Six! More! Years!

by by Malcolm Burnley

On Selection Sunday, March 14, bubbles will burst across the college basketball scene as unworthy teams fail to qualify and unworthy coaches are removed. Sayonara, Ernie Kent (Oregon); Pension plan for you, Norm Roberts (St. John’s); and oh-wait-you’re-already-fired, Jerry Wainwright (Depaul).
Today, the fan and the voter relish turnover by treating invincibility as relic, with both Washington officials and collegiate coaches. Fired coaches, booted incumbents, airhead pundits; we wouldn’t have it any other way.
In the past, Washington officials and college coaches were immovable pillars of their respective establishments. Bear Bryant coached football at the University of Alabama for 24 seasons before retiring in 1982. Dean Smith spent 36 years at Chapel Hill with UNC basketball. Sam Rayburn served 48 years in the House as a Texas representative. Mississippi’s Strom Thurmond, despite his outdated social politics, served ‘til death. All were mainstays of their communities, granted seemingly permanent tenure. Today, political and coaching positions are heavily scrutinized in the media and, thus, subject to fluctuating public opinion.
In the past twelve months the likes of Senators Chris Dodd (D-CT), Kit Bond (R-MO), and Byron Dorgan (D-ND) ended their decade(s)-long careers, as did Bobby Bowden (Florida St. Football), the second winningest coach in 31 years in Tallahassee. More Doppelgangers: Louisville Basketball Head Coach Rick Pitino and former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) have seen scandal undermine their squeaky-clean careers. Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass) and Lane Kiffin (USC football) are the maverick heartthrobs, newcomers who demand attention for their unpredictability.
Disgruntled citizens wish they could invoke sports in firing representatives, as though ousting an underperforming 3-27 head coach, and guaranteed terms prevent this. Collegiate coaching transitions are much more volatile, with squabbles breaking out over contract money, unfulfilled promises, or unfair expectations. For coaches, change is smoother since terms are inherently temporary. But why couldn’t electoral systems work for sports?
The current college coaching system isn’t broken, but six-year term limits would cure one of its flaws: uneven tenures. For example, hoops coach Billy Gillespie got only two years at Kentucky Basketball between Tubby Smith (decade tenure) and John Calipari (currently under eight year contract, poised for extension).
If there’d been consistent six-year coaching terms instead of arbitrary contracts, think how much grief Notre Dame Football would’ve been spared. Over the past decade, the prestigious program has been ripped for its handling of two coaches, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis. Willingham, the university’s first black head football coach, was fired in 2004 after an overall record of 21-16 in just three seasons. Controversy surrounded the termination, given that Willingham had a six-year contract, constructed a team of promising underclassmen, and maintained a scandal-free reign. Many believe that Notre Dame fired Willingham prematurely, in hopes of luring Urban Meyer from the University of Utah, who instead chose the University of Florida and won two national championships there. Notre Dame settled for Charlie Weis instead, the offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots. In his first season, the team compiled a 10-3 record, identical to Willingham’s inaugural run. Weis was rewarded with a ten-year contract extension, unlike Willingham, which led to further scrutiny. After five years with a lower winning percentage than Willingham (35-27 record), the school bought out Weis for an estimated ten million dollars.
Notre Dame football is a microcosm of the system’s inefficiency. Willingham deserved more time, and Weis single-handedly spiked tuition. The combined eight years hurt the players, the institution, and the fans. Players struggled with systemic change, a dramatic mid-career shift for most. Once-promising recruits had underwhelming careers due to transitional inconsistency.
Guaranteed term limits would eliminate impulsive coaching changes. It would conserve money, resources, and worry for all athletic programs. Calmer climates would ensue, given that firing storms could only surface every six years, and fan bases would unify. Term limits would funnel enthusiasm into positive encouragement of programs, minimizing the energy expended in crying for another coach.
Fixed term limits are better suited for evaluation of college coaches than elected officials. Politicians can disguise their records by hiding behind party decisions or making excuses over Washington gridlock.
Six years is not always equal in opportunity. Chairmanship on the Ways and Means Committee may hold more power than a rookie representative. However, everyone plays roughly the same amount of games in sports. Coaching term limits would offer level effective analysis. This would be an especially effective tool for comparing successors to predecessors in collegiate sports, to gauge the success of turnover. Willingham to Weis would have happened with careful consideration of a completed six years.
An altered system could also reverse recruiting corruption. When coaches are fired, players’ commitments to schools are relinquished, allowing them to sign wherever they would like; recruiting scandals are commonplace given the hyper-fluctuating pool of players.
Coaching term limits is a hopeful thought experiment, but the hypothesis will go untested. ESPN ratings are largely driven by non-stop sports speculation, and the potential lost revenue makes term-limits implausible in college sports. It’s also more fun to dream of the infinite possibilities of the college coaching carousel. These fantasies keep our attention constantly attuned, without six years of delay. Ultimately, sports is spectacle. Term limits would be a beneficial overhaul to collegiate coaching, but more stability is not more entertainment. We love sports precisely because of the unpredictability.