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by Matt Kupec

November 4, 2019

Florida State University made big news yesterday when they announced the firing of Head Football Coach Willie Taggert even though there still remain three games left to play in the season.  Coming of a terribly disappointing performance in a loss to Miami, and standing at a record of 4-5, the Seminoles administration made the decision to fire Taggert because as FSU President John Thrasher said, “we had no choice but to make a change.”

So, Coach Taggart gets fired just 21 games into the tenure of his six-year contract at Florida State.  He didn’t even get to finish his second season as the coach.

Why fire the head coach when the season isn’t done yet?

Don’t we preach to our student-athletes that we should never give up, never stop working and fighting to get better?   The game isn’t over until the final whistle we have heard countless times?  Don’t we believe in comebacks?

What is the purpose of a six-year contract when the Coach gets only 1 ¾ years to right the ship??

These are very important questions we must ask the leaders of higher education.  Below you will find some of the reasons why in-season coaching changes are made in football.  At the end of the day, it all comes down to money!  Big money at the Football Bowl Subdivision level!

Don’t cry for Coach Taggert.  His six-year contract was for $30 million, yes, $5 million per year.  In addition to the two years worth of compensation he has already received, Coach Tagger is due approximately $20 million for the remainder of his contract.  Oh, by the way, Florida State had to pay the University of Oregon $3M to buyout Coach Taggert’s contract from Oregon.  And, FSU was also responsible for an additional $1.3M to the University of South Florida left on a buyout when he jumped ship early to take the Oregon job.

That’s over $34M that Florida State paid to secure the coaching talents of Willie Taggert.  He gets to pocket the $30M for himself and avoids having to pay for the $4.5M in broken contract deals.  Life could be worse!

By the way, Coach Taggert only stayed at the University of Oregon for one year.

Did anybody scream foul when he skipped out of Eugene early to take his “dream job” at Florida State.  Probably the Oregon fans and supporters weren’t happy at the time.  And what about the players Coach Taggert recruited to Oregon telling them that he was committed to them for their entire athletic careers at Oregon?

Get An Early Start on the Head Coach Recruiting Process.  By firing Coach Taggert now, FSU gets to get its act together – if that is possible for FSU – and begin to prepare a recruitment package that will attract the next great head coach to Tallahassee.

I credit Jeromy Foley, the former great Director of Athletics at Florida for really starting this trend when he fired Ron Zook in 2004 during the season after an embarrassing loss to Mississippi State.  Foley allowed Zook to complete the season but was able to start his recruiting process a good month before the other coaching jobs became available.

Florida had its sights on Urban Meyer who was tearing it up at the University of Utah.  Meyer had in his contract a buyout waiver that would allow him to leave for Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan, his three dream jobs.  Otherwise, Meyer was forced to pay a buyout penalty.

But Foley was able to get everything in order, start the process early, heavily recruit Meyer and was able to land Meyer even though Notre Dame fired Head Coach Tyrone Willingham at the end of 2004. Clearly, Florida’s head start allowed them to pull of this huge hire of Meyer to Gainesville instead of South Bend.

I saw first hand the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill do the same exact thing in 2006 when it fired Head Football Coach John Bunting in mid-season.  Following a bad 23-0 loss to Virginia on a Thursday night game, the decision to make a coaching change was made but not announced until November 12, 2006.  Coach Bunting was allowed to coach the two remaining games against NC State and Duke.  Ironically, UNC won both games.

During the short three week search, UNC had their sights on Butch Davis at the time who was working as a football television analyst after being fired from the Cleveland Browns.  Rumors were swirling at the time that the University of Alabama was getting ready to fire their head and the Crimson Tide had interest in Coach Davis.  It might have only been Coach Davis’ agent spreading that word, but UNC got nervous and announced the hiring of Coach Davis on November 12th with two weeks left in the football season.  UNC held off having a press conference until the end of the season on November 27, 2006.  Wasn’t that considerate?

By the way, Alabama wound up hiring Coach Nick Saban to Tuscaloosa on January 3, 2007, just five weeks after firing Head Coach Mike Shula at the end of the Alabama season.  The hiring of Coach Saban has worked out pretty well for the Crimson Tide!

One’s Coaching Status Has Often Turned Into a Game to Game Referendum.  With so much media attention and so many media options available, there is an enormous need for content to fill the 24 hours of non-stop sports reporting and analysis.  As a result, we find stations 24/7 with “pundits” and “experts” espousing an opinion, often looking to spark controversy.

Coaches today have to deal with the constant chatter about the status of their programs and their jobs.  We have become quick to jump to conclusions and look for a immediate pivot.  Yesterday’s scapegoat can become tomorrow’s overnight hero and a fixture on ESPN’s “top ten” highlights.

Can you believe that Head Coach Mack Brown was able to endure consecutive 1-10 seasons to start his initial UNC tenure in 1989 without the fear of being terminated.  Mack was greeted with standing ovations and encouragement as he entered his third year in Chapel Hill.  Can you believe that?

Clay Helton at USC can have a big win and follow the next week with a loss and every article is predicting his demise as USC’s head football coach.   Can you image coaching through that noise every day?  Can you imagine the heat Coach Helton is feeling today following the blowout loss to Oregon on Saturday?

I remember Mack Brown’s last year at Texas.  Mack was a Hall of Fame coach who brought Texas its first national championship in 35 years with the incredible win over USC.  Mack won at least 10 games in a season for ten seasons.  But yet, in his final season at Texas, coming off 8-5 and 9-4 seasons, each Texas game would bring an outcry of rumors regarding a possible and rumored change.  It was awful!

My first true exposure to the concept of the “game to game” referendum that coaches face occurred in 1999 when Carl Torbush was in his first year as UNC’s head football coach following Mack Brown’s departure to Texas.  Carolina had lost its opening two games – to Miami, Ohio (with Ben Roethlisberger at QB) and Stanford in Palo Alto.

In the third game, a home contest against a good Georgia Tech team, UNC fell behind early.  In the Chancellor’s Box where guests are hosted by the UNC Chancellor, Michael Hooker the brilliant and inspiring Chancellor pulled me aside and said, “I am going to fire Coach Torbush at the end of the game.”

I remember, saying, “you can’t fire him, it’s only the third game of the season.”  UNC lost the game and didn’t fire Torbush but that is exactly the moment I became aware of the “game to game” referendum pressure that is upon coaches today.

Make the Change When You Have Decided to Make the Change.  Coaching changes are immediately made after a bad loss that has followed some underwhelming performances.  You want to strike while the situation is bad.  Almost sounds like rooting for a loss but that is the reality of a situation where the administration wants to make a change!  Occasionally, a team – take LSU with Head Coach Les Miles a couple of years ago – rebounds with its coach under pressure, plays well and wins a number of games in a row.  The coach job is saved.  It worked for Coach Miles but only for four games into the next season when he was fired after a tough loss to Auburn.

Back to former UNC Head Coach Carl Torbush.  He wound up getting through the rocky start I mentioned earlier but struggled throughout his tenure as UNC’s head coach.  In his third year, the UNC administration made the decision to fire Coach Torbush after the Duke game, the last game of the year.  Win or lose, he was gone.

The senior administrators were told of the plan at an early Friday morning meeting the day before the Duke.   I spoke up and recommended that the announcement should be made that Friday because UNC would go out and blow out a very bad Duke team the following day and there would be a groundswell from players to get the Coach.  Please know that I really liked Coach Torbush and respected him so much, but it just wasn’t working with him at the helm and the UNC football program was not in good shape.

Turns out, UNC blew out Duke 38-0 and there was, indeed, a huge groundswell after the game by the players to keep Coach Torbush.  The administrators recanted their decision and kept Coach for the following season.  Interestingly, a 6-5 season with three consecutive wins at the end of the season was not enough to save Coach Torbush’s job and he was terminated as head coach.

It’s All About the Money.  Let’s be very clear that in season head coaching terminations are made to appease the fans, the alumni, the ticket holders, the general public.  But most of all, the decision is made in reference to the major donors.

It is been reported that Florida State boosters contributed $20 million to a fund to buyout Coach Taggert’s contract!  Donors anted up $20 million to allow the firing of a coach not even two years into his six-year contract.

The next head coach will probably be paid in the $5 million to $7 million range.

College athletics is a very, very big business and FSU did not flinch at having to find $20 million to payout its head coach.   Football success is very important to a school like Florida State University.  The sport brings so much attention and awareness that help drive the other parts of the University.

At FSU, when football – it’s main revenue and marketing machine – begins to decline, coaching changes will be made quickly despite the fact that a coach has 4 ½ years remaining on his contract.  This will not change!  The dollars are too huge and the impact on football is too great to ever seeing this trend reverse itself.

After all, this is big-time college sports!