April 20, 2024

Why trend of college football coaches bolting to NFL, taking lesser job titles has no end in sight


At the end of his sixth season as a head coach, Mike Locksley had dutifully led Maryland to a third consecutive bowl game. His quarterback, Taulia Tagovailoa, had become the Big Ten’s all-time passing leader. The last time the Terrapins had won more Big Ten games in a season was 2010.

Locksley had delivered on some level making Maryland relevant again, and yet, he questioned whether he could continue coaching.

“I’ve been doing this 33, 34 years, and I’m like, ‘I don’t know if I have the energy for this,'” he told CBS Sports. “… I felt burned out.”

Locksley, 54, is in the prime of his coaching career, yet the conclusion he nearly reached this offseason is a sentiment shared by a growing number of FBS coaches.

Evidence came in droves this offseason amid the latest turn of the coaching carousel. Among the 31 FBS head coaching changes this offseason, some of the moves are unprecedented, and really, hard to explain.

Coaches leave for the NFL. Head coaches leave for better college head coaching opportunities. They do not leave at this rate, in this fashion across a single offseason.

Coaches are more frequently making lateral moves and taking lesser job titles, sometimes leaving millions of dollars on the table either to escape college football or take less-stressful roles.

“The most difficult job in all team sports is being head football coach at a major university,” long-time agent Lee Steinberg told CBS Sports. “Think about how they have to recruit 17-year-old talent, project where they’re going to be. There is NIL to deal with. … You have to deal with administration, alums, the press. There are whole levels of complication a pro coach doesn’t have to deal with.”

That only begins to explain how the job has changed three years into NIL and six years into the transfer portal. Coaching college football has become like herding cats, only the cats have marketing agents and are demanding both money and playing time.

Viewed individually, these particular moves certainly came as surprises. Viewed together, they have aligned as a trend:

  • Jeff Hafley left a head coaching job at Boston College — with three years left on his contract — to become an NFL offensive coordinator with the Green Bay Packers.
  • Chip Kelly left one Big Ten job for another. The surprise being he gave up a head coaching job at UCLA to become an offensive coordinator at new conference rival Ohio State. Kelly was nine months removed from having his contract extended at UCLA.
  • Two head coaches at the Group of Five level left to become coordinators at Alabama — Kane Wommack (South Alabama) and Maurice Linguist (Buffalo).
  • Another Group of Five head coach, Shawn Elliott of Georgia State, left to become mostly a position coach at South Carolina.

And then there’s Jerry Kill, who gave up his head coaching job at New Mexico State after a 10-win season to become a consultant at Vanderbilt.

“I like country music and I don’t have to raise NIL money,” Kill said of life in Nashville after almost 40 years in the profession. “I’m living the dream, really.”

College football’s potential coaching crisis

While some like Arizona State’s Kenny Dillingham remain enthusiastic about their profession, it’s clear that being an FBS coach is becoming less desirable by the year. This new reality is layered and complicated.

Coaches are being asked to assemble rosters amid uncertainties surrounding NIL and the NCAA’s regulation of it. They are tasked with re-recruiting their existing rosters after — and sometimes during — each season. This while they simultaneously have to scour the transfer portal and recruit incoming freshmen with the early signing period coming at the same time most teams have to prepare for either bowl games or the College Football Playoff.

Coaches are already dreading having to roster wrangle all over again during the second transfer window (April 15-30). That will come amid the end of spring practice with position battles raging. The full impact of the new portal windows has yet to be felt. The NCAA Council shortened those windows only 4 ½ months ago.

“You would think the only defense you have is get close to the players, get real close to them, stay close to them, get close to their families,” said former ULM coach Terry Bowden. “The fact is they’re being told it’s about the money. There’s a point where you don’t know who you have and who you don’t have.

“I can’t imagine how my dad [Bobby Bowden] would have dealt with it.”

Dad gum it. 

Terry isn’t alone in his distaste for how the job has changed.

Beyond the two head coaches who left for the NFL and the two head coaches who took lesser titles at other universities, 26 FBS assistants have taken jobs in the NFL this offseason (as of this publication) with more than 40% doing so despite a reduction in title.

Perhaps the top assistant to depart was Ryan Grubb, the hot-as-July offensive coordinator at Washington who followed Kalen DeBoer to Alabama only to leave for the Seattle Seahawks — all in the span of a month. It was thought that Grubb would soon — perhaps as early as 2024 — be positioned for a college head coaching job.

There is something less enticing about being a college coach these days.

“There are two entirely different levels of pressure and intensity. Even with the short fuse of being a pro coach, a college coach has so many more responsibilities than a pro coach,” Steinberg said. “In June, you could drop a bomb into NFL franchises and not find a lot of pro personnel. In college, you’re playing your bowl game against the backdrop of — you’re already behind in recruiting.”

Former TCU defensive coordinator Joe Gillespie recently vented to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about what college coaching has become. Less than a year after coaching in the CFP National Championship, Gillespie was fired in December. He decided to take a head coaching job at Waco Midway High School.

“At times, you had kids asking for more money than I make,” Gillespie told the Star-Telegram, “certainly asking for more money than some of my assistants were making. Unfortunately, I grew up in the school of, ‘Holy moly, I get my school paid for?’ That would have blown my mind.”

The blame spreads as wide as a five-receiver set. Unscrupulous parents and shady marketing agents have moved into the largely unregulated space. The NCAA is trying to do something, but as little as an agent registry has yet to be established.

And it’s hard to feel sympathy for coaches whose rosters get raided when they’re tasked with doing the same thing to their peers — just to stay competitive.

Soon, it may get even worse for coaches. If a judge grants a recently requested preliminary injunction against the NCAA in Tennessee’s antitrust lawsuit, college athletics could be operating — at least for a period — with neither transfer nor NIL restrictions.

“That’s what is coming next: Kids can leave whenever they want,” Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Cumbie said.

One of the few transfer restrictions at the moment is that athletes can’t suit up for two programs in one semester. But stick around because things are changing fast.

Cumbie remembers his Christmas being ruined because his phone was constantly blowing up.

“The hardest thing is there’s no time off,” he shared. “Christmas Eve from noon until Christmas Day, you’re evaluating portal kids, talking to portal kids, visits with portal kids. It just doesn’t ever stop. There is no time to turn it off.

‘I told our personnel director, ‘Don’t send any more texts about players in the portal and leave everybody alone.’ That was about the only time you have off.”

If it were only as easy as shutting off a phone.

UAB coach Trent Dilfer told CBS Sports he was also contacted about moving to the NFL as an offensive coordinator.

“I think the decision is, Do I want to coach [in the NFL] or do I want to be a CEO in a volatile company?” Dilfer said. “These [college jobs] are volatile CEO roles, and you don’t get to coach.

“I love to coach. I love being in the offensive line drill. I love being in the film room. I don’t get to do a lot of it. I’m a CEO in a volatile situation. I also like it. I like challenge. There is no right or wrong answer.”

FBS coaches moving to the NFL this offseason

Jim Harbaugh Head coach, Michigan 🟰 Head coach, Chargers
Jeff Hafley Head coach, Boston College 🔻 OC, Packers
Jesse Minter DC, Michigan 🟰 DC, Chargers
Ryan Grubb OC, Alabama 🟰 OC, Seahawks
Liam Coen OC, Kentucky 🟰 OC, Buccaneers
Nate Scheelhaase OC, Iowa State 🔻 Pass game specialist, Rams
Kliff Kingsbury Senior analyst, USC 🔺~ OC, Commanders
Tommy Rees OC, Alabama 🔻* Pass game specialist, Browns
Charlie Partridge Co-DC, Pittsburgh 🔻 DL coach, Colts
Steve Clinkscale Co-DC, Michigan 🔻 DB coach, Chargers
Roman Sapolu OC, Hawaii 🔻 OL assistant, Dolphins
Bryan McClendon Pass game coordinator, Georgia 🔻 WR coach, Buccaneers
Tiquan Underwood Pass game coordinator, Pitt 🔻 WR assistant, Patriots
Jay Harbaugh ST coordinator, Michigan 🟰 ST coordinator, Seahawks
Scott Huff OL coach, Alabama 🟰 OL coach, Seahawks
Mike Elston DL coach, Michigan 🟰 DL coach, Chargers
Dennis Johnson DL coach, Baylor 🟰 DL coach, Ravens
Chris O’Leary Safeties coach, Notre Dame 🟰 Safeties coach, Chargers
Charlie Bullen OLB coach, Illinois 🟰 OLB coach, Giants
Jahmile Addae Secondary coach, Miami 🔻 CB coach, Bills
Jerry Mack RB coach, Tennessee 🟰 RB coach, Jaguars
Jeremy Garrett DL coach, Auburn 🟰 DL coach, Jaguars
Ken Norton Jr. LB coach, UCLA 🟰 LB coach, Commanders
Kiel McDonald RB coach, USC 🟰 RB coach, Chargers^
Scott Fuchs OL coach, Kansas TBD TBA, Titans
Jonathan Krause WR coach, San Diego State 🔻 Offensive assistant, Dolphins
Darnell Stapleton OL assistant, Florida 🟰 OL assistant, Commanders
Myles White WR coach, Miami (OH) 🔻 WR assistant, Packers

~ Kingsbury was an NFL (2019-22) and college (2013-18) head coach for 10 years before joining USC in an off-field role
* Rees was unlikely to be retained by Alabama
^ Finalizing deal as of publication


Nick Saban alluded to his changing profession amid his retirement. While his departure wasn’t necessarily surprising at age 72, Saban did mention “mental grind” as a contributing factor to his decision. The rigors of the job have become “grueling,” he said.

That’s right: The current climate may have even claimed the G.O.A.T.

Hafley, a valued defensive mind, was coming off his first winning season at Boston College. He took the Eagles to two bowls in four years. His contract, worth $4 million per year, ran through 2026.

Kelly, a valued offensive mind, had just smacked down USC and won eight games, including a bowl.

Both left head coaching jobs to become coordinators within a span of eight days earlier this month. Kelly had interest from the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders and Seattle Seahawks before landing with the Buckeyes.

Now, both can get back to basics — coaching football and calling plays.

Some perceived Hafley and Kelly as on hot seats. In another age, they would have stuck it out for the potential buyout money alone. Conservatively, Kelly left $8 million on the table; he was making $6 million annually at UCLA, his buyout would have dropped down $4 million after the 2024 season, and he’s likely earning between $2 million and $3 million at Ohio State.

CBS Sports spoke with a wide swath of college coaches at different levels. Some requested and were granted anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the subject.

What emerged from these conversations was a clear, growing frustration at the increasing transactional nature of coaching college football.

More than one coach lamented the modern process — a high school junior wanting mid-five figures, the going-rate for a “decent” transfer being $100,000 to $150,000. All of it cloaked in NIL benefits which may not even fit definition of “true NIL:” fair compensation for name, image and likeness that is not an inducement to attend a university.

“What has the college job become?” one coach questioned. “You are dealing with paying your team, keeping your team happy. … All my time is recruiting my own team, recruiting transfers, recruiting high school players. How do you manage your roster?”

Some had no problem speaking their minds on the record.

“You try to get five guys on each side of the ball you can pay a lot of money to where somebody can’t get them,” explained Kill following his 24th season as a head coach. “It’s twice as hard as it used to be.”

With the job changing so fast, coaches expressed that they aren’t certain where the profession is headed.

In fact, every coach contacted had a common refrain. One coach with Power Five experience verbalized, in the simplest terms, why he left and what is going through the minds of his peers:

“I wanted to coach football again.”

Locksley has embraced his new world, bragging about that true NIL. Maryland has long been supported by billionaire Under Armour executive chairman Kevin Plank and school regent Barry Gossett.

“My rule of thumb is: I don’t want to pay you because you’re a good player,” Locksley said. “I want to pay you because you’re a good person.”

While dealing with this bold, new world, Locksley has turned part of the discussion back on his fans.

“Guess what? Our fans now can’t just blame Coach Locks for not getting [top recruits]” he said. “They can help me recruit now. They legally can donate to NILs, to collectives that allow us to be competitive to go get the top players.”

The problem for Locksley and other teams is being caught in the middle. Because his is largely a developmental group, Locksley says other Power Four programs attempt to pick off his best players after he and his staff have coached them up over a period of years. On the other end, Group of Five schools are attempting to lure Maryland backups who could start and see more playing time in leagues like the Sun Belt or Conference USA.

“I would say the programs that are more in the middle … they don’t survive,” Locksley said. “Just like businesses don’t survive. … You either want to be at the top of the food chain or at the bottom. [I’m] kind of eaten up by both sides.

“I promise you this: If I had an open checkbook like some places that we compete against, there’s no doubt in my mind I’d be able to recruit a national championship team to Maryland — because there are so many players in this area.”

Major-college football has never embraced Cinderella. NIL and the transfer portal hasn’t changed that. Maryland isn’t Michigan and maybe never will be. Perhaps certain programs can change their fortunes in the expanded 12-team playoff. Perhaps not. For now, the current climate has merely illuminated the differences between the haves and have-nots.

“They were paying players [improperly] through agents and churches,” one Power Five coach explained. “Now, they’re paying them through collectives. Where I think it hurts is where some schools think they [can] compete with the big boys. The toxicity of the environment, win at all costs [is troubling].”

Locksley said out loud out what has been speculated since realignment consolidated the biggest brands in the Big Ten and SEC: Perhaps those two leagues should carve out pieces of those monster media rights contracts for the players.

“Give us all the same,” Locksley said. “Give us $20 million, whatever that magic number is. … You use it how you see fit.”

Cumbie uses NIL money for player retention more so than luring players out of the portal.

Still, former Louisiana Tech players Tre Harris (Ole Miss), Cyrus Allen (Texas A&M) and Carson Bruno (TCU) were able to earn an estimated $700,000 at their new schools, sources in the NIL space told CBS Sports.

“That’s the way it is now,” Cumbie said. “We try to embrace it, the next high school kid or transfer kid who is looking for a shot. You’re going to come here and be able to be productive. If you’re trying to earn money somewhere else, you can do that, too.”

What has emerged is coaching intuition. Bowden experienced it while losing one of his quarterbacks to the portal.

“He was distant with two games left; I could tell how distant he was,” Bowden said. “I can tell which ones are [leaving]. They’re no longer on the edge of their seats [in meetings]. It’s the worst feeling in the world.”

Chandler Rodgers left ULM for North Texas. He is currently at California.

Tampering remains rampant, too.

“You notice kids, 7-8 games into the season, kids change. You can tell their body language, their demeanor,” Cumbie said. “At that point, you know, OK, somebody is talking to them.”

Kill found himself lobbying the New Mexico state legislature for facilities upgrades. You can bet Saban never had to do that at Alabama.

And if anybody cares, academics have to be suffering as a consequence. Multi-time transfer quarterback J.T. Daniels recently shared his winding collegiate journey with CBS Sports, including how difficult it can be getting transfer credits and stay on track for a degree in the portal age.

“Five to 10 years from now, it will be very interesting to see how many young men have no college degree,” Cumbie said, “and how much of the NIL money do they have remaining. What is the rest of their 40 years, 50 years [going to] look like because they have no degree?”

Coaches long ago lost the loyalty argument. In fact, it seems almost hypocritical to preach that concept when there have been 31 head coaching changes this cycle alone.

The 2023 carousel began spinning in July at Northwestern. Seven months later, Georgia State has delayed spring practice as it seeks Elliot’s replacement.


It’s difficult for the average American — dealing with inflation soaring interest rates and other financial difficulties — to have sympathy for head coaches whose median income is $3 million, a measly $2.925 million more than the U.S. median income ($75,000).

But capitalism dictates you are worth what someone will pay you. And in that sense, perhaps we can relate to the notion of being tasked with succeeding at a job that suddenly becomes massively more complicated years (even decades) after entering the profession.

Would you adapt to your new daily duties or perhaps find an avenue to go back to doing the job you wanted in the first place?

“If you choose to coach, you don’t need to be complaining about all that stuff,” Saban said in that ESPN interview. “You need to adjust to it and adapt to it and do the best you can under the circumstances.”

Texas coach Steve Sarkisian apparently has learned well from his old boss, putting it more succinctly in 2022.

“Adapt or die,” Sark said. “There’s a reason dinosaurs aren’t here anymore.”





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