Just like everybody else on the internet, I've written a lot about what needs to change in order for the Big Ten to climb back among the nation's elite football conferences. We've talked extensively about the need for improved recruiting, and at least at the top, there seems to be some movement on that front. We've talked about the need to nail coaching hires, and at least one Big Ten school will now get another opportunity to do that, with potentially others in a few months. But there's another critical factor that doesn't get ranked on 247, rarely is mentioned on message boards, and only tends to appear in the public eye when they screw something up, and that's administrative leadership and support.
Without the right leadership and the right people behind your coaches, all the fancy buildings and fast recruits could go for naught. And right now, we're already seeing a few Big Ten teams hurt their rebuilds, thanks to administrative blunders.
Let's take Rutgers for example. Lets leave all the structural issues with the program aside, from a historical lack of support from New Jersey residents, to facilities that aren't up to Big Ten standards. There's plenty to discuss from just the last week, with Kyle Flood's Email investigation (I'm not calling it EmailGate, but I'm open to other suggestions).
Here's what we know. Head coach Kyle Flood allegedly sent an email to an instructor of one of his players, which itself is against the rules, not just at Rutgers, but at lots of other places too. Flood doesn't really deny this, but said that the email was innocuous, and more of an attempt to see if the student could raise the grade, rather than pressure to adjust it. This alleged email was also sent from Flood's personal email account, rather than his Rutgers one, which might lead somebody to think he was trying to avoid FOIA, or suspected that his communication was not 100% compliant.
If Flood was actually trying to pressure a professor into changing a grade, that would be a significant violation that would probably merit dismissal. If it wasn't, you give the guy a stern lecture on FOIA and the role of academic support specialists, and you move on. The thing is, this should be a relatively easy thing to figure out, assuming Flood's email wasn't 5,000 words long. Just look at the email, figure out what he said, and talk to everybody. On the face of it, this shouldn't be a multi-day story.
Only that's exactly what's happening, because the administration at Rutgers, from the AD's office (who referred all questions to the university president) all the way up to the President, is keeping mum. A program hall of famer is ripping them in public over being 'spineless', and without a quick resolution, an adversarial local media, as well as national outlets not inclined to give Rutgers the benefit of the doubt, will continue on the attack. Now, leaks that are almost assuredly coming from inside the department seem to be building a public case to undermine Flood. That impacts recruiting, it introduces extra uncertainty in the locker room, and for what?
If Rutgers wasn't confident that Kyle Flood was the man for the job last year, why give him an extension? If you only gave the extension to help recruiting and still weren't sure about his long term place, why put a buyout at $1.4 Million? Now, it certainly appears the university is dragging their feet, looking to find a way to get out of that contract "for cause", which will only undermine Flood's efforts for not only this season, but when they try to find a replacement. If you're a hotshot G5 coach or coordinator, does this working situation look all that enticing?
Illinois found themselves in a similar situation, but decided to pull off the band-aid quickly, and in dramatic fashion, firing Tim Beckman, a week before the season began, elevating offensive coordinator Bill Cubit. Beckman's teams struggled on the field, but the real reason for his termination was because the preliminary results of an Illinois internal investigation allegedly showed evidence of player mistreatment, football officials encouraging players to hide injuries, and threatening the scholarship status of players. Those are all pretty serious accusations, ones that came to light after an Illinois player tweeted complaints back in May. Beckman, for his part, disputes the allegations, and will probably attempt to sue to try and get his buyout money, leading to another prolonged, public fight that won't make Illinois look good.
But if player safety is the biggest concern, it seems strange that Illinois would then hand the coaching position off to a coordinator. If the allegations against Beckman are true, wouldn't a coordinator, or at least other staffers, know about them? And if these were so bad, would Illinois AD Mike Thomas have defended Beckman at Big Ten Media Days, just a few weeks before? And given that now two hires made by Thomas (the other is Women's Basketball) have required public, embarrassing investigations about off the field conduct, is Thomas the person you should trust to find the next football coach? Not everybody seems to think so.
Those are the two most recent examples, but they're hardly the only ones in recent memory, just in the Big Ten. If a reader takes away nothing from the 400+ pages of deep, investigative reporting at Michigan in John U Bacon's 'Endzone", it's that the Dave Brandon Era, and subsequently, the failures of Brady Hoke, represented an institutional failure on multiple levels that damaged Michigan on the field. Without Dave Brandon leaving the school, there is no Harbaugh era.
The unexpected departure of Gary Andersen from Wisconsin brought along institutional questions as well. Is it easy working for a boss who looms so large over the program that he might be tempted to do a little coaching himself? Is it easy to coach in an environment where athletics and admissions don't seem to be on the same page regarding standards or player admissions? Apparently not, as Andersen left before he could really build anything in Madison. Already, Wisconsin has lost another top recruit for academic related reasons, even though the football program expected him to qualify.
Administrative support for a football program doesn't mean giving them everything they want, or not holding them accountable for mistakes. Rutgers shouldn't apologize for investigating their coach, and Wisconsin shouldn't apologize for having high academic standards. But support does mean clear, concise communication. It means not leaving anybody out to dry because of university politics or alternative motives. It means being on the same page as far as expectations are concerned. And it means that you're giving your program what they need to succeed, from baseline facilities, to competent leadership from your athletic director.
Not everything that contributes to on the field success can be easily ranked by say, 247. Those little things, from supportive bosses to functioning administrative systems, can impact the direction of a program just as much as geography and tradition. If schools aren't able to get everything right behind the scenes, there's no reason to think that a splashy hire and a fat TV contract can paper over everything else.
Sometimes, it pays to pay attention to the folks behind the curtain.