Commentary

Coaches who leave aren't villains

Updated: January 7, 2011, 5:03 PM ET
By LZ Granderson | ESPN.com

Joe Paterno was born December 21, 1926.

Jim Harbaugh
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireIt's unlikely Jim Harbaugh will ever coach anywhere as long as Joe Paterno.

At 84, he is part of what Tom Brokaw likes to call "the Greatest Generation," the Americans who made it through the Great Depression, fought in World War II and rebuilt the nation. Their generation received gold watches and huge retirement parties after 30, 40, sometimes 50 years of service to one employer. In Paterno's case, they very well may rename Penn State after him, considering he's been there since 1950.

But that's what "the Greatest Generation" did -- stayed -- and after two decades of economic turmoil, global upheaval and war, I'm sure staying was a welcome change.

Today you probably couldn't find any Penn State students who believe they will stay at an employer for 60 years like Paterno, not unless they are taking over the family business. And even then they'd probably consider selling in the future if the price were right.

You see, while Paterno's generation believed in staying, the generation after his got moving. The cultural norm for Baby Boomers such as Pete Carroll and Rick Pitino was being open to going; the Gen Xers such as Lane Kiffin were raised to go; and Generation Y? They're already gone.

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates the average employee now spends less than five years at one company. Yes, layoffs and business closures are big factors, but the truth is the promise of job stability is no longer enough for today's worker. Now people want personal growth, and pursuing an opportunity one perceives as better is as much a part of our work culture as staying in one place was 40 years ago; that is a paradigm shift many of us understand. And yet we still vilify coaches like Nick Saban (five years at Michigan State, five at LSU, two with the Dolphins and four, so far, at Alabama) for doing exactly what everyone else in the American workforce seems to be doing.

Why?

[+] EnlargeRyan Mallett
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireRyan Mallett switched schools to find an offense that would better prepare him for the NFL. Now he'll find out how that preparation worked.

Longevity and loyalty are not interchangeable, and the reality is coaches, like athletes, don't owe fans anything. Ryan Mallett, who transferred to Arkansas from Michigan when Rich Rodriguez and his spread offense arrived after the 2007 season, decided this week to enter the NFL draft because he felt that was the best decision for his career. Andrew Luck is returning to Stanford for his junior season for the exact same reason. And Luck's coach, Jim Harbaugh, reportedly made a decision on his future for the exact same reason: what's best for him.

Going to the 49ers doesn't make Harbaugh (or Al Golden or Randy Edsall or Jerry Kill) Satan. That makes him an employed American in 2011.

"What about the kids? What about the players?" fans and critics of the job switches ask.

What about them?

College students, perhaps more than anyone, understand what the economic landscape and job market look like and are not expecting to stay at any one employer indefinitely. Just because people are well paid does not mean they are excluded from wanting to grow -- whatever that growth means to them. Instead of characterizing coaches as perpetrators of a crime and coddling players as victims, we need to stop romanticizing big-time college sports as if it exists in a vacuum, locked in a time when we were innocent and pure. This country has never been innocent and pure.

And there certainly isn't anything innocent and pure about corporate America, of which the NCAA is a part. It may have been created in earnest but at this point it represents some of the more unsavory aspects of business; a system that not only poorly compensates the talent that makes generating revenue possible, but goes so far as to penalize that talent for generating personal revenue outside of that system. If that scenario sounds familiar, it should: It is the reoccurring theme of nearly every gangster movie made.

Am I saying the NCAA is full of crooks? No.

But there are times in which it appears the only difference between it and "New Jack City's" Nino Brown is the language used to chastise those who dare challenge its authority. The NCAA calls it a "suspension," and Brown says "sit your five-dollar ass down before I make change." Different language but the message is the same: You are expendable.

Coaches move around because they understand this: Bowl today, fired tomorrow.

The sooner student-athletes understand how they fit in the big scheme of things, the sooner they can take responsibility for their own lives and start making career decisions that are best for them, just like their coaches. Just like everyone else.

Al Golden
Joel Auerbach/Getty ImagesTemple fans may be bitter that Al Golden is now the Miami coach, but that's the business of college football.

If you believe a coach "abandoning" a program is devastating to the players left behind, I encourage you to take a look at the players who can barely read when their eligibility runs out. Seeing a coach go is disappointing. Finding out you are expendable and lacking employable skills after growing up believing the rules didn't apply to you, now that's devastating.

And as for an opportunistic coach "sending the wrong message," please note Rodriguez was fired from the University of Michigan not for a lack of improvement, but for not improving fast enough. That is similar to a CEO turning in poor numbers to shareholders one too many quarters or someone in advertising consistently not hitting their mark.

Let's face it, student-athletes forced to deal with a coaching change may be getting as good of a life lesson as a player seeing a coach like Tom Izzo stay. Besides, colleges don't seem to care about athletes' feelings when they fire the coaches who recruited them. And that's because big-time college sports is a business, not a daycare. Games are being played but this industry can hardly be framed as child's play, so we all need to just grow up.

Loyalty is spelled with a W, which is shorthand for "profit." Short campus tenures don't mean today's coaches are governed by a morally bankrupt code of ethics. Instead it means each generation operates by its own set of rules.

Paterno's "Greatest" contemporaries were taught to stay. Today, we are taught to be ready to go -- either by choice or by force.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

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LZ Granderson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine

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