensation above $100 million.
The expensive poaching missions launched by LSU and USC show how impatient big schools have become. LSU fired coach Ed Orgeron less than two seasons after winning a national title in 2020 and despite his 51-20 record in Baton Rouge. USC won consecutive titles in 2003 and 2004 under Pete Carroll, but has cycled through five coaches since he left for the NFL in 2009.
Lincoln Riley speaks after being introduced during a news conference at the University of Southern California.Now, Riley and Kelly will be judged on how quickly they turn their new teams into contenders. Recent changes in college football have made it easier to mount a rapid turnaround—and also will make it more difficult for Oklahoma and Notre Dame in the short term.
“With the way college football works, you can turn over rosters in so many different ways,” Riley said on Monday, referencing the relaxed transfer rules that make it easier for coaches to identify players who want to leave their current schools and no longer require athletes to sit out for a year after transferring. As a result, teams are now exploiting the transfer portal to devastating effect. Michigan State, for example, welcomed 20 transfers, including star running back Kenneth Walker III from Wake Forest, when 22 players—nearly 18% of the roster—left East Lansing after longtime coach Mark Dantonio’s departure. New Spartans coach Mel Tucker aggressively recruited from the portal out of necessity and followed up a dreadful 2-5 campaign in 2020 with a 10-2 season this fall to become the Big Ten’s Coach of the Year.
A similar transformation—in the other direction—is afoot at Oklahoma, which named former coach Bob Stoops as its interim coach on Monday. Four players have entered the transfer portal and eight recruits in the classes of 2022 and 2023 have decommitted, including five-star quarterback Malachi Nelson who flipped his allegiance to USC on Tuesday. Brown, after visiting with Riley earlier in the week, followed suit on Thursday.
“They say you’re supposed to choose the school and not the coach, but that’s not how kids operate,” said Adam Gorney, national director of recruiting for Rivals.com. “A lot of guys committed to Oklahoma for Lincoln Riley.” Luring both Nelson and Brown is a major coup for Riley, who stands to inherit just four commits in the Trojans’ incoming class, currently ranked 104th best in the nation and last in the Pac-12 heading into the early signing period in mid-December.
The exodus has been less pronounced at Notre Dame, in part because the team is still in the running to make the College Football Playoff this year with a No. 6 ranking in the selection committee’s most recent poll. So far, only one recruit—safety Devin Moore—decommitted and none have entered the transfer portal.
Notre Dame may benefit from an unusual degree of staff continuity following a coaching change. The university promoted 35-year-old defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to become the next head coach, while offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and director of football operations Matt Ballis turned down substantial raises from LSU to stay in South Bend.
It’s not just that the coaching changes could hurt Oklahoma and Notre Dame; they also stand to help their competitors.
“Half of recruiting is negative recruiting,” said Gorney. “It’s such a cut throat business, especially in the SEC, that it is definitely going to help programs that show stability.”
With a little under two weeks until early signing day on Dec. 15, opposing coaches may have a window to poach Irish and Sooners commits now questioning their futures.
“The true great recruiters in this game do not stop recruiting until the very end until the ink is dry,” said Tom Luginbill, a recruiting analyst at ESPN.
Notre Dame promoted 35-year-old defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to become the next head coach.PHOTO: MATT CASHORE/USA TODAY SPORTS
It will take more time for the transfer situation to fully shake out. There’s usually a flurry of activity in the transfer portal once the coaching carousel starts spinning in December, and another in the spring, after players get a better sense of how they fit into their new coach’s scheme, said Gorney.
The full effects might not be quantifiable until the 2022 season kicks off. And it’s not impossible that Riley could be coaching the same quarterback, with both of them wearing a slightly different shade of red. Oklahoma’s freshman sensation Caleb Williams has been mum on whether he’ll follow his coach. His backup Spencer Rattler, who started the season as a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy before getting benched in October, has already said he is leaving Norman.