Big Ten crosswinds, fired and happy, waiver wiring, ode to Duke, Kansas: Fortuna’s Cover 4
Big Ten crosswinds, fired and happy, waiver wiring, ode to Duke, Kansas: Fortuna’s Cover 4
So much for a quiet week ahead of the College Football Playoff, huh?
1. Big questions in the Big Ten
Is the most influential position in college sports about to open up?
It sure seems that way, as multiple people with knowledge of the situation have told The Athletic that Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren is a finalist to become the next president and CEO of the Chicago Bears.
As head-turning as the move would be, the practicality of the hire itself would make sense once the shock of it all wears off: The Bears are looking to move to the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights and build their own stadium and entertainment district. Such an attraction would, naturally, lend itself to hosting major national events, such as Final Fours and Super Bowls — just like fellow Midwestern cities Indianapolis, Detroit and Minneapolis have done.
The person largely credited with making all of that happen in the Twin Cities? That would be Warren, who oversaw the building of U.S. Bank Stadium in downtown Minneapolis and the construction of the Vikings’ practice facility in nearby Eagan while he was the franchise’s COO.
So he has done all of this before. And if he is ready to move jobs, then that means that the Bears are most likely willing to pay. Warren’s most recent credited salary, for 2020, was $3.5 million, a figure that figured to rise considerably in the ensuing years as revenues exploded within the conference. (And a figure that is believed to be higher than most president-like positions in the NFL.)
But stepping away from the financial side of things (as hard as that can be to do), it would make sense for Warren to pursue another challenge after landing UCLA and USC for the Big Ten, and after just helping the conference land a seven-year, $8 billion media rights deal across three major networks (Fox, CBS, NBC).
The Big Ten is set up to be even more powerful than it already was, as its TV deal (which expires in 2029-30) will be up for renewal four years before the SEC’s TV deal expires (2033-34).
Maybe football “just means more” in the SEC, which is playing in its own league with the Big Ten right now from a power standpoint. But from a financial standpoint, the Big Ten sits in a better position. And it has two teams in this year’s College Football Playoff.
Warren has an extensive NFL background, and while speculation has run rampant about who will eventually succeed Roger Goodell as commissioner, it wouldn’t hurt Warren’s candidacy if he could one day say that he helped not one, but two cold-weather cities rebuild their infrastructure and land Super Bowls.
Warren, by the way, was not scheduled to be at either CFP semifinal game this Saturday, but as of Thursday night, he had been expected to be in Pasadena, Calif., for Monday’s Rose Bowl.
One can only imagine all of the conversations being had between now and then, and what the landscape of college sports will look like if a fourth power conference commissioner job opens in a three-year span.
2. It’s good business to be a fired head coach
A conversation last year with an assistant coach from a staff that had just gotten fired came to mind recently. When I asked the assistant what his old boss’ plans were after getting fired, he replied: “You guys in the media have got it all wrong. You always ask first about what will happen to the fired head coach. They can always live off that buyout money. They will be fine.
“It’s the rest of us you should be asking about.”
That assistant coach happened to have landed on his feet at a good job, so he was OK. But his point has proven to be prescient one year later: Athletic departments have shelled out more than $70 million in buyout money to fired head coaches during this coaching cycle.
The tally — roughly $71,888,462, after all of the accounting via contracts, athletic director remarks and school statements — accounts for 12 of the 15 FBS schools that fired their head coaches, meaning the final number is likely much higher.
Tulsa is a private school, so its buyout to former head coach Philip Montgomery is unknown. Navy pays its coaching staff through an athletic foundation that is not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, meaning Ken Niumatalolo’s severance is a mystery. USF, like most state schools in Florida, operates similarly, obscuring Jeff Scott’s buyout.
Auburn, as usual, takes the cake when it comes to the biggest spenders on former employees, as the Tigers paid ex-coach Bryan Harsin $15.5 million to walk away after less than two seasons on the job. That came on the heels of a $21.5 million buyout to Gus Malzahn, who was fired after the 2020 season. (That’s $37 million effectively lit on fire across two years, for those keeping track.)
Nebraska paid $15 million to fire Scott Frost on Sept. 11, when it would have owed the ex-coach only $7.5 million had the school waited till Oct. 1 to ax him. Arizona State and Wisconsin, two schools that also acted quickly in making coaching changes this year, negotiated settlements with Herm Edwards and Paul Chryst, respectively. ASU paid Edwards $4.4 million — a buyout reduced by 50 percent, according to the ASU student newspaper — while Wisconsin paid Chryst $11 million through the UW Foundation, down from the original $19.5 million figure.
So yes, in some ways this could have been worse from a financial standpoint. In other ways, though, it probably is worse than most of us could imagine. Scott, for example, had roughly $10 million left on his USF contract, though again, that exact buyout is unknown. And none of this money accounts for assistant coaching buyouts, or buyouts paid by other schools to get the coaches they fired out of their previous contracts. (Although if that’s money going back to the schools that are losing their coaches, then it is not like that money is going nowhere.)
FAU paid the lowest buyout according to the available data, as the Owls owed Willie Taggart just $288,462 upon his firing, a school spokesperson told USA Today. Texas State ($400,000 to Jake Spavital) and Western Michigan ($500,000 to Tim Lester) also paid buyouts south of $1 million.
And yet, for as crazy as this all sounds, it does not appear to come nearly as close to what NFL owners spend on ex-personnel, as ESPN reported earlier this month that franchises spent $800 million on fired coaches and front office executives over the past five years.
Even if taking fired ADs into account — and there’s been no shortage of those lately, either — those buyout figures would pale in comparison to college coaching payouts, as school officials regularly make significantly less than football coaches.
So college football has that going for it. But as the aforementioned assistant stated, it still doesn’t hurt to be a fired head coach in this climate. At least not in the wallet.
3. Waiver wire keeps churning
Just because the transfer portal, instant eligibility and NIL have all become a regular part of the college football lexicon doesn’t mean that the NCAA is out of the hardship waiver process.
Two recent cases in point: Oregon tight end Cam McCormick and Illinois quarterback Tommy DeVito.
McCormick, a seventh-year senior, recently told OregonLive.com that he had been granted a ninth year of eligibility by the NCAA, although he is unsure whether he will even use his eighth year in 2023. The Bend native suffered four season-ending injuries, among other hardships, and if anyone is deserving of the benefit of the doubt, it is certainly McCormick. (McCormick will be honored at Friday night’s Orange Bowl as this year’s FWAA-Orange Bowl Courage Award winner.)
McCormick is 24 years old. So, too, is DeVito, whose final college game will come in Monday’s ReliaQuest Bowl after the NCAA denied him a hardship waiver for a seventh year in 2023.
DeVito described the waiver process as “hectic” to IlliniInquirer, as Illinois applied for the hardship waiver on his behalf in October but was recently informed that the waiver was denied.
“There were highs and lows,” DeVito said. “At first, it was ‘probably not.’ A couple weeks later, it was like, ‘We’re at 90 percent right now.’ Then all of a sudden, it was like, cut. I was like, ‘Ope.’ That’s what it is. I’m just rolling with the punches.
“We would’ve been able to skyrocket on the offensive side of the ball. But obviously, things didn’t work out. There are other plans set in stone, so I’m just looking forward to my next opportunity.”
So Illinois went portal shopping for a new quarterback, landing former four-star recruit Luke Altmyer from Ole Miss on Thursday.
One signal caller who is likely off the board is Sam Hartman, who is expected to end up at Notre Dame after entering the transfer portal on Tuesday. Hartman, like DeVito, had planned on this being his last college season, although he is now planning on taking advantage of the bonus year of eligibility the NCAA granted all players because of the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season.
A sixth season for Hartman, who will be 24 years old when the season kicks off in 2023, figures to be beneficial for NFL purposes. And as much as it hurts Wake Forest to see one of the greatest players in ACC history depart for another school — particularly to an opponent on next year’s schedule — one can imagine the logjam at quarterback had Hartman returned for a sixth year.
Mitch Griffis, who had started the 2022 opener for the sidelined Hartman, was Wake’s highest-ranked quarterback recruit of the Dave Clawson era when he signed in 2020. And the ballyhooed passer will finally get an opportunity to become QB1 in Winston-Salem, N.C., in 2023, as a fourth-year player.
Griffis’ younger brother Brett, also a quarterback, left Wake for JMU at the end of his first regular season with the Demon Deacons this fall, so you can see how the path has cleared for the elder Griffis to take the reins of the offense here.
You can also see what a mess roster management has become for programs across the country after the 2020 season.
4. An ode to Duke and Kansas
And now, a word about everyone’s favorite basketball schools-turned-football schools.
Start with Duke, which went winless in ACC play last season, which won five total games over the previous two seasons and which had won four total conference games in the previous three seasons combined.
This year, under first-year head coach Mike Elko, the Blue Devils finished 9-4 overall and 5-3 in ACC play, routing UCF in Wednesday’s Military Bowl to cap a season that no one saw coming.
Everyone knew that Elko could coach. Listening to other coaches rave about him, year after year after year, whether at Wake Forest, at Notre Dame or at Texas A&M, became a rite of passage every hiring cycle. Elko had had some opportunities in the past, but the cards never quite aligned for him the way they did this time around at Duke.
Even then, though, the rebuild was expected to be long. Elko spoke at ACC media days this past July about the similarities between taking over Duke right now and going with Dave Clawson as Wake’s defensive coordinator in 2014, when the Blue Devils were the defending Coastal Division champions from 2013 and the Demon Deacons were just beginning a makeover job that started with consecutive 3-9 seasons in 2014 and ‘15.
Entering this fall, Wake was coming off an 11-win season. Duke was coming off a 3-9 season.
Somehow, Duke ended up beating Wake this season and finished with a better record than the Deacs (8-5), who were no slouches themselves.
Fittingly, Clawson (2021) and Elko (2022) have won the past two ACC coach of the year awards.
Duke’s preseason over-under win total was 3.5. The Blue Devils were double-digit underdogs twice this season and won both games outright, at Northwestern and at Miami.
They ranked last in the ACC in 2021 in point differential in conference games (-31.8), per ESPN’s David Hale, and they finished this season third in that category (8.0). They beat Virginia by 21 points after losing to the Hoos by 48 last year, Miami by 24 after losing to the Canes by 37 last year, and Virginia Tech by 17 after losing to the Hokies by 31 last year.
The one team they lost to this year that they beat last year? Kansas, funny enough.
This was Lance Leipold’s second year in Lawrence, after taking over following spring ball in 2021. The Jayhawks had won five games, total, across the previous three seasons (2019-21). They went winless in 2020, and they had not won more than one Big 12 game since 2008.
That was also the last time that Kansas had gone bowling. And though the Jayhawks lost in a 55-53 triple-overtime thriller against Arkansas in Wednesday’s Liberty Bowl, the comeback itself — they trailed by as many as 25 points in the second half, and by 15 with less than two minutes to play — proved that this is a new era for the program.
Kansas lost to Duke by 19 last year; it beat the Blue Devils by eight this year. The Jayhawks lost to Iowa State by 52 a year ago; they beat the Cyclones by three this year. They lost to Oklahoma State by 52 last year; they beat the Cowboys by 21 this year.
The Jayhawks went 3-5 in Big 12 play this season, after winning three total conference games over the previous five years. Their preseason win total was set at 2.5. They finished at 6-7.
Duke and Kansas both made the men’s Final Four in 2022, with Kansas winning it all.
What they did on the gridiron this past fall should not be overlooked. And the good times appear to just be getting started for both programs.
(Top photo of commissioner Kevin Warren, right, presenting Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh with the Big Ten championship trophy: Joe Robbins / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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