College football is driving out its best coaches, and that’s a bad thing

College football is driving out its best coaches, and that’s a bad thing

Unlike the NFL, the faces of the biggest college programs are the head coaches. Why are the good ones leaving in droves?

Todd Lisenbee

By Todd Lisenbee

| Feb 9, 2024, 7:00am CST

Todd Lisenbee

By Todd Lisenbee

Feb 9, 2024, 7:00am CST

(This story originally appeared in Todd Lisenbee’s newsletter. Subscribe here.)

For a few weeks now in my newsletter, I’ve been discussing the changes to college football. I find myself caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the new look of college football’s landscape. I couldn’t be more excited for a 12-team playoff. I can’t wait to see the new matchups that the conference realignment will bring. I’m thrilled that the NCAA College Football video game is returning. It is a much-needed reset for so many things we love about the sport of college football.

As excited as I am for all of those things, I am finding it harder to be invested in the schools, the history and the traditions that made me fall in love with college football. I realized a few years ago that the transfer portal would forever change how we see college athletes. The days of one player being a legend at one school are less and less likely. The days of players setting career school records is essentially over, especially at lower-level teams. Being at a Power Four school is more important than being a legend at a school like Kent State to this generation of players.

It’s always easy to blame the players. This is true at every level. When we complain about a lack of loyalty or accountability or school pride or sportsmanship, we generally complain about the player, the student, the kid. What we fail to realize is that the problem is almost always my generation — the parents, the coaches, the administrators.

College football is not the NFL. You don’t have a career capped at four or five seasons in the NFL. If you’re a true great, you get to leave your legacy for a decade or more in the NFL. The roster builds around you, and you usually have three or four different head coaches in that period. It works the opposite in college sports. The coaches get three or four sets of players. They are the ones that can stay for decades, not the players.

The biggest names in Oklahoma football history are Owen, Switzer, Wilkinson and Stoops, not Bradford, Sims, Selmon and Vessels. Those four players spent 16 years on the sidelines in Norman. The four coaches listed before them spent a combined 72 years at the head of Oklahoma football. College football, more so than maybe any other sport, is a game about the coaches.

When we think of NFL dynasties, we think about Belichick and Brady, Lombardi and Starr, Noll and Bradshaw, Walsh and Montana. When we think of college dynasties, we nearly always think only of the coaches — Hayes, Bowden, Saban, Swinney, just to name a few.

In 2024, for the first time in the AP poll era (1950-present), we will only have three national championship coaches on the sideline — Kirby Smart, Dabo Swinney and Mack Brown. It wasn’t that long ago that we had a record number of coaches with championship rings on the sidelines of college football. 

My fiance’s son just turned 16 last week (belated HBD, Coop). Everyone that she told about it said the same thing, “I can’t believe he’s already 16 years old.” I remember my parents saying it when I was a kid. Sixteen years seems like an eternity when you’re a kid. Not so much as an adult.

That’s why it blew my mind that just 16 years ago, in 2008, we had a record 12 coaches on the sidelines with national championships. What Jim Harbaugh did was rare. Only two other coaches left immediately after winning the national championship, Howard Schnellenberger (Miami, 1983) and Tom Osborne (Nebraska, 1997). Will what Harbaugh did become the norm? One can’t help but wonder.

There is no off day for a college football coach anymore. A 24/7 job during the season has now turned into a 24/7 job for 365 days a year. Recruiting has never stopped, but now retention is just as paramount. Dealing with commitments and de-commitments from high schoolers was always hard enough, but dealing with the same thing in the portal is too much for many coaches. It’s driving them away, and an exodus of good coaches may be the next thing that hits college football.

I haven’t even mentioned the role NIL plays. Coaches are being forced to manage the cesspool of characters that have been brought into the sport while also not having a clear grasp as to what the rules are. College football needs these coaches. Coaches are the thread that connects different eras at the best college football programs. Without that thread, one of the best parts of college football falls to pieces.

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Todd Lisenbee is the host of The Todd Pod with Todd Lisenbee on the Sellout Crowd network. He has been a producer/talk show host at WWLS, The Sports Animal and 107.7 The Franchise during a Oklahoma broadcasting career that spans to 2002. Todd has broadcast high school basketball, football and soccer play-by-play since 2003 and is currently the voice of the UCO Bronchos, a role he has been in since 2018. He can be reached at @ToddOnSports on Twitter/X or Instagram or via email at [email protected].

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