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November 13, 2013

USC will need more than its past to get Sumlin

The rumors of USC's interest in Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin for its vacant head coaching position have been going on virtually since former head coach Lane Kiffin was unceremoniously told to get off the bus following the Trojans' 62-41 shellacking at the hands of Arizona State.

Like most head coaches, Sumlin has never publicly denied interest in the job, merely stating that your name comes up for other positions when your program is doing well. Regardless of whether or not it is Sumlin's intention…as it is with any other head coach…the lack of an outright denial makes fans of that particular school nervous. Of course, Sumlin's track record is better than that of Nick Saban's who publicly stated that he wasn't leaving the Miami Dolphins a few years ago only to bolt shortly thereafter which means that outright denials don't mean much in his case anyway.

However, just purely from an analytical standpoint, it's extremely unlikely that Sumlin leaves A&M for the USC job -- but, then again, it's highly unlikely that any coach in one of the Big Five conferences (SEC, Big Ten, Pac 12, ACC, Big 12) leaves to take another Big Five job. There's various reasons for that but first let's look at the data.

There were 13 Big Five programs who lost their coaches prior to the 2013 season. Of those, just one…--Wisconsin's Bret Bielema -- left for another Big Five program when he went to Arkansas. He got a raise from $2.6 million in his last year with the Badgers as he's making $2.95 million in his first year in Fayetteville. Otherwise, not one of those programs -- including Auburn and Tennessee which had won national titles in recent memory as well as BCS powerhouse Oregon -- was able to lure a coach from another Big Five conference. Tennessee talked to Mike Gundy and Arkansas talked to LSU's Les Miles but in the end both of those coaches got more money and stayed behind.

Interestingly enough, there were also 13 Big Five programs who made changes prior to the 2012 campaign. Of those 13 schools, not one was able to lure a coach from another Big Five program. Arizona State did hire Todd Graham from Pitt but they were a member of the former Big East at the time. Arizona, Ohio State, and Washington State turned to names that had been out of college football for at least a year….Rich Rodriguez, Urban Meyer, and Mike Leach…and two of them had been fired from their previous positions.

In fact, if you go back in time, trying to find names of coaches that left one Big Five school for another Big Five school is exceedingly rare. Ironically enough, you have to go back to USC's hiring of Kiffin in 2010 to find another example. In fact, since 2008, Auburn hired Gene Chizik from Iowa State and Ole Miss hired Arkansas' Houston Nutt in 2008 in addition to the two we previously mentioned.

That's it: just four coaches in roughly a six year period. That's not even one per year and most of the moves can be rationalized in various ways -- Bielema got more money, Kiffin had previously coached at USC and ditto for Chizik at Auburn, and Nutt and Arkansas had grown weary of each other despite his success there. Even then, Nutt went to another SEC West program. Only Bielema made a cross country move to a program in which he had no ties whatsoever.

In addition, think of how many times you've heard of a school that sets its sights on another Big Five head coach? You can't blame schools for aiming high (there were similar rumors concerning A&M and Georgia head coach Mark Richt when Sumlin was hired) but most of the time these overtures never come to fruition. Remember that it takes two entities to fill a job opening…a vacancy and an applicant…and applicants usually look for new jobs for the same reasons as the rest of us…more money, better location, more responsibility/power.

However, once a coach has invested himself in a Big Five program, he's making more money than he's ever made before. His family becomes integrated into the community which means that he's living as much of a normal life as he's ever going to since many of them move around so often. Finally, no coach ever believes that he has everything that he needs in terms of facilities, academic support, assistant salaries, etc. Many coaches allow their names to get out in order for bargaining power for salary and control so that they can get their current employer to meet their demands. With the new round of TV contracts, most Big Five schools can pay whatever their head coach demands. Once that occurs, they withdraw their names and everything returns to normal.

In addition, at the Big Five level, there's only so many head coaching positions open and even fewer qualified people to fill them. Athletic directors and donors understand this and if they're become accustomed to the coach's personality, the way he runs the program, and the school is successful, they're likely to meet most of the demands that the coach has. For this reason, most coaches stay at their program and force schools even with a legacy of success and high expectations to go outside the Big Five level to find a new coach (five of them in all in 2013) or wind up hiring coordinators at Big Five schools. Even successful schools like Florida and Notre Dame in recent years couldn't entice Big Five coaches to make essentially what could be considered lateral moves and Ohio State hired a coach who had been out of football for a year.

Sumlin has basically coached in the southwest region for a decade and has known people at A&M for about the same length of time. He's been successful on the field and in recruiting. He has already received one raise and A&M can afford to pay him whatever he wants, especially when the new SEC Network and its monies kick in for the 2014 season.

Even if USC makes a run at him, the odds are extremely low that Sumlin or any other Big Five coach with no connections to the West Coast would leave their current position. Remember that although Pete Carroll was extraordinarily successful at USC, he wound up being the Trojans' choice only after several other coaches rejected their overtures. In addition, after Carroll left in 2010, USC reportedly approached Oregon State head coach Mike Riley amongst others and Riley said no. At the time, USC was staring into the abyss of a NCAA investigation but it's interesting that the Trojans couldn't even lure a coach from within their own conference which again indicates that once a coach becomes financially and professionally secure at a program, it's hard to pry them away.

If there's a Big Five coach to be had at USC, it's probably someone like James Franklin at Vanderbilt who coaches at a program lacking the resources available to the big boys of the SEC. But even then, outside of Sumlin and Franklin, most of the names you hear associated with the job at the college level are outside of the Big Five (Tim DeRuyter, Chris Petersen), are in the pros (Jack Del Rio), or are in the broadcast booth (Jon Gruden).

Overall, it's hard to see USC being able to lure Sumlin or any other Big Five head coach away, mainly because the money is relatively equal from school to school at that level. It then boils down to the individual personality of the coach and his relationship with his current program but even coaches who don't get along with their schools find other reasons to stay once the money is there, especially if it's a cross country move into a region in which they have no recruiting ties. At the end of the day, A&M will do what so many other Big Five programs have done, up the ante more than enough to keep Sumlin, and USC will be forced to look at other options probably outside of the Big Five level.


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