Last Sunday afternoon, reports began to circulate that Georgia Tech was on the verge of hiring Tulane head coach Willie Fritz. But there was one problem: By winning at Cincinnati the day before, Tulane had reached the American Athletic Conference championship game, setting up an opportunity this weekend to play for a Cotton Bowl bid.
Because of the urgency to have a new coach in place to salvage a recruiting class and theoretically prevent a mass exodus of current players into the transfer portal, Georgia Tech needed an answer right away. The 62-year old Fritz, who has slowly and steadily built Tulane over the last seven years, rightly wanted a chance to coach his players in the program’s biggest game in a quarter century without compromising their chances of winning.
So when the report linking Fritz to Georgia Tech leaked, he walked away from the deal. Tulane kept its coach, and Georgia Tech elevated interim coach Brent Key to the full-time position on Tuesday.
“Fortunately enough for us, when it was ‘we’ve got to have you now,’ our coach essentially said the kids in this game are more important,” Tulane athletics director Troy Dannen told USA TODAY Sports. “And he left a lot of money on the table for himself, but I’ve told people here, Willie’s decision was born out of character and integrity. I’m not trying to blast others, but not everyone would make the decision Willie made.”
Though it’s a heartwarming story for Tulane, it’s also a potential preview of how complicated the coaching carousel might get when the College Football Playoff expands to 12 teams in 2024, a move that was made official on Thursday.
With as many as 18 or 20 teams alive on the final weekend — the winner of Tulane-UCF would be in the field under a 12-team format — it’s going to be almost impossible to separate potential coaching moves from teams fighting for playoff bids.
And while it’s become acceptable in recent years for head coaches and assistants on non-playoff teams to take jobs before bowl games, there are undoubtedly going to be situations now where schools and coaches are going to have to make difficult choices without knowing how long they’ll be tied up in a playoff that will last from the third week of December until later in January.
With so much emphasis on hiring new coaches as soon as possible to ward off roster implosion, it could end up becoming one big mess.
“There’s a perceived urgency of getting a new coach in front of the players before the transfer portal opens even though last year 15 percent of the scholarship roster went into the portal anyway,” Dannen said. “It feels like there’s a little bit of a faux panic.”
The panic might be fake, but the consequences are real.
Just a few years ago, the bulk of the coaching moves played out following the conference championship games. The National Football Foundation’s annual Hall of Fame Induction dinner, which took place in the second week of December, was a natural place for job interviews and decisions.
But now, the coaching carousel is mostly over by the time college athletics officials gather for that event.
A year ago, USC hired Lincoln Riley the day after the final game of the regular season. Brian Kelly bolted from Notre Dame to LSU one day after that, even though the Irish were ranked No. 6 and had a legitimate chance to make the four-team Playoff.
Conversely, Luke Fickell chose to pass on a chance to replace Kelly at Notre Dame because his Cincinnati team was in the drivers' seat for a Playoff bid. Notre Dame, which wasn’t interested in waiting around for Fickell's season to end, quickly promoted defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman.
This year, the situation was reversed. By losing to Tulane last Saturday, Fickell’s Cincinnati team didn't make the AAC title game. He took the Wisconsin job the next day, suggesting Fickell and his agents had been in conversations for awhile. But it’s natural to wonder, had the result of that game been different, would Wisconsin have been forced to move onto another candidate while Georgia Tech would have been introducing Fritz as its coach this week?
That doesn't seem like a healthy system for job movement, and as usual, the players are the ones who pay the price.
Over the last two weeks of the regular season, neither Ole Miss’ Lane Kiffin nor Liberty’s Hugh Freeze were willing to shoot down rumors that they were involved in the search at Auburn, which ended with Freeze’s hire Monday. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that both of their teams cratered at the end of the season.
It would have been extremely unfair to Tulane had they been in that position this week, with Fritz trying to string along Georgia Tech while their courtship was public knowledge.
But it seems inevitable that when the Playoff expands to 12 teams, there will be situations every year where coaches are being forced to make life-changing decisions while also trying to advance in the postseason.
No other sport tolerates this. In the pros, contracts are actually enforced. The Orlando Magic, for example, can’t just try to go throw a lot of money at Erik Spoelstra from the Miami Heat whenever they want. Assistant coaches are a different story, which often happens in the NFL, but they are allowed to finish their previous jobs before making the move.
In college basketball, deals will often get done behind the scenes and are kept secret until the departing coach’s team is knocked out of the NCAA Tournament. In the vast majority of cases, there isn’t the same level of urgency to introduce the new coach right away. In football, the transfer portal component has made it so that these deals are often contingent on being available immediately.
“If schools are going to invest millions of dollars, they want you on the job full time the day they start investing those millions of dollars,” Dannen said. “That’s justifiable.”
But it is disruptive and will be moreso as the Playoff expands. Bowl games are now viewed by a lot of schools as exhibitions, so it’s not a big deal if a coach leaves in December. But that simply can’t be the case going forward.
If the 12-team format was in place last year, Notre Dame would have been guaranteed to host a first-round Playoff game. Could Kelly have really taken the LSU job under those circumstances? Given that he actually did take it before knowing whether his team would be in, perhaps. And it would have been a complete farce.
There doesn’t seem to be much that can be done about it now, however. Schools will get pushback from agents if they try to include language that penalizes coaches financially for making moves before or during the postseason. And the transfer portal window, which opens for players on Monday, is unlikely to change -- and Dannen doesn’t believe that it should.
“It’s unfathomable that the student-athlete would be restricted from doing the same thing schools are asking other coaches to do,” Dannen said. “So the transfer rule is right.”
For Tulane, all’s well that ends well this time. The Green Wave kept its coach, minimized the distractions and will play for a historic achievement on Saturday. But if the way it transpired is any preview of the future, coaching changes will be even messier and more uncomfortable when more playoff bids are thrown into the mix.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coaching carousel could get messy in the College Football Playoff era