Column: Stoops firing should make coaches nervous

October 12, 2011 - 6:10 PM
Arizona Stoops Fired Football

In this July 26, 2011 photo, Arizona coach Mike Stoops, with quarterback Nick Foles in the background, talks to reporters at the Pac-12 football media day in Los Angeles. Stoops has been fired halfway through his eighth season at Arizona, athletic director Greg Byrne announced Monday, Oct. 10, 2011. Stoops' dismissal came two days after the Wildcats lost their fifth straight game, 37-27, at previously winless Oregon State. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

There wasn't any real need for it, no matter how much Arizona was embarrassed by losing to woeful Oregon State.

The Wildcats weren't going to be in the Rose Bowl, or any other bowl. The season was already lost when university officials decided that head coach Mike Stoops had to go.

Besides, who fires college coaches in the middle of the season, before first quarter grades are even in?

But fire him Arizona did, declaring the Stoops era over in Tucson after 10 straight losses to FBS schools.

It was all done in a very civilized manner, of course. Statements issued by both sides, platitudes flying everywhere. Just to keep everyone happy, there was even a special parting gift of $1.4 million.

The money wasn't a problem, though it never seems to be in big-time college athletics. Arizona will soon be collecting another $15 million or so a year under a new Pac-12 Conference television deal, giving it plenty of money to pay off Stoops and enough for a lucrative contract for the man who will take his place.

"If you're going to play in the big leagues, you have to do what you have to do," university President Eugene Sander said.

That should make a lot of would-be coaches happy. New television deals and conference realignments across the country mean millions more will flow into those football programs, and some of the dough will go to boosting coaching salaries beyond even their current astronomical levels.

It should also make them very nervous — that other schools may follow Arizona's lead and not think twice about canning a coach in midseason rather than waiting until the end of it, when they're usually fired.

"People criticize coaches for their lack of loyalty or whatever, but look at what's happens to him," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "Loyalty goes both ways you know."

Not anymore it doesn't. Sure, every game was always important in a sport where only a dozen or so are played each season. But now there's a chance every game could be a coach's last.

That's the price you pay in the big leagues. Coaches know that if they don't get results, management will bring in someone else who can.

It was never supposed to be this way in college athletics, where student-athletes toil for books and board while everyone around them seems to be getting rich. Back in the day when the captain of the team was named Biff, everyone wore letter sweaters and the coach helped with the team laundry, loyalty really was a two-say street.

Now coaches recruit more players than they will need, and don't think twice about sending them packing if they don't fit in. Always a free minor-league training ground for the NFL, college football looks more professional every day.

Except, of course, the players don't get paid.

Coaches do, though. Win a national title and you're set for life, as Auburn's Gene Chizik discovered when he signed a new deal during the offseason that could be worth up to $4.5 million a year. That put Chizik in the upper stratosphere of coaches, along with the likes of Mack Brown of Texas ($5 million a year) and Nick Saban of Alabama ($4.7 million).

The new coach at Arizona probably won't get that much, but it's safe TV money will help get him something north of $3 million with some incentives. That might prove attractive to someone like Chris Petersen, who now labors for $1.5 million a year at Boise State, just above the $1.24 million the NCAA said was the median pay for FBS head coaches in 2009.

Whoever is hired will head to Arizona knowing that the window of opportunity for winning will narrow even more with a big salary. By firing Stoops now — even after a 1-5 start — Arizona made it clear that the rules have changed when it comes to winning.

That's probably what promoted Bob Stoops — the Oklahoma coach who happens to be Mike's brother — to warn coaches to be careful about the job they choose "or you'll end up like my brother."

Not that Mike Stoops will be applying for food stamps anytime soon. His contract not only paid him handsomely, but he's leaving with another $1.4 million to tide him over until he gets his next job.

That could come at Oklahoma, where he coached with his brother before getting the head job at Arizona. Bob Stoops, whose team is undefeated and ranked No. 3 in the country, said earlier this week that just might happen.

"Sure. I mean, if I've got enough money to," Brother Bob said.

Consider it a done deal. Because, among the elite in college football these days, money is never a problem.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg