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The new coaching frontier: tag-team hiring and job searching

Jamie Gilliam/Icon Sportswire

The coaching carousel will provide many more plot twists in the next two months, before the end of the college football regular season. However, the carnival ride is beginning to take shape, forcing athletic directors — especially in the SEC — to wrestle with difficult questions.

Mark Stoops is falling flat on his face at Kentucky. On the raw merits, he shouldn’t get a 2017 season in Lexington. However, his buyout is $12 million.

Gus Malzahn is floundering at Auburn. He’s utterly whiffing in his attempt to cultivate a quality quarterback. His buyout? Nearly $14 million.

Derek Mason is headed for another miserable season at Vanderbilt, but it’s only his third, and at Vanderbilt, it’s not common practice to orchestrate a quick-trigger firing. However, Vanderbilt is thinking about building a first-rate stadium, signaling a desire to compete with the big boys in the SEC.

What to do, what to do?

Here’s a suggestion for athletic directors who can’t make a top-dollar hire, and who accordingly can’t envision hiring a full staff at a rate the marketplace demands:

Don’t think you have to.

That’s only a starting point, of course, but it can be the seed from which a needed creativity bursts forth and blossoms.

Let’s explain.

In the course of the explanation, it should become clear that the idea being advanced is meant not just for athletic directors in a financial crunch, but coaches as well.


Let’s ease into this discussion with a coaching story removed from college football:

It’s perfectly understandable why Luke Walton, though only in his mid-30s, agreed to become the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.

The reasons?


2) A huge amount of money was offered to coach the LOS ANGELES LAKERS!

3) See 1 and 2.

Why not coach the Lakers if you have the chance? So what if you’re just beginning to learn how to be a head coach? So what if the team is in rebuilding mode and you’ll have to labor through at least three seasons with no real chance of contending for a title?

It’s understandable.

However, if professional success — defined not by the money or the thrill or the prestige, but solely by wins and losses and championships — is the measure of a decision and its level of wisdom, Walton plainly erred (as a matter of opinion, of course, not fact).

Walton is not coaching the Lakers at a time when he has a roster ready-made to win championships. Phil Jackson did, and the same was true when he took over the Chicago Bulls. If coaching decisions are evaluated strictly on the basis of the opportunity to win a title during one’s tenure, Jackson is the greatest selector of coaching jobs in NBA history.

Even if you are skeptical of Jackson’s abilities as an administrator, or even if you think that other coaches have been better at building winners — because they didn’t step into jobs where championship-level rosters already existed — you have to concede that Jackson forged a supremely fulfilling coaching career. He won. He won big. He won big a lot.

This forms the basis of our college football coaching discussion.

If coaches really care about WINNING, they might begin to think about different employment arrangements. If a shrewd and forward-thinking athletic director can meet these coaches halfway, the industry could be revolutionized in ways that would mutually benefit coaches and ADs.

The key nuance: Coaches might not get as much overall money, but for the work they do, they’d be fairly compensated… and they’d have a much better chance of winning championships.

It is supposed to be the hallmark of a competitor, whether as an athlete or a coach: We are always told that the best competitors value winning more than the money once they attain a relatively comfortable life. After the first million dollars a person makes, how many more millions are necessary to create a satisfying career from a financial standpoint? After a certain money-based threshold has been reached, championships are supposed to mean the most to athletes and coaches.

Therefore, why shouldn’t coaches be more selfish in the pursuit of winning?

Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury applauds to motivate his players as they warm up prior to an NCAA college football against Arizona State game Saturday, Kingsbury is a fascinating coaching case study. Sept. 10, 2016, in Tempe, Ariz. Arizona State defeated Texas Tech 68-55. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury is a fascinating coaching case study. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

See the coach above? That’s Kliff Kingsbury.

A lot like Luke Walton with the Lakers (though Walton’s story is only just beginning), Kingsbury took a head-coaching job at a very early age, because it was close to his heart.

Mama called.

Kingsbury returned to his alma mater, even though he had no prior experience as a head coach, and even though he wanted to make a good pile of money.

The problem? By taking a good pile of money at a point in time when he lacked head-coaching experience, Kingsbury set himself up to fail. First, he had to learn on the job. Second, he couldn’t hire a top-of-the-line defensive coordinator in Lubbock. You’ll recall that Rich Rodriguez couldn’t hire an elite defensive coordinator at Michigan, which led to his downfall.

We’re reminded that coaching hires can’t solely focus on the head coach; if the head coach is a genius on one but only one side of the ball, the “opposite coordinator” has to be just as much of a home run if the program wants to win big (and not merely go 7-5 with a Texas Bowl appearance).

Kingsbury is not — and has not been — in position to thrive to the extent that Texas Tech can legitimately compete for championships. He’s at his alma mater. He has a job he clearly covets. He’s where he wants to be…

… but he’s not achieving much.

Is that success? By many measurements, yes, but not by the measurement which is supposed to matter more than all others: winning big.

This is where coaches and athletic directors need to pay very close attention.

Consider the following setup if two men ever allowed it to happen:

Wouldn’t it be a better use of Kingsbury’s time, energy and creativity — his very career — if he took less money so that he could hire the man in the cover photo for this story, Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason, as his defensive coordinator?

Kingsbury handles the offense, Mason handles the defense. The two men do not interfere in the other’s plans or recruiting practices.

They split the job. They essentially become co-coaches.

Since Kingsbury is more telegenic and popular, he would do the media availabilities and public-relations activities for the university, so he’d get slightly more money than Mason. Yet, because the job is essentially split, Texas Tech would get a head coaching position and two coordinator positions at a relatively affordable price. The co-coaches would be their own coordinators, reducing staff redundancies underneath them in the structure of the coaching staff.

Instead of having to hire a hotshot head coach and two hotshot coordinators, a school could hire only two people instead of three but get the best minds on both sides of the ball.

So many programs could use this.

LSU has its defensive coordinator, Dave Aranda. What if Sonny Dykes became the offensive coordinator and didn’t have to worry one lick about the defense?

BYU has a first-rate defensive mind, head coach Kalani Sitake. Yet, offensive coordinator Ty Detmer is unproven and currently struggling. What if BYU reached out to Lincoln Riley of Oklahoma with an offer to become co-head coach, focusing solely on offense?

03 September 2016: Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake during the Cactus Kickoff Classic NCAA football game between the Brigham Young Cougars and the Arizona Wildcats at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Kevin French/Icon Sportswire)

Kalani Sitake (Photo by Kevin French/Icon Sportswire)

Imagine all sorts of similar pairings across the country.

The various teams which have things all figured out on one side of the ball, but are woefully deficient on the other, could fundamentally solve their enduring problem. At a Power Five (especially SEC) school, an athletic director wouldn’t have to shell out four or five million for a head coach, plus $800,000 for the lead coordinator on the other side of the ball, plus added salary for the other coordinator if the head coach doesn’t call plays and insists on delegating that position to another person.

Can ADs begin to imagine the cost savings?

Can coaches such as Kingsbury and Dykes and Kyle Whittingham (at Utah) and Sitake realize that while they might not receive all the credit for their program’s success, the likelihood of success at a program would be so much greater if they co-existed with a co-head coach who was little more than a glorified coordinator?


Let’s go back to the NBA, for a very specific concluding point:

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh changed the NBA forever by deciding they wanted to play with each other. They valued championships over raw salary, and their pursuit was rewarded.

Who is to say that coaches can’t or shouldn’t act in a similar way?

Would a Kingsbury-Aranda combination at LSU win multiple national titles?

Every person might arrive at a different answer. Mine would be yes.

Maybe Kingsbury and Aranda wouldn’t make nearly the money they’d make as sole head coaches in a “traditional” staff structure, but they’d win more.

Isn’t that what competition’s about?

For Auburn, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and other programs which might have to make coaching changes in three months, consider the ways a coaching staff can be constructed (and compensated).

More options exist than one might first think.

The coaching industry doesn’t have to retain the same structure in perpetuity. The industry’s LeBron-Wade-Bosh moment could be just around the corner, if ADs and coaches are willing to value winning over money and power.

The new coaching frontier: tag-team hiring and job searching

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