Law of Diminishing Returns

When do football coaches lose their edge?


by Tony Basilo

Perspective seems to be the toughest thing for sports fans to grasp. East Tennesseans are no different. We want to see Tennessee win, and now, and all the time. Other than that, we're reasonable people. With Phillip Fulmer's tenure winding up, or down, depending on your perspective, it's time to look at his time at Tennessee outside of the vacuum of myopia that plagues us all.

I came across a list on CBS projecting coaches on hot seats entering the upcoming '07 season in Division 1-A football. For the record, Phillip Fulmer received a grade of 2-2.5, which denoted a â“safe or solid position.â” What I chose to focus on regarding the list was the tenure length of coaches regarding their success. Put simply, since coaches like to be thought of as million dollar commodities when it comes time to get paid, after year nine in a head coach's tenure, I'm selling.

Fulmer is getting reading to serve his 15th year as UT's head coach. The longer his tenure goes, the further he gets away from the glory days of the mid-'90s. Like most coaches around the country, he rode the seven- to eight-year curve to Hall of Fame status only to personify diminishing returns. It would be easy to beat up on him for this and blame his coaching hires, decisions et al. Truth is, this is the world he lives in. Hot today and gone tomorrow!

When Steve Spurrier shockingly left Florida for an ill-fated NFL money grab, he did so saying that 10 years at any institution for a major college coach was long enough. Looking back while looking ahead, it seems he's absolutely right! Spurrier's tenure at Florida mirrors Fulmer's so much that it's scary. The Saint reached his peak winning a National Championship in 1996, his seventh full season in Gainesville. From that point on, the once invincible Gators went from great to very good to pretty good. When Tennessee whipped them in December of '01 on their home field, Spurrier knew what was coming. It was time to get out. Tennessee won its National Championship in '98, Fulmer's sixth year. From there the Vols slowly slipped from elite to poor to their current state of upper level mediocrity. After year six of Fulmer's reign, the Vols failed to capitalize in '99 and '01. By '02, Fulmer hit year 10, wherein his program, expected to replace Spurrier-less Florida, became slightly better than average. Fulmer could've followed Spurrier's advice, but he's not alone.

Currently there are 17 coaches in major college football who (when counting '07) will have served 10 years at a particular division 1A school. Fulmer aside, there are seven coaches serving decade-plus long stints at 66 BCS Conference institutions: Houston Nutt/Arkansas (10 years), Bobby Bowden/Florida State (32 years), Lloyd Carr/Michigan (13 years), Mike Bellotti/Oregon (13 years), Joe Paterno/Penn State (42 years), Joe Tiller/Purdue (11 years), Mack Brown/Texas (10 years) and Frank Beamer/Virginia Tech (23 years).

  With the exception of Mack Brown, not one coach above has a program anywhere near where it was in his first 10 years at that school. It's not even close! You could argue for Beamer, but he's an aberration in that like Bowden and Paterno, he put his school on the football map. Not so with the rest of the guys. They are cogs.

Furthermore, the guys getting ready to join that illustrious list of the hanger-on head coaches are heading for Fulmerville. Bob Stoops at Oklahoma will coach year nine at Oklahoma. Like Fulmer and Spurrier, he did his best work from year five through eight. Likewise for West Virginia's Rich Rodriquez, who is riding the success-cycle in his seventh year. When Steve Slaten and Pat White depart, reality will set in. Same for Jim Grobe, who celebrates his seventh anniversary at Wake Forest. Will the Deacons ever get back to the BCS? I doubt it. The following are the major college coaches with tenures of 7-9 years I'd put on the â“sell nowâ” list:   Mike Leach/Texas Tech (seven years), Tommy Tuberville/Auburn (nine years), Jeff Tedford/California (six years), Mark Richt/Georgia (seven years), Kirk Ferentz/Iowa (nine years), Ralph Friedgen/Maryland (seven years), Gary Pinkel/Missouri (seven years), Mike Reilly/Oregon State (seven years) and Al Groh/Virginia (seven years).

The list of college coaches that I'm buying in that seven to 10 year window is pretty miniscule: Jim Tressel/Ohio State (seven years) and Pete Carroll/Southern California (seven years).

Bottom line: In an era in which every guy mentioned above makes anywhere from $1.5 to $4 million dollars, the days of the Bowdens, Paternos, Beamers and to some extent even the Fulmers are drawing to a close. The demands, the pressures, the money, the power and the position that is head coach at Football U poses a daunting, draining gauntlet that calls for supreme sacrifice of body, mind, family and in some cases humanity. Spurrier was rightâ"10 years at any one institution is long enough. After this, perspective tells us it's diminishing returns.

Tune in and talk sports with Tony Basilio weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio WVLZ 1180 AM.   Visit for more information.


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