The NFL is supposed to be football’s shark tank, an eat-or-eat cauldron of pressure, a place where job security lives up to the league’s acronym: Not For Long. And yet it is kind, gentle and patient compared to today’s cutthroat world of college football.
That’s the sport where administrators like to talk about things like ‘student-athlete well-being’ and building character and teaching life lessons. Well, here’s the current life lesson in college football: Everyone and everything is replaceable at any time. We’ll dump a conference through covert operations for more money, and we’ll fire a coach who starts slipping in the blink of an eye. Watch out.
NFL coaches have fired so far this season: nil.
College coaches have fired five so far this season.
Scott Frost in Nebraska. Herm Edwards in the state of Arizona. Geoff Collins at Georgia Tech. And on this particularly bloody Sunday, Karl Dorrell in Colorado and Paul Chryst in Wisconsin. And the last of these is a shock.
Chryst is more Wisconsin than cheese curds and bratwurst. He was born in Madison, spent part of his childhood a few blocks from Camp Randall Stadium, while his father was an assistant coach, went to school there, was an assistant coach there, and went on to be a very successful head coach for seven seasons . But when the eighth season went off course, bam. He was out.
Chryst is 67-26 overall, 43-18 in the Big Ten, won three Big West division titles and had three top-15 finishes. But a 2-3 start to this season, punctuated by an ugly home defeat on Saturday against former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema and Illinois, marked the end.
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It’s a cold, cold affair, wrapped in rhetorical puffy. Wisconsin Athletic Director Chris McIntosh did his part by providing a few platitudes in the school’s release announcing Chryst’s resignation: “After a heartfelt and authentic conversation with Coach Chryst about what is in the long-term interest of our football program “I have concluded that now is the time for a change in leadership. Paul is a man of integrity who loves his players. I have great respect and admiration for Paul and his and his family’s legacy at the University of Wisconsin.”
In a funny way to show that respect and admiration, he fired him on October 2. The annual autumn administrative panic started to mount three years ago and has now reached a new high.
The seasonal layoffs also make a mockery of what programs preach about dedication and togetherness during the hard winter training sessions, the spring practices, the demands that players stay together on campus all summer. Involvement and togetherness are disposable products when the season starts badly. The transfer portal beckons and the buses are packed.
Then the conversation bluntly shifts from thanking the fired man to moving forward in recruiting. The December signing season has become a huge seasonal disruptor — yet another college sports problem that’s in plain sight, but not being fixed. Move the signing day to spring and end the rationalization of in-season layoffs due to the hiring calendar.
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But hey, Chryst walks away as a very wealthy man, who got a $5.25 million pay raise a year ago — the latest in a long line of expansions that will end up costing a school a fortune if they don’t materialize. Under his contract, the buyout is a reported $16.4 million. The days of pandemic pay cuts and vacation days certainly passed quickly. Tax restraint left college sport a long time ago, and it’s not coming back.
It’s all just silly money in the sport right now. Media rights deals are skyrocketing, salaries are skyrocketing, facilities are always being built and modernized, and now the NIL collectives are kicking into high gear. And what comes with it is a desperation to win that leads to an epidemic of layoffs in the season.
Every situation is different and every coaching change has its own nuances. Nebraska waited too long to fire Frost and then ran with it, though it could have waited until October and saved itself another $7.5 million. (But why? Silly money. Burn it if you have it.) It could be said that Arizona State and Georgia Tech have waited too long, too. Colorado is in bad shape, but Dorrell was not the Pac-12 Coach of the Year until 2020.
Wisconsin’s move is different, more cold-blooded but not without reason. Interim coach Jim Leonhard, the defensive coordinator, has been a very successful assistant and had his name floating around for other jobs. This will give him an audition during the season to see if he is head coach material.
And then there’s the possible scenario of the Lance Leipold Hiring Derby. Leipold, the coach who got Kansas off to a prodigious 5-0 start in his second season in the toughest Power 5 course in the country, could be the object of desire in Nebraska. And if Wisconsin also has its sights set on a man who has deep ties to the state, well, it could explain the urgency to fire Chryst.
Leipold is from Wisconsin and was a graduate assistant with the Badgers 30 years ago. He was also a minor coaching giant, winning six Division III National Championships in Wisconsin-Whitewater. (Unlike former Badgers basketball coaching legend Bo Ryan, who won big at the D-III level before getting his star turn at Madison. Remember, sports directors like to try to find repeatable recruiting formulas.)
The fact that it took Leipold up to 51 years to stand a chance of getting an FBS job—and then it was a Buffalo, in the Mid-American Conference—is part of what’s wrong with the big college football. But he’s made up for lost time both there and now in Kansas, and suddenly he’s the hottest 58-year-old with a 7-10 record in his current orbit on the planet.
It’s a strange new day when the possibility exists that Nebraska and Wisconsin are fighting over the Kansas football coach. But that might be where we’re going.
Where is the sport as a whole headed? Deeper in the shark tank. Another one will be fired next week. But at least they’ll say nice things about the newly fired man in the release. It’s the way of college football.
More College Football Coverage:
• Karl Dorrell is out in Colorado. Now it’s Auburn’s turn.• The Lane Train runs at Ole Miss, on and off the field• SI’s Top 10: Georgia shows the best Dawgs are vulnerable
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