The calculated risk of retaining Will Muschamp

One time, in a former life, I managed a group of restaurants. The job ground my self-esteem into a pulp and sprinkled it into hastily made sandwiches, which were then delivered in 10 minutes or less.

Aside from learning when an employee is too stoned to hold a sharp knife, the most important skill I gained during my tenure was how to properly hire and fire. When hiring, it was important to get the right personalities – ones that jibed with the culture of my business. The firings were a balance of knowing when to cut my losses, admitting when my initial assessment of a person was wrong, and gambling that I could find a more competent replacement.

Restaurants are revolving doors. So are coaching seats. However, if running a fast food joint is a friendly game of checkers at Cracker Barrel, then manning a multi-million dollar athletic program is a scene out of “Deer Hunter.”

By retaining Will Muschamp as head coach, Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley is taking a calculated risk. On one hand, the decision says that Foley believes in his coach. That the 11-2 season of 2012 was the norm. That 4-8 was an aberration. And that Muschamp has the ability to succeed in Gainesville.

It also says that, even if “Boom” is a bust in 2014, the Florida program will have still come out on top. They avoided the crowded marketplace of 2013.

Programs can survive down seasons. They can easily rebound from failed expectations. However, a top-tier school cannot quickly recover from an ill-conducted hiring.

In his book Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain wrote the following about failure and restaurants:

Like some unseen incubus, this evil cloud of failure can hang over a restaurant long after the operation has gone under, killing any who follow. The cumulative vibe of a history of failed restaurants can infect an address year after year, even in an otherwise bustling neighborhood. You can see it when passersby peer into the front window of the next operator; there’s a scowl, a look of suspicion, as if they are afraid of contamination.

A failed coaching search is much like a restaurant in this sense. If a top-flight program misses it’s primary target, the stench creeps in. Fans will second-guess the new coach, simply because he wasn’t the initial choice. Recruits will defect on the perception that the university is no longer high-profile. From day one, a coach must sell himself instead of the program.

Teams like Louisville can afford losing a coach, because the pool for mid-tier coaches is deep. The same goes for Western Kentucky, Boise State and Vanderbilt. However, once you get into the upper-echelon of programs – ones expecting to compete for championships every year – the talent pool shrinks.

It was an active market this year. USC, Texas and Penn State all had coaching vacancies. The NFL, due to the successes of Pete Carroll, Jim Harbaugh and Chip Kelly, also turned an eye towards hot college prospects.

Had Florida tested the waters, it would have competed against historic football programs and the allure of the NFL. Two of the Gators’ best three assets, legacy and bank account, would’ve been nullified (though one can argue that Florida’s third selling point, recruiting, was also hamstrung due to the high school talent in TX and CA).

Jeremy Foley is a loyal athletic director, but he’s also a shrewd businessman. By keeping the team out of the marketplace, he protected the Gators brand.

Will Muschamp can coach. He can also recruit. However, he has not demonstrated the ability to hire the proper staff members that complement his system. Muschamp has yet to prove that he can manage the totality of a football program.

Luckily for him, this down year came on the heels of a Sugar Bowl campaign, and during a tumultuous offseason for some of the NCAA’s richest programs.

As for Foley, he hedged nicely. Regardless of how the 2014 season plays out, he protected the Gators from that evil cloud of failure. The brand remains strong.