From Lincoln Riley to Brian Kelly to Mario Cristobal, the marketplace for college football coaches has never behaved like this. And the business of college football will never be the same.
The 2021 season has already been an absolute breakthrough for college football, what with the NCAA finally permitting athletes to monetize name, image, and likeness after years of heel-dragging. The money has never flowed through the game quite this, to say the least.
But over the last two weeks, we’ve been handed a series of gaudy, absolutely resplendent reminders that the business of college football rages across a landscape that runs far deeper — and racks up dollar signs far larger — than just about anything a student-athlete is currently capable of striking up with a brand partner.
And as a result, we’re forced to reckon with the possibility that what we used to call “destination jobs” — juggernaut programs that a coach would have to be crazy to choose to leave — simply don’t exist anymore. The marketplace has evolved past the very concept.
In other words, it was killed by the bag.
Florida fired Dan Mullen after the wheels quickly came off in Gainesville and opted to pay the man his full $12 million buyout with zero haggling whatsoever, including $6 million alone before Christmas and a $1 million payout every year through 2027. Now, the university is committing to new coach Billy Napier to the tune of seven years and nearly $52 million.
In this age of big buyouts and even bigger contracts for coaching successors, schools have never been more willing to pay two (or even more!) coaches at once.
And this isn’t some hot trend that’s due to come and go; it’s utterly normal now because the market demands it.
That’s that. And there will be no turning back.
With all this in mind, let’s identify three recent examples that destroy the idea of the “destination job” in college football — or at the very least, force us to re-evaluate the phrase from the ground up.
Mario Cristobal: Oregon to Miami
As a “Miami guy,” the Canes were surely in the back of Mario Cristobal’s mind when the Oregon assistant accepted a promotion to become head coach of the Ducks at the end of 2017. And on Monday, despite stacking up a .729 win rate, losing more than three games just once, and earning two Pac-12 conference titles, Cristobal confirmed he was departing Eugene for the top job in Coral Gables.
Was the move “insane?” It’s justifiable in context despite not being fully understandable — it would have been patently bonkers for Oregon predecessors like Chip Kelly, Mike Bellotti, or even Mark Helfrich to bolt from (arguably) the conference’s top program to join a struggling brand like the one in Coral Gables, much less after a 10-3 season that included a famous road win over Ohio State and a third straight appearance in the Pac-12 title game.
Overall, it’s not remotely outrageous to call Oregon the foremost “destination job” on the left coast. But the strength of sustained success (and all the dazzling Nike money behind it) wasn’t enough to keep Cristobal in the Pacific Northwest.
The U made sure of it by not only buying out now-former coach Manny Diaz for $8 million, but paying even more to get Cristobal out of his deal in Eugene and get him on the payroll, notes Chris Vannini of The Athletic.
Folks, the Canes have had just one 10-win season since 2003 — their only such campaign as members of the admittedly winnable ACC. That period includes just one Coastal Division title and one New Year’s Six bowl game, which they lost.
On paper, even an emotional connection as deep as Cristobal’s — he’s a Miami alum who won two national titles playing offensive line for the school before later returning as an assistant from 2004 through ’06 — feels like a questionable reason to leave a Ducks program with an incomparably superior level of stability.
But the game has fundamentally changed.
Just ask Lincoln Michael Riley.
Lincoln Riley: Oklahoma to USC
Has there been anything more automatic than the Oklahoma Sooners crashing the gates of the conversation for the College Football Playoff, the Heisman Trophy, and the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft all at once?
Lincoln Riley’s run in Norman was eye-popping by any standard, but the man’s performance is more or less peerless among first-time head coaches. He did absolutely everything except win the national title — plenty of all-time greats retire as septuagenarians having never done so — in a dazzling 55-10 run that still only finds him at 38 years of age.
And he’s gone.
The undisputed king of the Big 12’s current football alpha dog is now the head coach at USC, a program that shares something in common with Cristobal’s Miami as a prestigious name that has struggled mightily in recent years to find its identity in an ever-shifting landscape.
So, why would an instant folk hero at an elite-tier school want to leave after going 10-2, finishing in the top 10 in all four of his previous years, and making the Playoff three different times? Well, a few things are in play here:
- The state of Oklahoma is the opposite of fertile recruiting ground. California, meanwhile, is as rich as it gets, with the LA area alone boasting deeper talent than entire states.
- OU is joining the SEC in a few years, which means competing directly with Nick Saban and Kirby Smart both on the field and for top high school talent.
- Riley’s three straight Heisman finalist QBs — Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, and Jalen Hurts — were are all products of the transfer portal, an absolute coup but not a sustainable strategy.
- No offense whatsoever to Norman, but… Los Angeles.
There’s no hard evidence to suggest that Riley was running away from a challenge by departing for the Trojans. Still two years away from his 40th birthday, there are fine reasons to believe that he can and will end up coaching in the SEC some day down the line no matter how things end up going at SC.
But that doesn’t mean OU fans shouldn’t feel slighted that their program — one that got 16 years out of Bud Wilkinson, 15 of Barry Switzer, and 17 of Bob Stoops — was effectively made into a stepping stone for the first time in decades.
Brian Kelly: Notre Dame to LSU
We don’t have to talk about the accent, but we have to talk about the accent.
Brian Kelly is from Boston. He played his college ball in Worcester. His coaching career right up until he was named the new boss of the LSU Tigers took place entirely in the midwest.
Say what you want about the shiny-if-not-condescending prestige of Notre Dame versus that of the Cajun-blackened bombast of the Louisiana State Tigers, but Kelly never put on an artificial rust belt twang when first endearing himself to the Domers up in South Bend.
That may or may not have had anything to do with the fact that Kelly’s 2021 salary of $2.67 million ranks just 60th nationally this season, according to USA Today.
Kelly won a program-record 113 games for the Fighting Irish (if you include the 21 considered vacated by the NCAA). He went to the College Football Playoff twice and the BCS National Championship Game once, plus had three top-five finishes overall. But LSU simply offered something Notre Dame could not:
10 years and no less than $95 million — incentives can take it above $100 million — a.k.a. the richest head coach contract in college sports history.
For that kind of cash, you might do a whole lot more than put on a disingenuous accent.
The allure of Touchdown Jesus and those iconic gold helmets is loud. It always will be.
But the market forces that drive the business of college football have simply become louder.
And with each new deal, from Mel Tucker’s $95 million bag at Michigan State to Jimbo Fisher’s $94.5 million extension at Texas A&M to Kelly’s Bayou blockbuster, it’s hard to imagine every last extension Nick Saban has received at Alabama possibly aging any better.
The age of the destination job is over.