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Want to Know More About Your College’s Coaching Search? You’ll Be Waiting Awhile

Sports Illustrated 2/3/2023 Richard Johnson
© Provided by Sports Illustrated

Unlike its counterparts in the NFL, there is a consistent lack of transparency around college football hires from the institutions doing the hiring.

If you follow NFL coaching searches, you’ll notice a simple level of transparency that seems radical if you’re a college football fan.

That is an NFL team announcing it interviewed a coaching candidate (in this case, one it ended up hiring). You didn’t see anything like that from Nebraska’s Twitter account during the search that saw Matt Rhule landing the job. But could there ever be a day in college football when something as seemingly basic as interview information is publicly disclosed? The answer is a bit complicated, and while it may seem like it’s better for the sport, it’s doubtful it would be better for the coaches themselves.

Consider why NFL teams announce interviews for head coaches and general managers. It’s the byproduct of the NFL being a closed system and a private business. Part of that system includes an agreed-upon anti-tampering policy with players, coaches and GMs, complete with penalties if rules are violated. 

In the NFL, to interview a coach, a club must formally request to do so if the coach is under contract. If you’re interviewing a coach for a promotion (coordinator to head coach), the request is essentially a notification because the team can’t deny it. If you’re interviewing a coach for a lateral move (like another team’s wide receivers coach to be your wide receivers coach), the team has the right to block it, which happened with Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero during this cycle. However, there is also a section that states NFL teams must request permission from college athletic directors and, if denied, respect the university’s decision or potentially face penalties.

But there are some downsides to the NFL system. Coaching contracts are in a database at the league office, which holds contract details close to the vest. A high-ranking front office source told Sports Illustrated they don’t even know exactly how much the head coach of their team makes. NFL owners can request exact figures for certain team personnel, but for the most part, the best teams have to work with is a salary range that features low, high and average for the job in question. 

Sometimes a front office person may call their counterpart at another team to try and find out. Compare that to college football, where public universities have to disclose coaching contracts because they’re public information. With a simple freedom of information act (FOIA) request, you (yes, you) could obtain the full contract details of your alma mater’s coach, with some restrictions depending on the school and the state it is in.

Ask many athletic directors why they pay search firms thousands of dollars and they’ll tell you it is so they can be armed with information, including which coach has interviewed with which team during the cycle. The cloak-and-dagger nature of college coaching searches can be legendary. There is leverage in secrecy, for instance, when a coach is told he will no longer be a candidate for the job if his name being part of the search leaks out to the public.

But the job landscape in the NFL is just different from college football, where coaches are closer to independent contractors on an employment freedom spectrum. In extreme cases, coaches have been fired for interviewing for another job. In college football, it’s not rare for a sitting head coach to move from one team to another. Hugh Freeze, Luke Fickell, Troy Taylor and Jamey Chadwell all did it in this cycle alone. It’s understood they moved up the ranks, and everyone involved can rationalize that buyouts are protection for the school that is getting raided (even if they’re unhappy with it). In the NFL, the head coaching job is the highest step no matter the division. While organizations are different, the Texans job is closer in status to the Chiefs because of the NFL’s parity than, say, Liberty is to Auburn.

In order to have a system where there’s official public notification about who’s talking to whom in college football, you’d also need consensus across the entirety of the FBS. If the ACC set a rule saying schools had to announce who they interviewed as they go through the hiring process, what would compel the SEC to follow suit or do so with a similar penalty structure if a school didn’t comply? 

The Power 5 leagues could make a pact, but even that would make things difficult. It would probably take an NCAA-wide rule or a state law covering public schools. One state doing it doesn’t get every school on the same page, and the NCAA has significantly bigger fish to fry these days. Getting all of the FBS to do anything will always lay bare a core issue of NCAA governance—the schools make the rules, and the NCAA is simply a confederation of them. It’s how the NFL has a Rooney Rule, while the best college football can do is a nonbinding state law in Oregon.

Then there are the coaching cycles. The Arizona Cardinals haven’t had a coach in almost a month. While that’s not ideal, there isn’t the crushing specter of an early signing period looming over the NFL to force the issue. NFL teams will wait until the Super Bowl in mid-February to have their people in place because there’s an actual personnel department to scout and evaluate prospects, and typically the coach doesn’t have final say. The college coaching cycle has already been ramped up even more since December’s early signing period debuted six years ago. Whereas NFL coaches can’t be interviewed until Week 16 of their season, it is not at all rare for a college coach to interview much earlier in their season.

Recruiting is perhaps the biggest elephant in the room in blocking more transparency in how college coaches look to move, especially when it comes to assistants. Being able to point to an assistant who interviews for jobs every cycle would be negative recruiting fodder, which feeds into the main issue of most coaches probably not wanting that transparency, or at least the control of it.

You’d also have to get coaches to change hearts and minds in other ways in regards to hiring assistants, which they more directly control, and that isn’t likely going to happen. Imagine the PR explosion of USC announcing it interviewed Lincoln Riley the week of Bedlam 2021. Could you imagine Nick Saban granting Alabama’s Twitter account permission to release information around him interviewing Washington’s Ryan Grubb or Notre Dame’s Tommy Rees? Depending on the pro team, you can get coordinator-level info, but a media relations person for one team told Sports Illustrated their head coach didn’t want coordinator interview announcements to become public to protect the interviewees, so even that can vary in the NFL.

So, for the time being, if you’re looking for information around whether your college coach interviewed at one place or another, message boards, news reports and Twitter remain the best bet. Just don’t count on the school tweeting out who talked to whom. 

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