Poach-proofing Your Coach. A Primer.

Dear Respected University Athletic Director/Franchise Owner/Do-It-Yourself Store Mogul:

Atlanta Falcons fans understand. So do Miami Dolphin enthusiasts. Now, West Virginia Mountaineers do as well. Keeping a Head Football Coach in this age of salary inflation is a difficult proposition. Heck, back in the good ole days all you needed to keep the big guy around was a 5 year deal, the keys to a new Cadillac and a membership out at the Firmwood Country Club. Now, keeping your most grossly overcompensated state employee from becoming some other state's most grossly overcompensated employee requires a team of shrewd legal assassins, two private investigators with telephoto lenses and a shady character known colloquially as "Rasputin". Don't ask what he does. It's best if you don't know.

Yes, even the most honest, forthright and lavishing of Athletic Directors are taking resumes these days, trying to replace that guy who was going to take the program to new heights. And then he did. And then he left. You were going to build a statue of him next to the library. But it turns out he was a lying, swindling cur of a man, the welp of a scaberous pit bull who you wish was still around to tear him bleeding and wailing from the steps of the shiny new Citation jet he's going to fly off on (after he steals your prize recruit, of course).

But that won't happen. His new employer has outfitted him with a team of private security guards. You've got no shot. So just wipe the rifle down and put it away. Instead, allow me to give you some advise on how to keep the next guy. The one who will keep your vaunted gridiron gang intact. The one who will weather the storm, take the punches of a fickle fanbase and eventually get you to a place old what's-his-name never could have.

First and most obviously, you need money. Lot's and lot's of money. You want that pie in the sky. Because the greenback is the currency of coaching. Remember your high school coach? The guy with the buzzcut who used to tell you about that time in Korea when he pulled some Chinaman's ears off with his bare hands and watched the commie SOB bleed to death while whistling the Star Spangled Banner? He was primarily concerned with molding young men. He wanted you to become a productive, tax-paying member of society. He wanted you to join the Rotary Club and maybe sit on the School Board, where you would greenlight the spending for a new leather desk chair for his office.

And why did Coach Gravelnutts spend the prime of his life shaping you into the supremely upright and wealthy citizen you are today? Because he had to. The guy's offensive scheme was to football what Mueslix is to breakfast cereal. He thought the wishbone was a passing fad. Had he been the innovator behind one of the tre sexy schemes of today, he would have had Jimmy Sexton on speed dial, too. Because it's all about the Benjamins, as they used to say. Coach Gravelnutts would have taken the offensive coordinator job at State U. faster than Noel Devine saying "Hey Deion, can I borrow the keys?", if only he had the chance. Maybe it would have been a good move for the old coach. Maybe not. But he would have been leaving on a jet plane if only someone would have bought him a ticket.

"But this is his alma mater" you say. "Mama called him home!" Yeah, but as thousands of West Virginians will tell you this morning, if Mama don't cough up some Gucci clipboards, the prodigal son will be leaving again. Money is the first step. It allows you to match the offers of other schools. Because believe me, if your coach doesn't screw up badly enough for you to fire him, the suitors will come a calling. It's what economists and diplomats refer to as a "zero sum tradeoff".

The second step is tradition. Cache. If you're the athletic director at South-Central Maine Tech, you can stop reading now. I can't help you. No one grew up dreaming of coaching at your school. You can't pay them enough to devote a lifetime to it if they have other options. You could comp your coach at L.L. Bean all winter long and it wouldn't matter. Because when he was a kid throwing the ball around in his backyard, he dreamed about Texas, Michigan and Notre Dame. Your program has no psychic hold. No mystique. I don't care if you went to the Mary Lousie Parker Bowl the last seven years, and smoked your competition each time. No sport outside of professional baseball is more beholden to the ghosts of its past than college football. That's why Alabama and Notre Dame still think they're relevant even though neither one has been a true national title contender since Joan Rivers had her original browline.

And that type of delusion works for them. Alabama and Notre Dame were willing to spend eight figures on marginal NFL coaching talent, and if those guys don't work out, they'll spend 8 figures on your coach. Because they're desperate like that. Desperate people with money make the world go 'round, compadre. That's why it's so hard to book a flight to Las Vegas at Christmas time. Thus, if your program is not one of the 8-15 traditional powers of the past half century, you need to keep a fresh stack of resumes on your desk. Because a 10-2 record simply means that your coach has more options come December.

You also cannot ever take your head coach at his word. "But we had a meeting this morning. He assured me that he's committed to our program", you say. Yeah. And I assure you I'm the Sultan of Zonereadistan. As The Dread Pirate Leach likes to say, take a look at your ham and eggs breakfast. The chicken was involved, but the pig was committed. You can assume from your coach no more loyalty than you provide him, and probably a good bit less. I think you know deep down in your heart that the "lifetime commitment" you made to him after the Yellow Pages Bowl isn't really that. Consecutive 5-7 seasons would be all you need to call the guy in and pronounce him legally dead. He knows this. Just as your commitment is not really that, neither is your coach's. You must be hypervigilant to avoid, say, finding out from a Grad Assistant that your coach has flown the coop and is hoping to take the nation's top prep quarterback with him. The world of college athletics is like The Departed, only with more swearing. Trust no one.

In addition, to money, tradition and Stalinesque paranoia, you also need low expectations. Because high expectations in college football are rarely met and never exceeded. Unmet expectations lead to pressure on the head ball coach. When the ball coach feels pressure, he's apt to jump before he's pushed. See the entry under "Nutt, Houston" in your AD's Desk Reference. While every coach wants to eventually be the leader of a program like Michigan, UCLA or Texas A&M, they all eventually learn that those places are a gilded cage filled with toxic expectations. They'll eventually learn that it's better to be paid handsomely to get to the Liberty Bowl, or even better, back to .500. Pull out the old Desk Reference again and look up "Cutcliffe, David".

So there you have it. All you need is Scrooge McDuck's money pool, a network of spies that would make Chairman Mao blush, a history of winning games that show up on ESPN Classic, and a fanbase that would be jubilant if you could just get over the hump and beat Wake and Tulsa in the same year. It's that simple. Oh, and here's that resume I promised. You may need it.

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