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Will Muschamp’s end at South Carolina makes as much sense as anything else in 2020

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And the NFL isn’t done trying to hire away college “culture”

Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

1. When has math ever made sense in this sport?

Will Mucschamp was fired by South Carolina on Sunday, closing a pedestrian-at-best 28-30 record at South Carolina. Muschamp was hired by the Gamecocks in 2016 on the strength of a 28-21 record as Florida’s coach, during which time he imploded the fundamental concept of offense and lost at home to a FCS program who didn’t complete a pass.

Muschamp will go down as a bad head coach, one whom powerful and influential people in this industry have ruthlessly promoted, repeatedly enabled, and most confusingly, celebrated for his “character.” A week ago, he used his platform to vigorously defend the “character” of his friend D.J. Durkin, who was head coach at Maryland when a player died on the field. This was not the first time Muschamp did this.

If you were looking to author the perfect ending for a man who has operated his entire coaching career with the grace and aplomb of a bar fight headbutt, a public university’s athletic department pledging $13.3 million in buyout money amidst an estimated budget shortfall of $58 million during a worldwide pandemic is certainly the logical equivalent of using your forehead to make a window.

Ignore the rumored replacements, ignore Muschamp’s future: The important thing to focus on here is that almost all the names currently tied to the South Carolina opening are repped by CAA, the same agency that landed Muschamp that sweet buyout. In a way, it’s all a fix.

South Carolina might be one of the most impossible jobs in the Power 5, flanked by SEC mega powers across the division for the entirety of its time in the conference and staring down a new national title dynasty across the state. Measuring its worth, or how to win there, is not relevant right now; its real merit is as the best example yet of how the money absolutely must stay churning in this sport. For weeks, several people in this industry have speculated that the normal coaching cycle, worth millions to various third parties, would lock up in a financial crisis. Consider the Gamecocks’ logic (or the agents’), or lack thereof, the laxative the entire industry has been aching for.

2. Will the NFL accelerate college football’s coaching cycle for the third year in a row?

Over the last ten NFL seasons, only seven coaches have been hired from a college football head coaching position to lead a pro franchise. That’s seven times out of 69 hirings, and only two since 2015. Matt Rhule left Baylor for the Carolina Panthers last year, and then there’s Kliff Kingsbury who, in the course of six weeks between 2018-’19:

  1. Was fired by his alma mater, Texas Tech, as head coach (35-40 in six seasons).
  2. Was hired as USC’s new offensive coordinator.
  3. Was blocked from NFL interviews by then-USC athletic director Lynn Swann.
  4. Was hired as Arizona Cardinals head coach.

(I feel like we don’t talk about that trajectory enough, and although I’m professionally trained not to think this way, I remain convinced no one can achieve such a remarkable upward tumble without looking Kliff-level pretty.)

Before Kingsbury and Rhule, four NFL hiring cycles and 27 openings passed without a college-to-pro hiring. That drought could be explained by a variety of things (the least of all being how fickle and reductive the league is about everything, not just coaching hires), but when you look at this decade’s early slate of college-to-pro coaches — Bill O’Brien, Doug Marrone, Chip Kelly, Greg Schiano and Jim Harbaugh — it’s easy to see why league went “buyer beware” for a while.

It’s far too early to judge Rhule (3-7) or Kingsbury (11-13-1), but it’s apparent that league thinking has swung back around on college coaching. There aren’t obvious connections between the two, other than that both came from the Big 12 (albeit in wildly different circumstances).

There’s one commonality worth mentioning: Kingsbury was 39 when the Cardinals hired him. Rhule was 44 when he got the Panthers job. Youth has become a commodity in coaching like never before, and that even carries over to the pros. Apply that rubric to the list of hot-name college coaches we assume are moving up the college ranks, and you might find your next NFL skipper.

When Kingsbury was the only CFB-to-NFL hire, there was a simpler schematic explanation why he bucked the trend — that “schematic” being quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield and the Cardinals drafting Air Raid QB Kyler Murray from Oklahoma — but Rhule’s addition demands a greater scope of qualities. If anything, Rhule’s hire by Panthers general manager David Tepper portends that intangibles like “culture” are gaining value alongside play-calling acumen.

I mention culture specifically because that’s the single, unifying word when people talk to me about Rhule. No one likes to talk honestly about Baylor in public, but in private Rhule is lauded for building a positive, team-centric atmosphere in Waco following one of the worst scandals in sports history.

So can I provide you a list of renowned CFB “culture” guys who might be analogous to Rhule? Not honestly, no. “Culture” is still a diffuse term, still overused and grossly misunderstood by the people who peddle coaches as brands, and as a rule I’ve learned that the quicker “culture” is supplied as a character descriptor for a rising star coach the less likely it’s actually true in the long run. Right now, Rhule seems to be an exception.

The only conclusion I believe is safe to glean from the NFL’s new interest in these coaches is that league culture has swung back around to “college” ideas and attributes, at least for the moment. There’s seven openings a year in the NFL on average; you can expect at least one franchise to consider hiring a sitting college head coach.

3. Will Iowa use a “retirement” to pivot from developing scandals?

Last week, 13 former Iowa football players filed a lawsuit against the Hawkeye football program alleging “targeted discriminatory behavior”, naming the university, the Iowa Board of Regents, athletic director Gary Barta, head coach Kirk Ferentz, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, former strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle, and current strength and conditioning coach Raimond Braithwaite as defendants.

The suit follows the June resignation of Doyle, a 21-year assistant at Iowa, after allegations of bullying and verbally abusing players, specifically black players, throughout his time at the school. Throughout 2020 multiple players have spoken out about mistreatment during their time at Iowa. The school retained an outside law firm to perform an independent investigation, and after publication of its findings in July, did not fire any other coaches or staff members.

Ferentz, hired in 1999 (164-106), is the longest-tenured head coach in the FBS and enjoys one of the friendliest buyouts in the sport. If fired in 2020, Ferentz would be owed $22 million, the sum total of the remaining years on his contract.

It seems unlikely that Iowa would fire Ferentz for any role in the allegations, especially following the independent review. But it’s entirely possible the school and coach develop some kind of transition plan for Ferentz if headlines persist or more lawsuits (or plaintiffs) arrive.

If Iowa were to open, you might be shocked at the candidates interested. The coaching tree of Hawkeyes legend Hayden Fry is impressive, and although most of its “branches” are past their coaching prime, their own influence buoys Iowa’s reputation in coaching circles. A name like Mark Stoops would be a fit; the Kentucky head coach is an alumnus, and could be lured “home” despite his own sweetheart deal in Lexington.

“That’s a much more desirable job than folks might realize,” an industry source told me. “[Iowa has] always been viewed as a coach’s school, where if you fit there, you can build something very long-term. They aren’t going to meddle; they’re reasonable about expectations. it’s not like a lot of other Power 5 jobs, especially where you can go to the Rose Bowl.”

I am aware, as I hope you are, of the irony of that perception transposed with the current issues in Iowa City.