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What the Great Resignation means for College Football

Screw it let’s get into some labor philosophy!

NCAA Football: Lincoln Riley Press Conference Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

This year’s Coaching Carousel started much earlier in the season than normal, and has been even more wild than year’s past. Lincoln Riley leaving Oklahoma and ducking the SEC in favor of the sunny and 75 skies of USC and Brian Kelly making the stunning move to leave Notre Dame - who is still in the thick of the College Football Playoff chase - for the Bayou Bengals in LSU have dominated the headlines. Then you add University of Miami disrespecting Manny Diaz and dragging him along until they could steal Mario Cristobal from Oregon. The moves have brought us all a few Twitter laughs, but it feels like a brand new world in college football. And a ton of serious questions have been raised.

Is the Playoff and making the game more national creating unreasonable expectations? Is it ruining the experience of college football for the fans?

Is the early signing period screwing over current players and making schools fire and hire new ones too quickly?

Are coaches hypocrites for preaching the concept of family and loyalty to their teams and then leaving their players high and dry?

Each of those ideas has some merit, but I think they are missing some important context: this is how every job works now. Knowing that, the moral puzzle for college football becomes even more interesting to me.

For my day job, I work in Recruiting/Staffing and analyze workplace trends for a living. That’s right, contrary to what people who hate my writing might tell you on Twitter, I am not a journalist. Anyway, today I’m gonna try to marry some of that workforce trends “expertise” with some college football talk and we’re gonna see what happens. This isn’t to tell you whether anything Lincoln Riley or Brian Kelly did was right or wrong, or if they should’ve handled it differently or whatever. I can’t tell you anything new about that.

But hopefully by the end of this when I start asking some big questions you go “hmm, hadn’t thought about it like that” and we explore some interesting concepts together in the comments or on Twitter. Do people still do that? Might be weird, I don’t know. The site has a new boss now so I’m just trying stuff to see what I can get away with. Let’s get into it.

First, we gotta lay some groundwork.

Everyone hates their jobs now, not just college football coaches

The Great Resignation

What the hell is The Great Resignation? Basically, it’s a fancy way of saying that everyone’s been quitting their jobs this year. You can read longer, more in-depth articles about it with stats and stuff like this one that will tell you a record 4.4 million people quit their jobs in September. Or this one that will give you some examples of reasons people are quitting their jobs. But I’ll try to summarize quickly for our purposes.

During the early days of the pandemic, there were generally 3 things that might happen to you if you had an in-person job, assuming you didn’ know. Some people got laid off/furloughed, others moved to working remotely, and the rest kept working like nothing ever happened and were exposed to the Rona on a daily basis. What do people from all 3 groups have in common? A ton of them looked up and said “man, now that I think about it my job kinda sucks!”

Fast forward a few months, people are back outside. There’s a ton of new money to be made and jobs are back out here. Yay! But remember, a lot of people think their job sucks. So now there’s way less people who are willing and/or able to fill those jobs. Do companies who have jobs to fill go “well, sometimes it be like that. Wouldn’t want to take people away from their jobs at these other nice companies” and just not fill those jobs? Of course not. They dip into their bag and do what they gotta do to get somebody to come work for them. They pay companies like mine to go find them some candidates and then they give those candidates higher salaries, big signing bonuses, more vacation days, flexible schedules, better benefits, all that stuff. And because, once again, a lot of people think their job sucks, the candidates are like “aww hell yeah! Sign me up!” and so they quit their current job. They might even quit on a new job they just accepted yesterday cause some third company slapped them in the face with an even bigger bag today.

Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s exactly what’s happening with college football coaches right now. It’s also happening with the burger flippers at your local McDonald’s and the nerds at Google and every other company you can think of. Welcome to the 2021 labor market.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s get to college football coaches.

College Coaches: Like You & Me but...not

NCAA Basketball: Ohio at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Major college Head Coaches occupy a unique place in the public hierarchy. First, we Americans love football. So there’s a bunch of money moving around and a lot of fame you can achieve for yourself. In the NFL, it’d be insane for the coach to be the highest paid person involved in a game and your team is probably pretty bad if the coach is the most famous person on the team too. But in the NCAA, both of those things are usually true. Many college coaches are the most visible, highest paid government employees of the states in which they work, making millions upon millions of dollars each year.

Right or wrong, in America part of the deal when you get a lot of fame and large amounts of money is that you’re held to a higher moral standard than everyday randos. Not to mention, for a college coach the world is very publicly watching you manage working relationships with high school kids and college young adults, so your power and the responsibility that come with it are huge. Preaching family, loyalty and selflessness to your players and the interested public seems to be the best way to win games and keep your job, so that’s what you do. This increases the moral standard people hold you to and also the pressure that comes with it. Hopefully down the line, it increases the money. Still, at the end of the day coaches are employees of massive institutions with even more money, power, responsibility and a higher moral standard than they have individually. Just like most normal people at normal jobs. But also not really.

There’s a few previously mentioned factors like the pressure of the CFP or early signing day and some other stuff like the transfer portal or conference realignment causing this, but right now college football coaching looks just like the overall labor market. There’s a lot of jobs, not a lot of people to come take them. So as the coaching carousel turns coaches are acting just like normal people (including me, a person who quit their job that they realized they hated for a better one earlier this year) and universities are having to act like normal jobs competing in a tough labor market.

With the relaxed transfer rules, we’re seeing a sort of “Great Resignation” among players as well. Just like the larger labor market, if players think their job sucks it’s easier than ever for them to bounce and try to find another job they might like better. (Only problem is that they are the most important labor and they aren’t being paid directly by their employer, but we’ll have to get into that some other time.)

Cool. Let’s talk about the implications of all that. We’ve almost arrived to the big thought-provoking questions that I promised you in the beginning. should the world work?


Okay that’s not really the question, but it kind of is.

So college football coaches have this unique place in public life, but they’re still employees of the universities over them. Universities who are operating with enormous power in the larger labor market. Coach could get fired tomorrow, or he could also quit tomorrow. You never know.

At the same time the people under the coaches, the players, also operate in the NCAA’s bastardized version of the larger labor market. Coaches have enormous power of them, and a player could be kicked off the team tomorrow, or he could transfer tomorrow. You never know.

University Leaders -> Coaches -> Players :: C-Level Management -> Middle Management -> Staff

Everyone in these 2 stacks has to balance their own self-interest, their responsibility to the people above and/or below them in the stack, the responsibility other people in the stack have to them, and the dynamics of the larger labor market.

Every piece of the stack has some self-interest that overlaps with the other pieces’ self-interest to some extent.

Every piece of the stack has some level of obligation to every other piece of the stack.

As you move down the stack, power and information about/access to the larger labor market decreases. But also as a result of the pandemic and Great Resignation, there’s more power at the bottom of the stack than there has ever been before.

We’ve arrived to the big questions.

You don’t have to actually tell me your answers. I’m not a professor. I’m just a nerd who likes to think about stuff and has a login for a blog. Anyway,

  • What do you (you reading this) think you owe to the other people in your stack?
  • How do you weigh your self-interest against those obligations? I.E., is self-interest more important than giving people the things you owe them?
  • What do you think the other people in your stack owe to you?
  • Compared to yourself, do you think the other people are more self-interested, less-self interested, or about the same? Does that change how you view your obligations to them?

These are complicated questions. To really answer them thoroughly you have to be in touch with your own morality, opinions on economic systems, maybe religion or politics, social contracts, a bit of game theory, and a bunch of other stuff. You also have to factor in the people both above/below you and how they might think about all of those things. And whether they’re being as honest (or dishonest) with you about their answers as you are being with them. It’s a lot to juggle, and you and I are just regular ass people working regular ass jobs.

For me, I felt like I ain’t owe them people a damn thing at my last job cause they made it clear they owed nothing to me. I quit as soon as I found something else that met my self-interest. Deuces. But now, I feel some reciprocity and I owe a little bit more to my current company.

It’s much more complicated with many more people involved for college coaches. The power dynamics above and below them are much different than most of us will ever experience. And so is the money.

All that to say, I can’t really judge coaches for analyzing their stack and deciding to leave. Obviously, I can judge them for playing in my face or lying to players. But ultimately we’re all just imperfect people trying to make it out here. In a work hierarchy or any relationship at all, somebody’s got to take the leap to put their self-interest to the side and trust that others are doing the same. But that’s extremely scary, and I can’t blame Brian Kelly or Lincoln Riley for not wanting to do it.

Thanks for reading.

None of this grace and understanding applies to Matt Rhule nor would it apply to Dave Aranda if he left this year. I’m not perfect, and also cognitive dissonance is what makes life worth living. Sic Em Bears.