Saturday, August 18, 2012
The Worst Job in America
With the Olympics finally over, it's time to redirect America's sports focus. No more stories of athletes treating each other with respect and sportsmanship, or more fans rooting on all participants as they strive to reach new heights. It's time to return to the ugliest neighbor-hating, ill-willing corner of the sports universe.
It's time to talk about college football.
Last week, USC coach Lane Kiffin caused a minor stir when he suggested he wouldn't vote his team atop his coaches' poll ballot. Kiffin's only problem was that USA Today, per its policy to publish the ballot of a coach who lies about his vote, showed that the Trojan head coach did, in fact, vote USC No. 1.
What inevitably followed in some corners, particularly East Tennessee and the Bay Area, was a clip-show recap of Kiffin's infamy to-date, its backstory filled with knowing "only Lane Kiffin" smirks and head shakes. In fact, just seeing Kiffin's name likely colored most people's analysis of the story given the connotation of his short but eventful career.
But what struck me shortly after was just how many college football coaches are notorious to some portion of the population. To some, Les Miles is lucky or zany. Or Nick Saban is a liar. Or Mike Gundy is a bully.
Much of this probably stems from the constant turnover of college football players while coaches stay (relatively) longer. Yankee haters have had Derek Jeter to punch around for parts of three decades, but Alabama fans only had Cam Newton in their lives for a scant six months.
Even more relevant, though, is college football's culture of pride. Maybe this is because most rivalries are regional, or maybe the larger number of college football programs in the flyover country uninhabited by pro teams. But for a collection of reasons, college football fans seem to care just as much about the tabloid news their teams make as what they do for a dozen Saturdays in the fall.
When an NFL player is arrested or a major leaguer tests positive for a banned substance, fan reaction tends to be pragmatic. The digression is quickly translated into lost time on the field, which affects fans' perception of their team's future success like a quarterly earnings announcement affects a stock price. Discussions of moral superiority almost never seem to elevate, probably because free agency and the interchangeability of professional players mean the offender could be playing in your town next year.
But somehow, far lesser missteps stick to college football programs, especially their coaches. Some coaches are the source of barbs for rival fan bases for seemingly inane transgressions. It seems as though any coach on the national stage for a handful of years has some kind of finger-wagging pinned to his shoulders. Chip Kelly answers media questions too tersely. Will Muschamp and Bo Pelini yell too much on the sidelines. Todd Graham resigned from Pitt with the wrong part of his Verizon plan.
Consider the aforementioned Kiffin. In roughly 10 years of major football coaching, Kiffin's worst offenses seem to be some minor recruiting violations at Tennessee, leaving the Vols to return to USC, and some socially ineptness. Meanwhile, Kiffin's Oakland replacement, Tom Cable, was eventually fired amid allegations he assaulted a Raiders assistant coach and a former girlfriend.
And which guy has a lower Q rating?
The escalation of minor, if existent, missteps like Kiffin's reflects the increasingly awkward link between college football and the academic universities it is connected to. Division 1A football exists primarily because it delivers talent to the NFL. For all of the lofty rhetoric about student athletes, most 18-year-olds that accept a D1 scholarship do so because it is the most likely path to Sunday football.
This reality leaves major college football coaches torn between competing goals. On one hand, they are bound to the ideals of the institutions they represent. Yet on the other hand, they have to address the motives of their players else risk not recruiting future classes of elite talent. As we have so often seen, these two goals come into conflict.
Worst of all, for many major college programs, success has become defined as going undefeated. At places like Alabama, Ohio State, and Texas, each season is a tight-rope walk over a tank of samurai gila monsters; the only reward for success is avoiding instant death.
So pity the college football coach. Sure, he gets paid handsomely, but he does so while knowing he will most likely be fired during the next decade and be held in generally ill regard by many fans. Don't believe it? Name a major college coach with a better than tepid national image.
This has to be the worst job in America.