MORGANTOWN — Not often these days do we get a completely unexpected headline. There are leaks, whispers and hints that serve to splinter news before it breaks, and we’re ordinarily smart enough as fans and followers of our games and teams to see many things coming.
Wednesday delivered a rare exception. Bob Stoops retired at Oklahoma. This came so quietly and so significantly from out of nowhere that there was an immediate and instinctual response. What’s wrong? Is he healthy or is there an issue? Is he clean or is there a scandal?
It’s understandable. College football features forces that can push adults to take chances with their bodies or with the rules. What we’ve been assured is the man and his program are both in fine shape. But what we’ve learned is Stoops wanted to ensure the same is true for both in the years to come.
That’s more important. It’s noble, but it’s also noteworthy because of something we cannot ignore. Bob Stoops is young.
He’s 56. He’s younger than Marshall’s Doc Holliday, TCU’s Gary Patterson, Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio and Alabama’s Nick Saban. Before Wednesday, we probably believed each was willing and able to coach many more seasons. Saban, legendarily committed to his job and the process, turned 56 in his first season with the Crimson Tide. That was 10 years ago.
But here are the numbers to consider. Stoops was Oklahoma’s head coach for 18 seasons, and he was a college coach for 32 years. Either measure is a long, long time in a sport that’s grown and developed many times over in both complexity and the consumption of time since Stoops broke in on the Iowa staff in 1985 and since he took over the Sooners in 1999.
Quite simply, all the physical, mental and emotional demands ages younger and older men at an accelerated rate. They tell themselves they’re paid splendidly to exert themselves. You have a similar thought when you learn how big those paychecks really are. But the mind and body do not deal in currency. They cope with stress. They cave to pressure. They’re vulnerable to fatigue.
It’s not fair to say it’s a young man’s business, but there’s a trend to note.
Seventeen head coaches were hired before or during of the 2015 season. The average age of the new hire at the start of the season was 47.8 years old, and two of the 17 were 40 or younger. A year later, there were 28 hirings. The average age was 44.2 and 12 of the hires were 40 or younger. A year after that, 22 coaches were hired. The average age was 45.3 years — including two of the three oldest hires the past three years — and six were 40 or younger.
Head coaches are getting younger. Of the 67 hires, seven were 56 or older, and there’s an explanation for all of them.
Mark Richt won a lot at Georgia before he was hired at his alma mater, Miami, at age 56 last year. Willie Fritz was a winner at the junior college, FCS and FBS levels before he was hired at 56 by Tulane last year. Charlie Strong was 56 when he was hired at USF this offseason after leading Louisville and Texas in different directions.
Randy Edsall is 58, and he’s returning to UConn. Lovie Smith was 58 when he was hired by Illinois last season, and he was an NFL coach with Tampa Bay and Chicago before that. Smith succeeded Bill Cubit, who was 61 when he was named interim coach in August 2015 and promoted to full-time coach three months later. Butch Davis was a big name at Miami, in the NFL and at UNC, and FIU acquired all of that when it hired the 65-year-old this offseason.
We’re seeing the NCAA pay more attention to the welfare of student-athletes and monitoring the time they devote to the sport. It’s times like these and stories like this one that make you wonder about similarly safeguarding the coaches.
Maybe it’s already happening, and not because of hiring habits. College staffs are getting a 10th full-time assistant, and the other nine and their boss won’t be spread quite as thinly in the office, on the field or in recruiting. Long before this, schools were investing in quality control coaches and analysts, and a major reason West Virginia is using analysts now is to let them handle advanced film study and scouting reports so the coaching staff gets a break, never mind a head start, with preparations.
One positive of the early signing period is how it should lighten the recruiting workload between the end of the regular season and national signing day. In the prior setup, coaches spent that time taking trips to keep committed players committed and to convince uncommitted players to join the recruiting class. Allowing players to sign earlier gives coaches fewer trips.
Three years ago, the NCAA slipped a dead period into the summer recruiting calendar “so coaches would go on vacation,” Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen said at the time. He then, independent of any NCAA urging, added two open weeks for his staff at the end of July. “I want guys to take vacation so by the time Aug. 1 rolls around they’re fresh and energized and ready to go,” he said.
There aren’t may more ways to legislate relaxation or relief, and coaches are never going to admit they want or need a break. Ultimately, it’s upon them to take care of themselves, and that might include reaching their end with the clarity and conviction of Stoops.