Blogs, Sports

The Death of the Mercenary Coach

Every college football fanbase tells themselves the same thing. “Our coach loves being here. This school is his home and he’s committed to us forever.” For most of the sport’s history, this simply has not been the case. The coaching landscape has been dominated by what I like to call the “mercenary coach”. This is a guy that appears committed to his current job but will jump to a better opportunity the first chance he gets. He ultimately acts in his own self-interest, which sometimes happens to align with that of his current employer. There’s nothing wrong with this mentality, but it flies in the face of the mythos built around these figures. Even some of the sport’s biggest legends, guys who you instantly associate with a certain school, had well-traveled careers. Though you probably picture Lou Holtz in Notre Dame gear, he coached at a whopping five different major schools. Urban Meyer has become notorious for looking to take over teams that are already close to winning a title, among other things. Dennis Erickson is best known for his glory days with The U, but did you know he ran the show at five other schools? Alabama fans look away now, because you won’t like these next examples. Nick Saban may not have the body count of Holtz or Erickson, but he defected from LSU to a hated rival. After a failed run in the NFL, Saban took over an Alabama team with clear potential and built a dynasty. Even The Bear himself fits this description. Not only did he coach at other schools, but he also won (well, claimed at least) championships at two other schools. No matter how much it hurts, you have to admit that calling a coach who is the winningest coach at another school in the same conference a “lifer” is absurd. This mentality is perhaps best exemplified by Tommy “Pine Box” Tubberville, the ultimate mercenary. In all fairness, the idea of the legendary one-school coach does have some basis. Tom Osborne and Barry Switzer spent their entire careers at their respective schools, where they both built dynasties. There are even some more recent examples such as Bob Stoops. Lifers exist, they just aren’t nearly as prevalent as many fans seem to believe.

There’s a good reason these mercenary coaches lasted so long: they won. A lot. From 2006 to 2015, it seemed like Urban and Saban spent their time passing the championship trophy back and forth. Even when they didn’t win it all, they were right in the thick of it. But, in 2016, things changed. That year, Saban lost to the anti-mercenary, the antithesis of how conventional wisdom has defined a good coaching hire for decades: Dabo Swinney. A guy who had been a career wide receivers coach before getting his shot at Clemson was suddenly on top of the college football world. Things didn’t change overnight, but his win did signal the beginning of a new era. An era much more akin to the coaching mythos than anything before it. An era of the true coaching lifer. Swinney’s win proved that you could do things differently and not only succeed, but dominate.

To understand why a guy like Dabo can win a championship, you first have to understand the nature of college football. In the NFL, teams generally exist on an even playing field. In college, competitive balance is a pipe dream. The only people who even claim it exists are those using it as a flimsy defense of amateurism (PS, pay the players). In college, there are myriad outside factors that shape the team on the field. Boosters, geographical recruiting differences, varying state regulations, you name it. What works at Alabama won’t work anywhere else (believe me, Will Muschamp tried). There is no universal blueprint for success in college football.

Dabo was one of the first modern coaches to realize that most schools needed to work within these natural restrictions instead of trying to fight them. He got the job not because of his past work, but because of what he promised to do in the future. He didn’t just have a plan to win, he had a plan to win specifically for Clemson. Slowly but surely, other schools are beginning to take notice. Hiring someone because they “really want to be there” is no longer empty coachspeak, it’s now a legitimate selling point. Schools also realized that, shockingly, there are other coaches on the staff! The head coach, believe it or not, doesn’t have to be a tactical genius! Arizona State of all places pushed this idea into the mainstream when they claimed that new head coach Herm Edwards would be the team’s “CEO”. The announcement was universally mocked at the time, but it has ended up being wildly influential. The CEO moniker has stuck ’til this day.

If Dabo was the proof of concept for this new model, then Ed Orgeron is the IPO. Just like with Edwards, the world laughed at LSU when they hired Coach O, a guy who had already fallen flat on his face in the SEC at Ole Miss. His binders that contained his long-term plan for the school became a running joke in the sports world. People thought he was hired because it was his dream job and nothing else. Well, Coach O had the last laugh in 2020 when he led possibly the greatest team in college football history to a national championship. He didn’t win because he’s a tactical mastermind, because believe me he is not. He won because he’d been planning his entire life on how to win a title at LSU.

The last few seasons have included a slew of new CEO coaches, most of whom have already proven their worth. Indiana native Tom Allen went from FCS coordinator to Hoosiers head coach in six years. Now he has the internet’s favorite team just outside the top ten. Going into this season, many people thought that Arkansas might not win a game. Then Sam Pittman, a career offensive line coach, led them to three wins. In fact, they were a handful of plays away from finishing 6-4 and third in the SEC West. Manny Diaz was a head coach for a whopping 17 days before taking over his hometown Miami Hurricanes. He just finished his second season 8-2 despite being hamstrung by a few early opt-outs. Just recently, South Carolina passed on multiple current Power 5 head coaches in favor of Shane Beamer, another lifelong position coach. AD Ray Tanner specifically mentioned that Beamer got the job because he had a plan to win at USC. It didn’t matter that he had no head coaching experience because he promised he wasn’t going to try to turn the team into something it’s not. He knows that South Carolina will never be Florida or Georgia, but they can become the best version of themselves. Just like Dabo did with that team in the upstate.

College football, more than any other sport, is constantly evolving. When compared to the past, the modern game is nearly unrecognizable. Time and time again, it takes only one person having success to spark that evolution. Knute Rockne won by throwing the ball forward. LaVell Edwards won by throwing the ball all game. Chip Kelly won by going fast and bypassing the huddle. And now, Dabo Swinney has won by building his team’s identity on Clemson and not himself. The rest of the country, as it always has, fell in line. The age of the mercenary coach is over. The age of the CEO has begun.

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