Motivation or devastation? What’s it really like for players when college coaches leave
As soon as the NCAA football regular season ends, a regular tradition occurs: Coaches will in what seems like a whirlwind process announce they are going to another school, leaving behind the student-athletes they recruited and coached for years. The press conferences are tear-filled and the quotes from the team are usually the same message of shock and resolution to carry on. But what’s really went on inside the locker room during some of the biggest surprise coaching exits? For the Win caught up with three former players to ask them about their experience for this week’s edition of Throwback Thursday.
When Nick Saban left Michigan State
In 1999: At the time of Saban’s almost overnight exit from Michigan State to go to LSU, he told reporters that the hardest part for him was leaving the players. “I like college football because when I talked to my team today, the effect that you have on some of the players, their lives, means something,” he said, according to the Associated Press.
The players told the Associated Press that they believed it was a tough decision for their coach and seemed mostly disappointed. Sophomore linebacker Josh Thornhill said: “It’s disappointing. I would have rather had a coach stick around for all four years.” Added defensive back DeMario Suggs: “I’d be sorry to see him go, but it’s his decision. Whatever is best for him and his family.”
Now: Gari Scott, one of the Spartans team captains at the time, said he remembered coming back from holiday break to a team meeting. “We were like what’s this meeting about? Coach Saban wasn’t in the meeting and we learned he took a job at LSU and so we were all in shock. We were coming off of a great season and getting ready to play Florida in the bowl game and without a coach, we didn’t know what to think of it.” The most shocking part for Scott, he said, was as a captain who had a relatively close relationship with Saban, he thought he would have been given a heads up. “I remember [Plaxico Burress] and I, we looked at each other in silence. Like are you kidding me? I just remember that it was right before our bowl game — that’s what was surprising. We were all in shock at the meeting.”
The bowl game, he said, was incredibly different without Saban, who treated bowl games as business trips. “For that bowl game, it was a good time,” he said.
The two have not spoken since Saban went to Louisiana, but as is a theme for the former players who spoke with For The Win, Scott said he understands more why he decided to jump ship. “As an older man I got a different approach to it — I understand the business of it now. But as a younger man and a player he recruited it was a little surprising at the time.”
When Rich Rodriguez left West Virginia
In 2007: When Rodriguez spoke with players, according to ESPN, he was incredibly emotional and told them that he had been approached numerous times by other schools but “this time” chose to listen. “The players are upset because he said he’s going to leave before the bowl game,” James Dykes, the father of West Virginia defensive tackle Keilen Dykes told ESPN’s Joe Schad. “At least coach them in the bowl game. James just called to tell us and I know he is very upset about this.” Added Keilen Dykes: “We’re all hurting right now, but we can’t cry.”
Now: Dorrell Jalloh remembers in the days leading to Rodriguez’s departure getting questions from reporters about rumors that he was leaving, but the team was mostly dismissive of them. “No one believed it considering he turned down the Alabama job before Nick Saban took it. So we figured if he turned down Alabama, he’s definitely not going to go to Michigan,” he said.
But then, the players were called into a meeting and saw dozens of reporters outside and were told the news. “It was tough for most people because Coach Rodriguez went to a lot of people’s houses and spoke to a lot of people’s mothers and fathers and said ‘I’m going to take care of your son and make sure he gets a good education,’” he said.
The team tried to quickly move on and get ready for an upcoming bowl game. “Senior leadership stuck up and said ‘Hey it’s going to be OK, we’re going to help you guys,’” he said. For Jalloh, it took a bit to sink in, especially as they headed out for an hour-long practice. “The first thing I said was this is not real, it’s kind of like that dream, this is not real. But once he walked out of the room, we still had to go to practice. It was like what we still have to practice? But sure enough the show must go on … ”
Jalloh said while he had trouble understanding the decision at the time, it seems like clearly the right one to make now. “(If I) have the opportunity to go to Michigan and they’re going to pay me large amounts of money, why would you not take that opportunity to secure that for the rest of my life?” he said. “Financially you set yourself up for the future so your kids kids can be financially stable for the future.”
When Mack Brown left North Carolina
In 1997: After 10 years in Chapel Hill, Brown’s decision to leave came perhaps even as a shock to him. “We’ve had a good run. We’ve had a good stay,” Brown told reporters, according to the Associated Press at the time. “There’s not any reason for me to leave here. I think it’s the challenge of starting over. … I never thought I’d leave here.” He added: “The hardest thing is to leave the kids. I do love those kids. You probably spend more time with the football players than your own family.”
Those kids, according to reports from the time, were also shocked. “It’s going to be real bad for them. I pray they don’t go out and do nothing crazy,” senior defensive end Greg Ellis said of the underclassmen, according to the AP. … “Some players in (the meeting) looked really hurt. I was really hurt. I can’t possibly hurt like those other guys are hurting. Now, it’s like, ‘What do I do?”‘Now: Brown, according to Na’ Brown, denied he was going anywhere as recently as the day before he signed the deal with Texas despite people in town constantly asking players about the rumors he was leaving. “We had practice, I don’t remember what day it was, he was in front of us saying ‘don’t worry about it, I’m not going anywhere and the next day they cancelled practice,” he said. “He probably had a lot going on in his head at the time.”
Brown said most players couldn’t imagine the Tar Heels without him.
“Mack was a guy who recruited me,” he remembered. “He got me to come there. I believed in everything he was saying. He was a really good guy. He was more of a father figure to all of us so when he left it hurt — it really hurt. We never expected it to happen — we were told he’s going to be there forever … and then he actually leaves.”
Brown remembers it taking hours for the news to sink in. As the team was trying to shake off the shock and prepare for the upcoming bowl game, many guys talked about transferring to Texas, Brown said. “But then again we came to the school for a reason we love the school so (we said) let’s just make a most of it.”
The two did stay in touch a bit. When Brown was drafted to the NFL in 1999 the first congratulatory call he received from was Mack Brown. “It’s a decision he had to make for him and his family,” he said. “When you’re a kid when you’re 18, 19, 20 you’re not looking at it that way.”
This article was selected for educational purposes only.