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Column: The perfect storm that led to nine mid-season coaching firings

It benefits more parties than you might think, but not all. 

TCU v Kansas State Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

Gary Patterson got the better of TCU. The second-longest tenured head coach in the FBS, Patterson and the Horned Frogs, “mutually agreed to immediately part ways” after 20 (and a half) seasons.

Patterson can start interviewing for one of the many coaching vacancies arising around college football (and the NFL) at his leisure. He’s just 61 years old, and has built an impressive resume at TCU — the 3-5 mark on the 2021 season notwithstanding. There are already a number of high-profile vacancies, and even more athletic directors who might be sniffing in Patterson’s direction, hoping to snag him rapidly once they can rid themselves of their incumbents at the end of the season.

In the end, Patterson came away as the winner. Speculation says that Patterson could have stuck around Fort Worth through the end of the season, similar to the situation we see with Ed Orgeron and LSU, but the veteran coach opted to split immediately, possibly to better position himself for new roles rather than biding his time as a lame duck.

The losers in this situation, as they always are when it comes to coaching changes, are the student athletes. But more and more, every other group seems to be benefiting to the point where the needs of student athletes who get left behind when there is a coaching change are overlooked.

Already this season, nine head coaches have been fired. Many more assistants have gotten the ax (see: Nebraska’s entire offensive staff this past weekend). That means that at least nine athletic directors thought the best course of action for their program was to leave teams with interim head coaches and players with diminishing hopes of bowl wins, rivalry victories or storybook endings.

It’s not all bad news for student athletes, though it’s less of a benefit for athletes themselves and more of a PR boost for athletic directors. In short, the transfer portal makes these changes less abhorrent. Underclassmen in particular have greater freedom to bounce to a new program. These players might even be more highly sought after, because their transfer wasn’t because of some sort of self-inflicted challenge, and are instead an unfortunate result of a bad coaching situation.

There’s also the power that players have as a result of name, image and likeness. Players have greater optionality in terms of ideal landing spot not only because of possible coaches, but also because of the opportunity to capitalize on their NIL.

Players have more of an advantage and greater bargaining chips than ever before, which has surely played into ADs decisions to cut coaches loose early. If the impact to players is less, there’s less of a public relations crisis at hand.

Then there’s the consideration of future players. The early signing period for recruits has been cited as one of the contributing causes for the uptick in coaching firings as of late. Athletic directors want to signal that changes are coming (and hoping that those changes will actually turn out well), which would drive rising recruits to programs that might have even successfully hired a new coach a la Georgia Southern and Texas Tech.

That’s because Dec. 15 comes much faster than coaches and ADs expect. Initially instituted in 2017, the early signing period adds another season to the recruiting cycle, which gives no wiggle room for programs that want to make a change following bowl season (which doesn’t even start until Dec. 18 in 2021).

Additionally, there is massive instability in the college football universe now, driven by a lack of parity that means anyone not called Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Georgia and maybe Notre Dame (even Clemson is removed from the list) is fighting for a shot at the outside looking in.

Even LSU, which won a national title in recent memory, agreed to part ways with its championship-winning head coach at the end of the season. Every program is searching for an edge in this College Football Playoff landscape that might just give it a shot at a New Year’s Six bowl.

But now, a 3-5 record (yes, a season that is not yet lost), is not good enough. Continuity, which was an anchor of the TCU program, is no longer as relevant. The college football season is a marathon, not a sprint, and a win over a rival in the final game of the season or a bowl game win to move to 7-6 used to, on occasion, be enough to give a coach one more shot, one more season.

This impatience has been exacerbated by COVID-19. While there were the usual rounds of firings and hirings following the 2020 season, we could reasonably expect that many programs held onto their coaches for longer than they’d anticipated because, frankly, 2020 was just weird. The truncated seasons many coaches saw did not provide enough data points for administrators to make informed decisions on the future state.

In the end, coaches are motivated to leave early (if they’re going to get fired, they might as well cut loose sooner and be compensated, likely as defined in their contracts, through the end of the season). Administrators, ever the scrupulous businesspeople, are keen to cut things that aren’t working as quickly as possible and signal their open roles to potential candidates. Even some student athletes can effectively manage changes mid-season, with some even benefiting — though we do not have enough data points to indicate if mid-season transfers because of coaching changes will become an actual trend.

Yes, the only losers are the student athletes who really want to be there: the seniors for whom this is the last stop, the young players who were not widely recruited and who have no college film, the walk-ons. And this perfect storm of coaching shifts doesn’t work for them.