That’s how he describes it, years later.
The coach, in his first days on the job at one of college football’s most prominent programs, walked into the office of the former staff recruiting coordinator and stared at the big board. he asked who was the most important player available, noting him as a 5-star defensive lineman who had three schools.
The program was struggling, falling further and further behind its conference rivals and losing relevance with each passing day. motherfucker, I needed that kid.
Three days later, he had the recruit and his father in his office.
The father plopped down on the couch and laid out what it would take for this thirty-something head coach to win his son’s letter of intent.
“His father told me he would need ‘more than words,'” recalls the coach. “I said: ‘I promise you that there is nothing more valuable than my word’.
“He told me, ‘A man’s word only carries as much weight as his wallet.'”
Welcome everyone to the world of inheriting a college football program. not everything is millionaire contracts and pats on the back.
The situation this trainer found himself in is as familiar as it is ugly. he needed the recruit to help him win, he needed to win to attract more quality players, he needed to attract more quality players to change a program that was spinning its wheels, and ultimately change the narrative from begging players from coach to players. pleading players to play for him. .
what would you do, mr. and mrs. college football?
This trainer made the “right” decision.
interpret that however you like.
is still the coach.
“You’re going to do it right or wrong. You have to choose a side on the first day of work.”
That’s coming from recently fired texas coach charlie strong. When Strong took over as the Longhorns’ head coach, he insisted on doing things the right way. He inherited a team with locker room problems and went to work, kicking two players off the team immediately and nine by the end of his first season.
what did he get in return? fired after three consecutive losing seasons.
This is the reality of college football: If a coach taking over a program chooses what Strong would call “the wrong path,” whether that means active involvement in recruiting violations or cover-ups, or means turning a blind eye. to the behavior of your recruits, assistants, current players or boosters; he can and often will come back to disrupt, damage and possibly destroy the show and its reputation.
if you do it “the right way”, you may not have the job for long.
Texas won’t be the last team looking to give and take for the next month or so. With so many programs embracing disappointing seasons and considering coaching changes, it’s important to ask this simple yet tricky question, which has defined the game for decades but only recently become a major public debate:
Is it possible to win college football without cheating?
To get a sense of the landscape facing programs and their prospective coaches, the bleacher report posed this question to more than 30 current and former fbs head coaches, most of whom chose to remain anonymous for fear of damaging their current or previous universities.
the overwhelming answer: probably not. at least not right away.
Once a program is successful, the success can stand on its own. but by definition, most of the programs they deliver to their coaching staff have not been successful. most are a mess.
A coach who spoke to the bleacher report was told on his first day that his quarterback could be part of a campus-wide betting ring.
one received an academic report showing that more than 50 of their players did not attend class during a week in November. each player each class. throughout the week.
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one was met with rumors of a raging drug problem in the locker room. he drug tested the entire team during the team’s first meeting. more than 30 percent of the equipment failed.
These anecdotes and many more offered by the coaches interviewed show a world in which coaches are faced with a desperate decision within the first weeks of their tenure: do you choose your players and build your program in the right way? Or do you do what you have to do to win now, breaking draft rules and/or picking and potentially enabling players with character issues?
There is no good answer.
“I’ve had young coaches tell me, ‘Coach, if I hit .500 three years in a row and I’m doing everything else right, do you think people will be satisfied? Can I keep my job?'” says the Duke’s trainer, David Cutcliffe. “Look, I can’t guarantee that.
“but here’s the bottom line: at the end of your career, what [you] have to account for is how you’ve mentored young people and whether you’ve done it the right way.”
A coach says he kicked four players off the team before the first meeting. others say they did it slowly to save as much transition boost as possible.
for bret bielema, it was 20 players in his first 18 months in arkansas. when he arrived in fayetteville, the first academic report he received showed 18 players with less than 2.0 gpas, and the pigs had a player arrested on average once every 68 days. players were failing and getting into trouble, and no one was holding them accountable.
“It wasn’t just guys not going to class or not doing work,” says rutgers assistant defensive backs coach aaron henry, an arkansas graduate assistant from 2013 to 2015. “they weren’t even logging on to the computer system to start the job. they wouldn’t even do that. that doesn’t happen overnight. those things are ingrained.”
bielema was determined to start cleaning it up right away. As former Iowa coach Hayden Fry once told him, “You recruit your own problems.”
“nothing sums up what this profession is all about more than that little nugget,” says bielema. “there is nothing more important.”
except maybe he wins. the aforementioned coach who expelled all four players from the team before the first meeting? he is no longer in that school. And if Bielema keeps losing twice as many games as he wins, he won’t be around to do things the right way forever.
In that sense, it’s easy for cutcliffe to talk about straight and narrow. he works for an athletic director who can protect him from influential boosters or an administration concerned about apathy on the show.
“When we hired david, I said, ‘let’s do it the right way, and I’ll be behind you no matter what,'” says duke athletic director kevin white.
cutcliffe won four games in his first season, in 2008, and five the next, before bottoming out with back-to-back three-win seasons that gave him 15 wins in four years. that will get you fired from almost every fbs show. Strong lost his job at Texas after going 6-7, 5-7, and 5-7 in three seasons. LSU shot fewer miles in September after starting the season with two losses in four games, and after winning 77 percent (114-34) of his games over 11 seasons in Baton Rouge.
but white stuck with cutcliffe, who responded with the first 10-win season in the show’s history in 2013, followed by 17 wins in the next two seasons. in late september, duke won at notre dame for the first time.
“It takes time. It takes patience,” Cutcliffe says. “the two things nobody has these days.”
That, more than anything, is why it’s so easy for coaches to take chances, push the limits to the point of cheating and sometimes cross the line, take chances on players with character issues who they know they could eventually damage the program. and their careers.
Patience is an asset not many trainers have.
When Terry Bowden was hired in 1993 to coach Auburn, he was a bright and fearless coach (in his early 30s) eager to make his legendary father proud and make a name for himself.
everything changed in its first week. A former assistant staff trainer, whom Bowden told him he had to retain, came into his office and placed a black ledger on his desk. it was a list of players who were paid.
That’s how we do it here, Bowden was told.
This story has been told over the years and has almost become folklore, with too many incorrect iterations clouding reality. Auburn officials have always denied it, the NCAA was never able to nail it down, and the statute of limitations on infractions passed long ago.
but here’s the problem: I’ve seen the ledger.
I saw it 13 years ago when Bowden, now Akron’s coach, was a studio anchor for ABC’s college football coverage and lived in my hometown. I went to his house one sleepy spring morning, hoping to talk about why such a successful coach had walked away from it all. he sat behind the desk in a makeshift office in his master bedroom, pulled out the ledger and dropped it on his desk.
just as it had happened to him.
I saw the names, I saw the money, I saw the way the players were recruited and how much they were paid.
“look at that!” bowden said that day. “The expression on your face was the same as mine when I first saw it.”
bowden told the assistant coach, “pay the players you promised and never do it again.”
yes, he cheated. wouldn’t you have?
would he have blown up the show days after signing the biggest contract of his life, days after telling his wife that this job, this adjustment, could be the place to retire?
Another coach tells a story about getting a call from a previous staff assistant coach. the caller said a fellow assistant on that staff — one who, unlike him, the new coach had hired — was informing the players about the drug tests. the offending assistant was the best recruiter in the program, knew the state better than anyone, and had countless contacts with key high school coaches. he was the top recruiter for three players from the same high school; all three were recruited by the team’s rival, and all three with the kind of elite talent that could facilitate a quicker turnaround.
“if you’re informing players, what else are you doing?” the coach remembers thinking. “But we needed those three players.”
A year later, the assistant coach left to find another job. four years later, only one of the three elite recruits for whom the new coach compromised his values had made a significant impact.
“it was a small miracle that [the assistant] didn’t get us in trouble with the ncaa in the year he was with us,” says the coach. “We were just as lucky that two of those three [players] didn’t do the same.”
This is the dead-end, all-risk decision that coaches face.
for that trainer, he didn’t bite him again.
but you want to know how things got so bad so fast in baylor? look no further than how and why the team got so good so fast. when you take chances with players with character issues (see: defensive end sam ukwuachu), the odds are not in your favor.
The ideal situation, coaches say, is to take a chance on some players early on and put the program in position to win games that might not otherwise be possible. the more you earn, the easier it will be to get players other than character chances. eventually, constant victory takes over.
“That works in two places,” says one trainer. “in top schools, top 10-20 programs, and in a coach’s head.”
A coach discovered, in the first month on the job, that three of his players had been stealing from the lockers of other players and athletes in other sports. They were caught trying to sell merchandise on eBay. One of the three players was a rising senior who had talent in the first or second round of the NFL draft and never ended up playing in the league.
One trainer says that one of the first people to call him after taking the job was a promoter who owned a local car dealership. the driver offered to work with the coach to set up what he called an “honor system,” where players could go to the lot and use loaner cars as long as they were returned in a reasonable amount of time. When told that the idea was a violation of the NCAA, the promoter replied: “Not if they don’t catch us, and they haven’t caught us yet.”
A coach had a star player beat up another student at a frat party, hitting him so hard in the back of the head that the victim suffered a concussion. he expelled the player from the team. The player, he says, “looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘You’re missing out. I’m going to come back and beat you.'”
over 30 trainers, and they all have stories like this.
what do you do if you just signed a contract that pays an obscene amount of money, let’s say you’re in the section, where nine of the 14 coaches make at least $4 million a season, and the president and a lot of money do the boosters want results yesterday?
what do you do if you’ve moved so many times in the last 10 years that you can’t remember the schools your kids attended or the names of their friends and that your wife, the one person in your life who makes everything fair when everything seems wrong, does he tell you that he can’t move again?
can you find a way to pay the father of a player? or let’s say he’s a player with academic deficiencies or questionable character flaws…does he find a way to get him to school? Do you ignore past problem behaviors under the guise that “everyone deserves a second chance” and hope that the 2 a.m. m. not happen?
do you convince yourself of something unseemly because, in the end, winning trumps everything? Or because, more than anything, you really think you can get to the misunderstood player like no one else has ever done?
It’s a simple choice when you sum it up: do you recruit and build the right way, or do you take your chances recruiting players with personality issues to win now?
now, mr. or mrs. college football, what would you do? How do you compete in a world where programs are a sewer and trying to clean them up only makes it harder to escape to the next nicer job? what do you do if the only option to succeed is to play along to get along?
How do you compete in a business where the third chance has become the new second chance, and no one remembers what the first problem was anyway?
“The worst part,” says one fbs trainer, “is that it’s not only acceptable in our business, it’s expected.”
next thing you know you’re former baylor coach art briles on national tv apologizing and defending your honor. and for what?
win? a championship? a new stadium? next job?
When the lifespan of a coach in a top position is no more than four or five years, the internal struggle to win now and pay later looms large.
“You’d be surprised if you surveyed people in our profession and asked them a simple question,” says one trainer. “You can make [$4 million to $5 million] a year for five or six years, but you may or may not have a controversy that would embarrass you and end your term and maybe your career.
“You wouldn’t believe how many would sign up for that. Because really, that’s what’s happening everywhere right now.”
Follow matt hayes on twitter: @matthayescfb.