Published April 25, 2012 - 2:57pm
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“Loyalty is No. 1,” John L. Smith told The Salt Lake Tribune just over two weeks ago when discussing the criteria for hiring his new staff at Weber State in Ogden, Utah. “You better be on board with our philosophy or you’re not going to be on board very long,” Smith said.
As it turned out, Smith was the one who wasn’t on board for long. Less than five months after taking over at Weber State, his alma mater, Smith is now the head coach at Arkansas, where he was special teams coach last season. According to an Arkansas press release, Smith has “signed a 10-month letter of agreement with a compensation package of $850,000” plus performance bonuses.
Smith’s brief Weber State tenure raises an obvious ethical question, which Salt Lake City sports anchor Jeremiah Jensen attempted to answer via Twitter: “John L. Smith approaching Arkansas about taking an ‘interim’ job is just another reminder of how slimy the college coaching profession is.” This is an understandable gut reaction to Smith’s actions, but it’s also more than a little naive. In every industry, people flock to the most promising job opportunities. Smith is hardly unique in quickly abandoning one job for another, higher-paying higher-profile position. This wasn’t even a sudden change of heart—like when Florida basketball coach Bill Donovan briefly accepted the Orlando Magic job—but rather a response to the highly unusual situation at Arkansas.
Another common but misplaced response to these cases is to bemoan the NCAA’s apparent double standard that restricts the ability of students to transfer but not coaches: Why can John L. Smith leave Weber State after five months without penalty, but a player can’t transfer without a release from his coach and sitting out a year at his new school? I agree with critics that the NCAA’s athlete-transfer policies are illogical and unethical, but it does not follow from there that similar rules are necessary or justified for coaches. The last thing anyone should advocate is national regulation of coaching hires by the NCAA.
As I’ve discussed frequently, NCAA “amateurism” policies rest on the legal fiction, endorsed by the courts, that athletes are not “employees” of their respective universities. Thus, the NCAA can collectively restrict their movement and compensation without transgressing federal labor or antitrust statutes. Coaches are unquestionably university employees. Any attempt by the NCAA to collectively restrict the labor freedom of employees would almost certainly violate federal antitrust policy.
That said, one might think Weber State should have an absolute right, under its employment contract, to prevent Smith from taking another job during the term of their agreement. In 2009, law professor Rich Karcher argued in a paper that schools should employ litigation to do just that:
The nonquantifiable harm to the public academic institutions employing these coaches, including to the public that funds their compensation and the student-athletes that rely on them, far outweighs the breaching coach’s desire to maximize compensation and justifies court intervention to deter coaches from skirting their contractual commitments with virtual impunity.
But this misunderstands the true nature of coaching contracts. There isn’t a single university, including Arkansas and Weber State, that doesn’t know that hiring a coach is essentially an at-will agreement for both sides. The contract isn’t meant to guarantee specific performance. It functions more like an insurance policy. That’s why contracts generally have buyout clauses and bonuses if the coach is still employed at certain future dates.
More to Professor Karcher’s point, any school that resorted to litigation to enjoin a coach from taking another job would be sacrificing its long-term interests for a questionable short-term gain. No highly qualified coach would interview in the future with a school—particularly a nondescript program like Weber State—that sued to prevent another coach like Smith from moving to a clearly better program. The coaching market is fluid by necessity. Schools want the flexibility to hire coaches from other schools, and coaches always want to keep their options open.
Still, if the reports are true and Smith approached Arkansas, that suggests a certain lapse in ethics on the part of both the coach and Jeff Long. After all, Long fired Petrino for a pattern of unethical conduct. Doesn’t he—and thus Arkansas—undermine its case against Petrino by turning around and inducing Smith to leave Weber State after just five months?
Let’s recall here that Long previously hired Petrino while he was under contract—and in the middle of a season—with the Atlanta Falcons. Long had no scruples about whisking Petrino away in the middle of the night to Fayetteville, with Petrino informing his Falcon players of his departure by letter. The mitigating circumstances were the Falcons 3-10 record and the extraordinary prosecution of Michael Vick, which took away the centerpiece of Petrino’s offensive scheme.
Ironically, it’s the strength of the Arkansas program Petrino built that now mitigates Smith’s extraordinary departure from Weber State. Arkansas has a team that by all accounts can contend for the SEC championship this coming season. Long had an ethical duty to his current players to give them a coach who could help them win now. Smith appears uniquely qualified to do so, given his prior head coaching experience and his pre-existing relationships with the staff and players.
As for Smith, while Weber State said in its own press release, “the timing of this announcement is problematic,” the school also acknowledged that Smith was a “high-profile coach,” an implicit admission that they understood the drill. And it’s unlikely Smith’s actions will harm the program long term. Presumably, Smith will keep the remainder of Petrino’s Arkansas staff, which means the staff Smith assembled for Weber State should also remain intact. And it’s not like Smith was a hot, up-and-coming coach when Weber State hired him. He’s 63 and probably on his last head coaching job. If he doesn’t remain with Arkansas after 2012, it’s hard to imagine any school taking a chance on him after what happened with Weber State.