Thursday, June 8, 2017

Exit strategy

Bob Stoops walked away on his own hook, healthy, still young, with a legacy that rings to the touch at a school whose football history rings to the touch.

Thad Matta was fired, abruptly and oddly, at a school whose basketball legacy also rings to the touch, and to which Matta added very few discordant notes.

Two coaching icons, two very different final acts. And yet in their way they both speak volumes about high-dollar college athletics and the forces that rule them here in the second decade of the 21st century.

That college football and basketball on the Power 5 level operate independently of  the academic institutions they allegedly represent is below-the-fold news now, a fact of nature as irrefutable as gravity or the orientation of the morning sun. They are purely corporate entities, their construct as industrial as an auto plant except for the fiction that their workforce is not really a workforce. It is, and the demands on the coaches who oversee it are indistinguishable from the demands placed on the CEO of General Motors: Generate revenue or else.

And so Matta, the winningest basketball coach in school history, is out at Ohio State. His firing this week was bizarre for its timing and remarkable for its clumsiness; athletic director Gene Smith botched this as badly as you can botch a thing. After telling Matta he was good to go in March, he suddenly decided in June that Matta had to go after two more players bailed on the program.

They weren't the first to leave or de-commit on Matta recently. Yet three months ago this apparently wasn't an issue, nor was the fact Ohio State had just had a rare losing season under Matta. But now, at the worst possible time to do so, Smith changed his mind.

Part of this might have had to do with Matta's health issues, a bad back and a nerve issue with one of his feet -- stark evidence at how physically ruinous are the day-in, day-out demands on a Power 5 head coach. But part of it, clearly, was the perception that the Ohio State program was beginning to fray around the edges.

A fraying program, eventually, is a revenue-losing program. And so out Matta went.

And Stoops?

His exit was dramatically different, and yet it also illustrated the priorities that dictate corporate college athletics. At 56, Stoops got out before the mental and physical toll caught up with him, and also because his successor, 33-year-old offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, was well in place. Whether he also decided, with the future of the program secure, to jump before he was pushed is rank conjecture. But no one who's been around the culture as long as Stoops has could fail to understand how quickly precarious a coach's circumstance can get -- even the winningest football coach in the history of a school with Oklahoma's rich football tradition.

And so if that was a consideration, it's understandable. Certainly it is for me. In an admittedly much smaller universe, I left daily sportswriting when I was 59 years old. I'd been doing it for 38 years, and mainly I just decided it was time to do something different. But part of me also understood I was working in a struggling profession that increasingly was eating its most experienced people.  In short, I was as expendable as I'd ever been.

And so, like Stoops, I jumped before I was pushed. I didn't consciously think of it that way at the time. The notion that's what I accidentally might have done came later.

In any case, the point pertains: In corporate college athletics, you're as valuable as your last win.

Or your last recruiting class. Or the last tallying of gate receipts. Or the last alumni phone call to the AD. And so on, and so on.

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