The numbers are astronomical and the process is highly secretive. A new missile defense system? The private financing of national elections?
No, my topic today is something of much greater concern to everyone in the Gator Nation: the hiring of a new football coach.
In announcing his plan for replacing Jim McElwain, Scott Stricklin, the University of Florida’s athletic director, made the following promise: “I will do everything I can to keep the search process and details confidential.”
I hope I’m not the only one who finds Stricklin’s pledge slightly jarring — given the exact opposite process mandated by Florida’s Sunshine Law for hiring a new university president. I guess paying a head coach four times what the university president earns — $4.3 million vs. $1.1 million, under McElwain’s brief reign — somehow justifies greater confidentiality.
But that’s perverse thinking, right? After all, in both situations, the nationwide search is extremely intense and highly competitive — involving multiple parties and detailed negotiations that, if conducted entirely out in the open, would inevitably be more prolonged, complicated and counter-productive.
One could, in fact, make the case that confidentiality is far more important in selecting someone responsible for overseeing every aspect of UF’s vast operations (including the intercollegiate sports program run by the University Athletic Association). Yet, the protocols are completely reversed; total secrecy when searching for a head coach, but everything (meetings, interviews, even the names and credentials of those who apply) in full public view when searching for a president.
To illustrate how bizarre operating in the Sunshine has become, consider what was splashed over the front pages of this newspaper in early August. One story told of charter jets running between Gainesville and Orlando, hotel reservations made under assumed names and a hotel meeting room assigned to “Alpha One” (not UF) — all connected with the 2014 recruitment of Kent Fuchs. How shocking. What were UF officials thinking? Retribution surely must follow.
Enter Huntley Johnson, Gainesville’s notoriously combative lawyer who, as The Sun reported several days later, was threatening to sue the university unless it immediately fired President Fuchs. Talk about turning minutiae into momentous.
It’s not the petty nitpicking over innocuous attempts to achieve minimal confidentiality that bothers me the most. It’s the blatant incongruity. We demand scrupulous openness when hiring a president, but willingly accept total secrecy when hiring a coach. It’s why I’ve long opposed the excessively pedantic application of Florida’s Sunshine rules to academic searches (and support legislation that would exempt such hires). In the end, these are inherently subjective personnel matters that generally benefit from a certain degree of privacy.
OK, I’m way off track here, and need to return to the topic I opened with: the Gator Nation’s anxiety over hiring a new football coach. For starters, I’m fine with hiring and firing coaches based on performance (and treating such decisions as confidential personnel matters). Just don’t tell me that the only measure of success is a Southeastern Conference title or a national championship; and that the only way to achieve either or both is to out-pay, outspend and out-build every other school in the country.
Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about how utterly deficient Florida’s physical facilities are — that we need to build a new football-only complex just to stay competitive in the recruitment wars. Think of it as a standalone “player’s village” which, if one looks to Clemson University or the University of Oregon as examples, might include: an indoor slide, miniature golf course, whiffle ball field, pool lounge, bowling lanes, a theater and a barber shop. That, of course, comes on top of soaring salaries for new coaches, buyouts (i.e., rewards for failure) for fired coaches, and even a likely payout to the new coach’s old school (for breaking his prior deal).
Count me as a dissenting voice if this means we’re inexorably heading toward increasingly pampered players and endless dollars poured into new, gleaming edifices that further insulate the football program from the rest of the campus.
Are we really going to continue paving the way for what some see as the real endgame — treating all football players as university employees, hired, compensated and catered to, just like their coaches? I certainly hope not.
Carl Ramey, a retired communications attorney and monthly contributor to The Sun, lives in Gainesville.