Canzano: No business... like college football coaching business
College fans are left feeling flat.
I’ve been a little worried about my pal Dave “Softy” Mahler. The University of Washington fan base got the business-side of the college football stick when Kalen DeBoer bolted for Alabama on Friday.
DeBoer is going to the SEC, where he’ll be one of the highest-paid coaches in the country and assume the task of following Nick Saban’s act.
Die-hard fans endure the worst parts of a move like that. There’s no raise for them. No introductory news conference. No team meeting. Husky fans who were sky-high, watching their team play Michigan for the national championship on Monday, found themselves sifting through the wreckage on Friday.
“Never seen or felt anything like it,” Softy told me.
Softy’s parents went to school at UW. His mom worked on campus. He fell in love with Husky football as a kid watching Steve Pelluer and Hugh Millen play. And now, at 50, he hosts a drive-time radio show on KJR, UW’s flagship radio station.
There isn’t a bigger Husky honk around.
His show started on Friday with a rant:
“I feel like I’ve had something stolen from me that I have been waiting for 20 years to experience and now, it’s gone. And I don’t know when I’m going to find a way to get it back. I gotta be honest with you — I have no desire to be here right now. I have no desire to talk to anybody. All I want to do is sit in a frickin’ corner and cry. That’s all I wanna do.”
Oregon State fans have been through the coaching wringer themselves. They had Jonathan Smith — that is — until they didn’t. He slipped out of town a day after the season ended and took the job at Michigan State. Smith didn’t just ditch his alma mater, he dumped his team-issued OSU apparel at Goodwill on the way out of town.
This isn’t new. Chip Kelly fled Eugene for the NFL once upon a time. Mike Leach traded Pullman, Wash. for Starkville, Miss. Then came the saga of Willie Taggart at UO. In a 12-month period that spanned from late December 2016 to December 2017, Taggart held the job of the head football coach at South Florida, Oregon and Florida State. His successor at UO, Mario Cristobal, lasted three seasons before he fled to the University of Miami.
DeBoer was scheduled to do an 8 a.m. interview on KJR on Friday. The station promoted it heavily. Softy, and droves of other Husky fans, hoped the coach would show up, and profess his desire to build something lasting in Seattle. They were hoping the coach would announce he’d signed an extension. But at 10:30 p.m. on the eve of the interview, DeBoer canceled, Softy said. And with that, didn’t everyone sort of know?
Or already gone?
The true indicator probably came months earlier, halfway through the regular season when DeBoer hired Jimmy Sexton as his agent. Sexton is the co-head of the Creative Arts Agency’s football division. He’s one of the most influential people in sports. He not only has DeBoer as a client, Sexton represents Oregon’s Dan Lanning, Georgia’s Kirby Smart, Texas’ Steve Sarkisian, Florida State’s Mike Norvell, and Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, among dozens of others.
Think carefully about what happened this week. Saban, also repped by Sexton, announced his retirement on Wednesday. In the next 12 hours, Lanning used the Alabama opening to gain leverage at UO. Then, Sarkisian’s name surfaced as a possible candidate, leading to a four-year contract extension at Texas. And Norvell’s name also surfaced as a replacement, right up until he got an eight-year extension at FSU. His salary is now north of $10 million a year.
DeBoer was just the next chess piece.
Sexton performed methodically and patiently. He did his job well, give him credit. By Friday, late morning, the final piece was in place. He ushered the beloved Washington coach to Tuscaloosa, where DeBoer will follow a coaching legend on stage and try not to sound like Frank Sinatra Jr.
DeBoer’s buyout at UW?
A cool $12 million.
Said Softy: “Buyouts mean zilch now.”
He’s right. Money isn’t a deterrent. The football programs will just make more of it. Maybe coaches should have to lose a finger if they don’t fulfill a contract. Although, I doubt it would give most of them a second thought. It would just be trickier to signal in plays after a few career moves.
Smith, at Oregon State, didn’t have Sexton as his agent. But there’s some intrigue on that front as well. Smith used to be a Sexton client. The agent negotiated the coach’s first deal at Oregon State, in fact. But Smith left to go with Clint Dowdle, who worked as an agent under Sexton at CAA before going out on his own.
My first thought when I heard DeBoer was going to Alabama related to Smith. He’d have been perfect for Washington. A seamless fit. But amid all the uncertainty of the “Pac-2” and Oregon State’s plight, Smith grabbed the first decent job offer, packed his bags and left Corvallis. It was an “any port in a storm” mentality, and it looks regrettable today. Because I have to think Smith would have preferred the UW job.
Smith’s buyout at Michigan State: $7 million.
Just in case you’re wondering.
Dowdle didn’t have Saban as a client. He wouldn’t have known Alabama was going to open, and couldn’t have orchestrated the ballet that ended with DeBoer performing a grande jeté on his way into the SEC. Did DeBoer know months ago that he was gone? Is that why he hired Jimmy Sexton? Fair questions. While we wait, I’m left thinking that Sexton has turned major college football into his personal chess board.
Also, I’m left thinking about the emotions of die-hard fans.
Washington will hire a new coach. It will try to raise more NIL funds, retain talent, and build a roster for next season. UW is joining the Big Ten, after all. But the divot in the hearts of Husky fans may never be replaced.
They were — this close — to a national championship. It was a big development for a team playing in the Pacific Time Zone. If Washington could win, it would mark a stark deviation from the tired pattern of SEC and Big Ten teams that have dominated the playoff over the years.
Remember when Lucy pulled the football as Charlie Brown ran up and tried to kick it over the years? Charlie was a sucker. But it felt like he was finally going to make contact and keep his feet. It was a breakthrough moment. Husky fans were delighted. Then, Michigan kicked Washington’s teeth in for four quarters and Alabama poached their coach.
I saw Softy earlier in the week in Houston. He showed up to NRG Stadium at noon local time — six and a half hours before kickoff. He did a pre-game show on radio. Then, bounced around the field before the College Football Playoff title game, soaking up the scene. It was everything a sports fan could dream about.
Days later, Softy didn’t even feel like talking.
No other way to describe it.
But Softy tried anyway on Friday when he said on air: “Today absolutely sucks.”
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