I tried to tell you we needed to keep Steve Roberts. Arkansas State University’s head football coach of nine — yes, nine — seasons was forced out in 2010. Although he had returned the program to respectability, Roberts’ teams struggled to back-to-back records of 4-8 and he was gone.
Call it the Roberts curse, if you will. Since then ASU has been unable to keep a head football coach for more than one year.
Taking ASU’s football program to the next level has included some growing pains.
The next level first involved a huge increase in the head coach’s compensation package. Roberts’ successor, Hugh Freeze, received compensation totaling a little over $200,000. That’s chicken feed among college football coaches. In 2011 it was among the lowest head coaches’ salaries in all of Division I. But Freeze led his team to 10 victories — about $20,000 per win, a huge bargain.
Ole Miss noticed.
In college football success breeds raiders with big bucks. Freeze was gone before you could say, "Let’s GoDaddy."
From that point on, everything can be blamed on former Arkansas Razorback coach Houston Nutt. He had left Fayetteville for Ole Miss, where he soon got fired. That created the vacancy for Freeze, who jumped at the challenge of a $1.5 million salary.
Since then his pay has doubled, even with only seven Rebel wins a year.
Meanwhile, ASU scored a coup (pardon the Indian reference) by luring Gus Malzahn away from the Auburn Tigers. A-State boosters stepped up to inflate the head coach’s compensation to around $900,000, still short of what he had been making as an assistant.
Malzahn promised to take us to the next level. He just didn’t say that we’d have to follow him back to Auburn to get there. And that temporary cut in pay didn’t hurt long. After spectacular success in his first year back at Auburn — a 12-1 record, Southeastern Conference title and a shot at a national championship — he’ll earn $3.85 million next year.
But what will he do for an encore?
That brings us to Bryan Harsin, a lesser light as an assistant coach who was hired for "only" about $700,000. His mission was to turn ASU into the "Boise State of the South," a reference to his highly successful mid-major alma mater. The transition was tougher, and only a late-season 4-game win streak saved the season at 7-5.
Another BigDaddy Bowl invitation followed anyway, but of course Harsin will not attend. He has departed for the Boise State of the Northwest, which happened to need a good head coach.
One thing ASU officials have learned from this annual ordeal is that long-term contracts mean nothing so it’s wise to build an expensive buyout clause into each coach’s agreement. Boise State will pay ASU $1.75 million for the privilege of bringing its native son home.
That’s actually better than playing one of those "money" games. Harsin’s seven wins thus will bring A-State about $250,000 per game.
It’s clear that ASU has been able to move up from the bottom of the pack to the middle, when you consider the theoretical relationship between coaches’ compensation and victories.
According to USA Today’s annual survey of college coaches’ salaries, Harsin’s ASU compensation package ranked 79th among 119 Football Bowl Subdivision schools responding. Seventy head coaches make more than $1 million, not counting bonuses.
That list starts with Nick Saban of Alabama, who will make about $5.6 million this year. Even though his team was upset by Auburn, Alabama reportedly is offering Saban an extension worth $7 million a year. That may be an attempt to ward off a raid from even richer Texas.
Even the big boys have to protect their coaches by offering ever more exorbitant salaries.
By the way, the third highest paid head coach this year is Arkansas’ own Bret Bielema, whose $5.2 million package figures out to something like $1.7 million per win.
Boise State’s Chris Peterson, who is moving to Washington, ranked No. 44 on the list at $2.2 million. He’ll get about $1 million more in the first year of his new 5-year contract. Harsin’s jump will be worth "just" $6.5 million over five years, probably to help pay off ASU.
All this means that the Red Wolves will be led to Mobile by their designated "closer," John Thompson, otherwise known as the team’s defensive coordinator the past two seasons.
My vote for the next head coach at ASU — OK, I just have an opinion like everybody else — is John Thompson. ASU can’t expect to continue having success with "one-and-done" coaches, no matter how good. In fact, each of the last three regular-season records have declined a bit. Sooner or later, the lack of continuity will tell.
Thompson has proven his loyalty to the program, which counts. He could provide needed stability by retaining much of the present staff. He is at home in Arkansas.
It’s true that his long coaching career includes mostly assistant coaching positions, and his one head coaching stint of two years (at East Carolina) was unsuccessful. Further, his specialty is defense at a time when many of the top head coaches move up from offensive coordinator.
What’s important, though, is that the head coach hire good coordinators on both sides of the ball, and ASU already has one on offense. Thompson has proven his coaching ability.
Give the closer a chance to start.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun and may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com