The Century-Long History of the College Football Coaching CarouselRoundup
tags: college athletics, NCAA, football, college football
Andrew McGregor is a professor of history at the Mountain View Campus of Dallas College. He is currently working on a book about Bud Wilkinson and Oklahoma football.
The college football coaching carousel has been more intense during the 2021 season than at any other time in recent memory. There have been openings at some of the sport’s top programs, more midseason firings than usual and record-high salaries doled out. These developments have led even casual observers of the sport to wonder why this season has proved so unusual.
Many see college football as a bastion of traditional American values, including stability and group loyalty — which often meant coaches spending their entire careers at one institution. It would seem, then, that coaching chaos would be at odds with the sport’s history. But, in fact, the wildly unpredictable changes in college football coaching are rooted in that very same past, specifically in the relationship between college football and the media, which has unleashed an arms race that has placed pressure on coaches from all angles.
College football’s intimate connection with and reliance upon mass media has shaped the sport from its inception. Football rose to prominence during the 1890s, when William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer engaged in circulation wars. In competition for readers increasingly interested in spectator sports like baseball and boxing, Pulitzer hired a “sporting editor” and created a separate sports section for the New York World. Hearst followed suit, solidifying sports reporting as a key component of modern news publishing.
Newspaper coverage popularized football, too, which at the turn of the century was a relatively small-scale game. Before the late 1880s, it was played almost exclusively at elite northeastern colleges, but sports reporters’ vivid descriptions of games helped football gain national attention. The newspapers, in turn, relied heavily on the entertainment value of football reporting to boost circulation. It was a symbiotic relationship in which media coverage helped colleges attract students, fans and donors, and newspapers grew readership and ad revenue.
As the scope and scale of media evolved, so did college football, bringing with it increased money and exposure.
When radio took hold in the 1920s, colleges turned to the new medium as a way to make money through sports broadcasts. Some feared radio might depress game attendance, but instead it made the sport accessible to new audiences outside of the college community, attracting new game attendees and, thus, providing a new source of revenue. Universities, like Notre Dame, even developed extensive radio networks, enabling them to become household names well beyond their regions.