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Can Group of 5 schools benefit from Power 5 coaching raids?

Here’s hoping schools outside the Power 5 conferences follow the lead of the University of Houston. Whether they held the course is uncertain, but the Cougars were set to demand a hefty buyout clause within the contract of their new football coach – a counterattack to losing three of their last four coaches to Power 5 conferences.

It makes sense.

Schools residing on the fringes of the elite long have served as the research-and-development arm of the big boys. Group of 5 schools (or mid-majors, as they are called in basketball) typically hire either Division I assistants or lower-level head coaches to run their football and basketball programs. When those coaches have success, Power 5 schools swoop in and steal them away, typically for a relatively small buyout.

This is hardly a new practice. What’s different is that robust television contracts have increased the financial disparity between the Power 5 and the Group of 5. Mid-American Conference schools reportedly receive in the neighborhood of $1 million for their television deal. Schools in the American Athletic Conference receive about $2 million. Anticipated revenues for each Big Ten school this season: a reported $35.5 million.

The Power 5 conferences use every bit of their profound leverage to maintain their advantage over the disadvantaged. Rarely will they play a football or basketball road game against a school in lesser conferences.  Few football bowl matchups enable a Group of 5 school to take a swing at a bigger presence. Mid-majors often are pitted against one another in the NCAA Basketball Tournament, which assures one but not both will advance. The system is skewed to, in NFL parlance, protect the Power 5 shield.

Group of 5 and mid-major schools have been forced to gather the crumbs, such as appearance fees for playing road games against Power 5 schools. The hefty buyout clause pondered by Houston is one way they can fight back. You want our coach? The buyout is, say, $1 million a year for the remaining years on the contract.

Some might argue such contract stipulations will make Group of 5 or mid-major jobs less attractive. Baloney. Coaches are always looking to improve their standing. Head jobs pay well, even within the Group of 5. And if a Power 5 school desires a Group of 5 coach it can certainly finance the buyout.

Besides, Group of 5 coaches (or probably more accurately, their agents) have managed to infuse the system with enviable job security protections. A handy local example: UB men’s basketball coach Nate Oats received a five-year contract extension that runs through 2020. UB has to pay him even if the program tanks and a coaching change is made. But Oats can leave for a bigger job anytime he chooses with UB receiving little in return.This is the norm throughout the mid-major level.

Athletic departments point to stability as a driver of contract extensions. That's an illusion. UB has had six football coaches in its 17 seasons in the Mid-American Conference, or a new one about every three seasons. Miami Ohio has had five coaches in that span, Northern Illinois four.  Any Group of 5 football recruit who thinks he’ll be playing for the same head coach throughout his five years in college had best do some homework.

Houston, apparently urged on by a big booster, was on to something. Why should Group of 5 schools serve as a coaching feeder system for the “majors” while receiving so little in return? Why should UB lose Turner Gill to Kansas, or Bowling Green lose Youngstown native Dave Clawson to Wake Forest and his replacement, Dino Babers, to Syracuse, for Power 5 pocket change?

The list of coaches who have made such leaps goes on and on and will forever grow. But with the financial disparity between big and small ever-widening, it’s time for the little guys to defend themselves by using the same words they’ve so often been made to hear: Hey, it’s only business.


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