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College Football Insider Explains Athletic Directors’ Mindset During Coaching Decisions

Photo via WATE6/Emily Proud

Last week, former ESPN and CBS college football insider Brett McMurphy posted about Division I-A football coaches and what forces inspire athletic directors to fire them.

McMurphy pulled this data directly from athletic directors with whom he had a working relationship across all 10 Football Bowl Subdivision conferences. Forty – greater than 30% of FBS – athletic directors responded.

Unsurprisingly, win-loss record topped the list of important push factors. But other options like fan unrest/attendance and conference titles fall under the wide umbrella categorized as overall win-loss record. More peripheral considerations like coaching staff buyout and major boosters carried less weight, but more than half of the ADs labeled them as components.

FOX Sports Knoxville discussed the data breakdown with McMurphy Tuesday morning.

Many have hypothesized what first-year athletic director John Currie has done/is doing/will do regarding Butch Jones’ contract, which is due to expire in 2021.

Tennessee fans know the merits and criticisms of Jones. He’s won three straight bowl games, owns back-to-back nine-win seasons and collects top recruiting classes. His 2018 commits rank 8th nationally. Athletic directors labeled recruiting second-most important, ranked no lower than the third-most important by 22.

On the other hand, the Vols have only finished with a winning conference record in one of five seasons.

One consideration on McMurphy’s survey addressed athletic directors inheriting the coach. New Connecticut AD Warde Manuel let Bob Diaco go soon after assuming the role. First-year Missouri AD Jim Sterk fired basketball coach Kim Anderson in February. Football jobs like Cincinnati, Purdue and Texas recently turned over as new Directors inherited standing coaches.

It’s worth noting that those coaches sputtered to a combined 15-27 record last season, too.

Tennessee’s Currie has been tasked with an incumbent Jones at 33-25.

Only eight of 40 ADs included the inheriting of a coach as a consideration for firing. Of those eight, none factored it higher than sixth-most important.

“I get the indication that they don’t necessarily care who the coach is. They want their coach to be successful,” said McMurphy.

But an AD, especially a recent hire, could be timid to fire a football coach. Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples highlights Shawn Eichorst, fired last month at Nebraska after he fired Bo Pelini in favor of Mike Riley.

“Deciding whether to fire a coach who has won nine games the previous two seasons is tough enough, and the first football hire of an AD’s tenure also starts the clock on said AD’s tenure,” Staples writes. “As Eichorst can attest, one unpopular football hire can doom an AD.”

A separate athletic director told McMurphy, if you are going to make a change you need to be prepared with a replacement. Lack of foresight leads to situations like LSU’s mismanagement of Tom Herman who had no intention of taking the position in Baton Rouge.

But McMurphy argues that in FBS, no ADs are reluctant to start their own clock by making a change. They are hired to be the best possible at each sport. Period.

Perhaps most interestingly, only 24 of 40 athletic directors polled cited major boosters as a reason for changing coaches. Of those who considered it, none admitted to weighing the checks considerably. But, in most circumstances private donations are critical to an athletic department’s health.

Nearly a quarter of Tennessee’s overall revenue from 2016 came via contributions. Donations accounted for more than 25% of Auburn’s bottom line and 30% of Florida’s total figure. Mississippi State, last in the SEC with $94 million in revenue, gathered $23 million from contributions.

Even with the promise of anonymity, ADs could be apprehensive of admitting boosters hold sway over decision making to avoid inflating donors’ egos or appearing feckless.

Academics was not included as an option in McMurphy’s survey. But some ADs expressed off-field matters as an element to weigh. One AD concerned himself with peace of mind to “sleep at night” and avoiding “a 3 AM text about some players getting arrested.”

“Probably ten included stuff like projection of the program, NCAA compliance, overall wellbeing of the student-athletes,” McMurphy said.

That also becomes a function of each coach. Certain programs afford players second chances, while others take action for improprieties. In that way the head coach reflects the Athletic Director’s standards. After all, the AD employs each coach with some understanding of his moral threshold.

McMurphy emphasized the uniqueness of every athletic director’s position. Many of the categories feed off of one another, complicating the solution.

“You also have athletic directors and presidents who are either falling into the trap of appeasing the fans or just aren’t thinking,” McMurphy says. “You have Texas A&M’s AD at the SEC meetings last year basically he’s putting his coach on the hot seat.

“One it’s refreshing that he’s honest. But you can answer the question honestly without putting it that way. When the ADs and presidents make these flip comments, it just adds fuel to the fanbase.”

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