College football: Silly season arrives early at USC and UConn
The silly season has arrived earlier than usual in college football.
Lane Kiffin and Paul Pasqualoni didn't make it through September before being fired, and now Southern California and Connecticut have to start searching for new coaches and dealing with the speculation that comes with the hunt.
Firing coaches during a season is rare in college football and even rarer this early.
From 2002-2012, only three FBS programs changed coaches after five or fewer games.
Mike Locksley was let go by New Mexico after an 0-4 start in 2011. John Mackovic resigned at Arizona in 2003 with the Wildcats 1-4. Bobby Keasler resigned as Louisiana-Monroe coach in 2002 after an 0-3 start.
In the cases of UConn and USC, already tenuous situations quickly became toxic. Fans who came into the season skeptical of their respective head coach's ability to get the programs headed in the right direction were already bailing. Facing the prospect of half-full stadiums and constant questions about the status of the coach, USC athletic director Pat Haden and his counterpart at UConn, Warde Manuel, put an end to all the speculation.
But do they gain anything by getting a head start in the search process?
Agents Russ Campbell and Patrick Strong of Balch Sports in Birmingham, Ala., represent dozens of coaches. They said an early move lets an AD hire a search firm and gather financial resources without having to hide their intentions.
It can also be a way to change the subject at a time when there's little positive news.
"By being one of the first openings, universities also potentially reverse field on negative media discussion," Campbell and Strong said in an email. "Instead of discussing how far the team has fallen, the weekly gameday discussion now focuses on what a great opportunity it is for the next head coach."
Chuck Neinas, the former Big 12 interim commissioner who has been working as headhunter for schools looking for new coaches since 1997, said he tells athletic directors to try to get the pulse of the players before making a coaching change in season.
"On one hand if the team is under pressure because the coach is on the brink it may be better to relieve him because that could release the pressure and the players might play better," Neinas said in a phone interview. "If the feeling is the team is close to the coach, then they may let down.
"I have told the AD you need to subtly talk to the captains. Don't tip your hand but try to gauge the current atmosphere within the football team."
Any potential candidate to fill either the USC or UConn opening most likely already has a job. And most coaches don't want to deal with the possibility of another job during the season.
Already on Monday, Washington coach Steve Sarkisian and Vanderbilt's James Franklin were asked about USC.
"I'm kind of glad you asked. We can get the giant elephant out of the room," Sarkisian joked.
Both coaches quickly steered the conversation to their own teams. Generally, coaches aren't fielding phone calls from athletic directors about jobs. That's why they have agents.
"Depending on the situation, a coach might be willing to listen at the right time and in the right way but not at the risk of jeopardizing his current position," Campbell and Strong wrote. "We advise coaches that you can't ride two horses with one rear-end, those that try risk falling off both. There is a right way and a right time to navigate this process."
Often the first step for a search firm is to gauge a potential candidate's willingness to leave his current job, even before a specific job opens. In other words, it would be the search firm's job to let Haden and Manuel know who on their candidate wish list is even worth going after.
"Most search firms are proactive, relying on many years of due diligence and relationships," Campbell and Strong wrote. "They do not wait for a sudden change in the market to signal there is work to be done. Done the right way, any dialogue between a search firm and agents during a season is high-level, designed to avoid interrupting a coach's focus and respects his current situation and contract."