Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Little Coaching Turnover This Year, but Hold On


January 18, 2006

DALLAS - Dressed in a sharp suit, with his hair perfectly coiffed, Jim Hofher worked the massive lobby of the Wyndham Anatole hotel.

Hofher shook hands and made small talk Jan. 8-11 at the American Football Coaches Association's annual convention, which doubles as a job fair and a networking hot spot. After being dismissed as the University of Buffalo's coach in November, Hofher has faced a stark reality - he and his staff were fired in a bad year.

Only nine Division I-A coaches who started the 2005 season were no longer with their teams. The season before, the number was 24. The changes tied a record low - the N.C.A.A. started keeping track of the statistic in 1947 - and that meant things moved a lot slower in the lobby.

"There really aren't a lot of jobs," Hofher said. "You'll never find a trade magazine that says what's open. A lot of the jobs are filled the moment they become vacant."

The number of changes was the lowest since 1996, when there were also nine. The N.F.L. has had 10 coaching changes so far, and the league has only 32 teams, compared with 119 programs in Division I-A football. The nature of the changes was also noteworthy. Only three colleges from Bowl Championship Series conferences have new coaches this year: Kansas State, Wisconsin and Colorado. Of the three, only Colorado fired its coach.

Last season, eight programs from B.C.S. conferences fired their coaches, including the heavyweights Notre Dame, Florida and Washington.

Though the dip in turnover is significant, it may simply reflect the cyclical nature of hiring and firings; a few coaches saved their jobs with strong seasons, and that slowed the tumble of coaching dominoes.

In recent interviews with coaches, athletics directors, commissioners and agents, the only uniform conclusion was that 2006 was shaping up as a big year for coaching turnover.

"I think we operate in a time that makes it almost impossible for there to be another Joe Paterno," Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese said. "You can have three great seasons and then lose, and it's, 'What have you done for me lately?'"

Even with annual salaries for elite coaches recently breaking the $3 million mark, athletic directors dismissed the idea that it was too expensive to fire a coach.

At Colorado, the perception during the 2004 season was that the university could not afford to fire Gary Barnett because of the financial obligations of his contract.

But Colorado fired him after this past season, giving him a $3 million buyout. Athletic Director Mike Bohn said in a telephone interview that the net cost to the university for buying out Barnett would end up being about $1 million to $1.2 million. The university owed Barnett $4.2 million through July 2007.

So by "saving" the $1.2 million, the university can use that money toward paying the salary of its new coach, Dan Hawkins.

Bohn acknowledged that $1 million or so was a significant sum, but he said that Colorado football generated $5 million to $6 million in profit every year. He also said that the N.C.A.A.'s addition of a 12th game to the schedule, beginning this year, would help defer costs.

"The need to provide a competitive and a well-respected program is certainly important to everyone at the Division I-A level," Bohn said of the reasons behind firing Barnett.

Even at a smaller-profile university like East Carolina, the cost of a coach's salary is minuscule compared with football revenue. East Carolina paid three head coaches last year, with $300,000 going for the salaries of the former coaches Steve Logan and John Thompson.

The East Carolina athletic director, Terry Holland, fired Thompson, who had a 3-20 record in two years, after the 2004 season. Holland said there was no quandary about not being able to afford firing Thompson; he said he could not afford not to. Holland said the East Carolina athletic budget was around $19 million, much of it fueled by football revenue.

He said that "once the people start to lose faith in your coach," the ripple effects extend to the rest of a university's programs.

"There's 20 sports whose sole lifeline depends on football here," Holland said. "They can't exist without successful football. There's such a huge burden on football revenue, schools don't have a choice."

The Cleveland-based lawyer Neil Cornrich, who is an agent for Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz and Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops, said the value of a successful coach was enormous - from exposure to apparel, ticket sales to television revenue. Because of a program's earning potential, Cornrich said, a university could always afford to fire a coach.

"They're all making money from football," Cornrich said. "The TV deals keep going up and up. College football is an absolute gold mine for universities."

Chuck Neinas, the former Big Eight commissioner, who assists universities in coaching searches, agreed with the popular view that the lack of change this past season would probably mean more in 2006. Neinas said the typical number of openings was 14 or 15 a year, not far from the average of the last two seasons.

Neinas said he expected more firings next year because universities were so reliant on revenue from football.

"The No. 1 contribution to an athletic program is ticket sales," he said. "No. 2 is gifts and donation. It could be considered an indictment of college athletics, but it's a fact of life."

That means the coaching turnover will continue, and coaches like Hofher will probably find themselves in a much more active lobby at the A.F.C.A. convention in San Antonio next year.

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