Who’s Next?

Tom Jurich at Sunday’s press conference.

During a Sunday afternoon news conference to discuss his search for Charlie Strong’s replacement, Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich expressed his desire to find a head football coach who would view UofL as a “destination job” instead of a “stepping-stone job.”

It’s a notion supported by everyone in the city who supports the red and black, but here’s the thing: the head football coaching position at the University of Louisville is absolutely a stepping-stone job.

And here’s the other thing: 95 percent of the head coaching positions in college football are stepping-stone jobs.

Let’s look at the very definition of a “stepping stone:” it’s a momentary resting place a person uses to gather his or herself before making another move that will hopefully bring them that much closer to their desired destination.

Now, it may come to be that over time a person realizes that the stone where they currently reside is actually more comfortable and suitable to their needs than the haven they’d initially believed it would be. It could also be that the person may stay on a stone for such a long time that they become too old to make the leap anywhere else. This doesn’t change the fact that it was never their intention to end up where they did.

If asked at the beginning of their career, every single man or woman with the desire to coach college football at the Division I level could tell you the one head coaching job they desire above all others. The list of dream jobs is short. Michigan, Ohio State, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, Oklahoma, USC and, yes, Texas are all places where a person with a particular affinity for the program or an elevated appreciation for the history of college football could coach forever and be happy.

Even with that being the case, we’ve seen the eyes of some of the coaches at these same programs of the highest stature wandering when an equally attractive cousin shot them a glance (Les Miles, Nick Saban, etc.). For a sport that may value its traditions and pageantry more than any other, when it comes to head coaching situations, there is very little that is truly sacred anymore.

The strange thing about all of this is just how much evidence there is to support the notion that the jump from a successful “middle-of-the-road” job (about 85 percent of the gigs in college football) to a “dream job” is the wrong move. How many coaches can you name off the top of your head who made the move from a good program to an “elite” program and had just as much success at the next job? Urban Meyer and Nick Saban (Michigan State to LSU, not the Miami Dolphins to Alabama) are fairly obvious, but after that it gets pretty hard.

To further drive home the point, let’s look at how Louisville’s last three successful coaches fared after they decided the grass was greener. Howard Schnellenberger lasted just one season at Oklahoma and was then out of coaching completely for six years before starting up the program at Florida Atlantic. John L. Smith was run out of Michigan State after four seasons and is currently the head coach at Fort Lewis College. I don’t think we even need to get into Bobby Petrino.

Charlie Strong holding the recently won Russell Athletic Bowl trophy.

Charlie Strong holding the recently won Russell Athletic Bowl trophy.

If common sense ruled, then there’s no question that Louisville would be a destination job. The Cards have won 11 or more games four times in the last decade, they’ve won two BCS games, they’re headed to the ACC, and Strong left town as one of the 10 highest-paid coaches in the sport. Of course, common sense does not rule college football, and a quick glance at its postseason is all you need for proof of that.

The point I’m trying to make is that Louisville is one of the vast, vast majority of college football programs that can’t afford to waste time looking for the guy who says he wants to be here forever and is willing to take a polygraph test to prove it. This sport, even more so than its basketball counterpart, is driven by money and power and every member of its coaching family is fully aware of that.

If you’re not Notre Dame, if you’re not Ohio State, if you’re not Texas, your coach is using you with the hope that one day he’ll have one of those jobs or be that much closer to having one of those jobs. If he says otherwise, he’s lying. Accept it now and the betrayal will be that much easier to stomach.

It’s time to shelve the illusions of bringing in some young offensive genius who’s going to dress himself, his kids and his pretty wife in Cardinal red every day for the rest of his life, walk in the Derby Parade every year and show up at every home game to a standing ovation when he’s 85 and retired with a pair of national titles under his belt. This isn’t basketball and it isn’t 1960. If it didn’t happen with Charlie Strong – who had more reason to stay at Louisville forever than any past head coach has and probably more reason to stay at Louisville forever than any future coach will – it’s unlikely to ever happen.

This whole ordeal hurt a lot of people. I get it. But the best thing the powers that be at Louisville can do right now is hire the man whom they believe is best suited to win football games right away and keep this program on its current upward trajectory. And if in four or five years that man has won so much here that he decides he’d love the opportunity to try and win somewhere where he thinks he can get a little bit more attention, then you do the exact same thing all over again.

Louisville’s top priority right now has to be finding someone who can keep the ball rolling in 2014, not someone who wants to have it rolling in 2024. Considering that Jurich is somewhere around 472-1 when it comes to coaching hires, Cardinal fans should have confidence in this goal being accomplished.

Photos by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune