Opinion: Bob Stoops, Urban Meyer are out so Florida State, USC must manage search expectations

Dan Wolken


Published 4: 50 PM EST Nov 5, 2019

Bob Stoops did Florida State fans — and the school’s administration — a huge favor on Tuesday. 

Hours after a flurry of Internet activity and even a report from a local television affiliate that Stoops was on the brink of accepting the Seminoles’ suddenly open coaching job, Stoops told ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit he’s “not a candidate” to replace Willie Taggart, who was fired on Sunday.

Look at the bright side, Florida State fans: Better to have your hopes and dreams dashed now than sometime the first week in December when your school disappoints you by hiring someone who, well, isn’t Bob Stoops. 

If only everyone in the coaching search business was so smart. 

As the coaching carousel begins to unfold over the next month with firings and rumors and leverage plays that will fuel new contracts, here’s some free advice to any athletics director or school president with an opening: Be up front about who you’re *not* going to hire. 

Yes, that means you, Southern California. 

Though it’s a little bit premature for USC, given that it hasn’t quite gotten around to actually firing Clay Helton yet, the first thing school president Carol Folt should do is tell her fan base the same thing that has been communicated behind the scenes: She doesn’t want Urban Meyer to be the next coach there.

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That was the impression multiple candidates who were part of the school’s recent athletics director search were left with, according to two people with knowledge of the process, who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because the conversations were supposed to remain private. And if that’s indeed the case, it would benefit both Folt and new athletics director Mike Bohn (who hasn’t been officially announced but is expected to formally accept the job in the coming days) to set that expectation right away for the hundreds of thousands of USC fans who have spent this fall dreaming about Meyer coming out of the Fox broadcast booth and bringing their program back to prominence. 

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Hey, if it’s not going to happen, it’s not going to happen. Why wait to make that clear to the fans, some of whom are prone to be let down if it’s anyone but Meyer?

The problem is, too many people in college sports are taught to value secrecy over managing expectations when it comes to hiring coaches.

Just consider what happened at Tennessee two years ago. From the moment Butch Jones was fired on Nov. 12, and even to some degree before that, the Tennessee fan base had been infatuated with the idea of Jon Gruden coaching the Vols. 

Beyond some circumstantial connections to the University of Tennessee — Gruden had met his wife, a Tennessee alum, while he was a graduate assistant there briefly in the mid-1980s — there was little public indication he actually wanted the job. And behind the scenes, then-athletics director John Currie knew the truth: Gruden wasn’t interested, even though he wasn’t saying that publicly. 

But in the absence of any public comment about Gruden from either side — Currie, like most of his colleagues in the World of athletics administration, went silent during the search — speculation grew rampant. Fans started getting excited about the possibility, convinced it could really happen. It wasn’t just message board stuff, either — some traditional media outlets added fuel to the fire. It got so out of control that even former Vols quarterback Josh Dobbs texted Currie during the search asking if the Gruden rumors were legitimate. 

“Geez even you?” Currie replied. 

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Had Currie sent that message in a public way, he could have saved himself a whole lot of chaos that followed. Maybe he could have held a press conference to acknowledge the speculation and tell fans directly that the school had received word Gruden wasn’t interested. Or he could have leaked it to every major national and local media outlet as an anonymous source. It doesn’t really matter. 

The bottom line is, a significant part of the Tennessee fan base thought it was getting Gruden until word began leaking out on the morning of Nov. 26 that it was on the verge of hiring Greg Schiano. And, of course, the reality was so far off from the expectation that fans freaked out, setting a series of events in motion that led to Schiano’s offer being pulled and Currie being fired a few days later.

Would the reaction have been different if the Gruden conversation had ended before it really gained steam? Maybe not entirely, but if fans knew from the start that the actual candidate pool was fairly underwhelming — Tennessee, of course, ended up hiring a first-time college head coach in Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt — the whole process would be easier to stomach.

That should be a lesson for Florida State and USC, because as great as those jobs can be, there aren’t many coaches who have a track record of winning at the highest level and even fewer who would be willing to leave their current jobs. 

You’re not getting Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney or Lincoln Riley. You’re probably not getting Brian Kelly out of Notre Dame to start over somewhere else. The only other active college coaches who’ve made the College Football Playoff are Georgia’s Kirby Smart, Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher (when he was at Florida State), Washington’s Chris Petersen and Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio. 

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Maybe Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, who came within seconds of winning the national title in 2013, would be willing leave — but that’s only because he’s already worn out his welcome with a lot of the fans there. Penn State’s James Franklin would be great at either job, but those schools better be ready to pony up big, big money to make it happen.

Once you get past that group, however, there’s a huge drop-off to assistants or Group of Five coaches like Memphis’ Mike Norvell, who might be great moving up to a blue blood job or might not. We just don’t know.

But at least that’s the kind of coach Florida State and USC fans should now expect, moreso than Urban Meyer or Bob Stoops. And making that clear on the front end will save a lot of heartache later on. 

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