College football's best jobs (cont.)
Even in the midst of some of the harshest sanctions the NCAA has handed down since SMU got the Death Penalty and lost its 1987 season, this job makes the list. Why? Because USC sits in a recruiting gold mine, and because a player on an official visit can look up from the practice field and see the Hollywood sign. One reason this job has dropped since two years ago is that competition will be tougher in the Pac-12 because of the rise of Oregon and because the league's new television contract will allow schools to spend on salary and facilities like their counterparts in the SEC and Big Ten. Before, USC had a serious funding advantage over its conference peers. That gap is closing. But once the Trojans are back to 85 scholarships, they should have the talent to contend for the conference title every season. They also should climb back up this list.
Everyone in Ann Arbor seems to be behind Brady Hoke, which is the only reason this job -- which probably would have ranked near the top five 10 years ago -- is this high on the list. When Rich Rodriguez held the job, it didn't seem as if all those in maize and blue pulled in the same direction. A perceived lack of internal support might have scared away some candidates. But it appears Hoke will get the support he needs. Hoke knows he is at a special place. Michigan doesn't have the recruiting base of an Ohio State, a Penn State or an SEC power, but it has a dedicated fan base and the resources to draw recruits from other parts of the country. Michigan didn't become the sport's winningest program by accident.
Even though Notre Dame hasn't truly been a national title contender for two decades, the job remains one of the best in college football. The Fighting Irish will pay a coach handsomely. Of course, boosters and fans expect results. Notre Dame has no local recruiting base, but it has a natural in with players at every Catholic high school in America. It also has its own network TV deal, which doesn't mean as much as it used to but still brings cachet. Notre Dame's academic standards are tougher than the schools listed above, and that will always mean the Irish will draw from a smaller pool of recruits than the rest. Despite that, this remains a plum job that will draw big-name candidates whenever it opens.
Jimbo Fisher may just turn this into a destination job again. It sits this low because the fan/booster base was lulled to sleep at the end of the Bobby Bowden era. Upon his ascension to the big chair, Fisher immediately went into fundraising mode. He convinced boosters to chip in, and he quickly bulked up Florida State's academic support, strength and nutrition programs. The recruits have flocked as well. Because of the school's location, FSU's coach has to work a little harder than Florida's coach. Tallahassee is at the northern edge of the state, so players from Central and South Florida have to drive right through Gainesville on the way to FSU's campus. The Seminoles are closer to many players in Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, but they have to fight to get those players out of their home states. That said, coaches at most schools would volunteer a limb to have as many quality players within 300 miles of campus.
The Cornhuskers don't have a natural recruiting base, but they do have money, great facilities and cachet. Nebraska football still means something. The Cornhuskers should have just as much success getting players from California, Texas and Florida to come play in the Big Ten as they did getting them to play in the Big 12. Coach Bo Pelini is smart enough to know that the Cornhuskers can play at a high level provided they don't try to run a pro-style offense. There are plenty of versatile athletes who don't quite fit the mold that the powers in their states seek, and Pelini and his staff can convince those players to come to Nebraska and be rock stars in a state that lives and breathes Big Red football.
In 2009-10, nine athletic departments broke the $100 million revenue barrier. You've already read about eight of them. Why would an SEC program with 10-figure department revenue and a 100,000-plus stadium slip this low? Because Tennessee coach Derek Dooley has to work so much harder than his rivals to get recruits. The state of Tennessee produces some players, but its geography tends to breed mixed loyalties. Most of the best players are in Memphis, which is a six-hour drive from Knoxville. Players there grow up hearing as much or more about Ole Miss and Arkansas. Nashville is more of a Big Orange stronghold, but out-of-state schools have been known to slip in and pluck players. Tennessee is at its best when it can dip into Atlanta (three hours away) and pull players, but when good coaches sit at Georgia and Auburn, that's a tough assignment.
In terms of proximity to players, Virginia might be a better job than Virginia Tech. But coach Frank Beamer has done such a good job convincing players from the stocked Tidewater area to come to Blacksburg that he has effectively negated any geographic disadvantage. Virginia Tech also can dip down into North Carolina, which has an underrated high school football culture that routinely produces great players. Virginia Tech would be higher on this list but for its revenue. The fan base is excellent, and Lane Stadium offers an intimidating home-field advantage, but Virginia Tech consistently ranks in the bottom half of BCS AQ-conference schools in revenue. The Hokies are quite competitive on the field, but Texas, Ohio State and the SEC powers are playing an entirely different game on the balance sheet.
If a coach can get a player to visit the campus in Tempe, he has a chance. City kids will feel comfortable in the suburb of a huge metropolis, and most will realize quickly that Arizona State is about as close to collegiate paradise as it gets. Of course, like the trendiest restaurants, the Sun Devils should be able to use local produce more and more as the years pass. Though growth has slowed, the population of Phoenix exploded in the past two decades. Sports culture needs time to take root, but every year the area produces more quality players. Add in the fact that the Pac-12's new TV deal will increase funding dramatically, and this job looks quite a bit better than it did a few years ago. Of course, there is a flip side to this. If the new TV deal allows Arizona State to shell out more money for a coach, that coach had better win. After a 10-win debut in 2007, Dennis Erickson has lost at least six games each of the past three seasons. That won't cut it in the new era.
It seems as if Wildcats athletic director Greg Byrne tweets every other day about a new, anonymous multimillion-dollar donation to the program. The figures have been so impressive that Bryan Fischer of CBSSports.com wondered aloud whether Mr. Anonymous has any unmarried daughters who wouldn't mind supporting a sportswriter. The Pac-12's new TV deal should boost Arizona into the top half of the AQ revenue bracket, and the same emerging set of players that should help Arizona State also should help stock Arizona. Just as in Tempe, this influx of resources will make the coach's job easier and more difficult at the same time.
Despite the obvious differences in conference and culture, the school on this list Oklahoma State most resembles is Oregon. Both schools have smallish, passionate fan bases bolstered by one loaded sugar daddy who has poured in enough cash to revolutionize the program. Oregon has Knight and Oklahoma State has energy magnate T. Boone Pickens. The Knight connection probably intrigues more recruits because high school students consider Pro Combat jerseys and Air Jordans cooler than oil futures and wind farms, but Pickens' money spends just as well as Knight's. In 2009, Oklahoma State unveiled a palatial facility funded almost entirely by Pickens. So why is Oklahoma State ranked 10 spots below Oregon? Because Oregon has made itself the Pac-12's "it" program, while Oklahoma State has the misfortune of annually clashing with Texas and Oklahoma for recruits and prestige.