For Georgia Tech football, winning more requires spending more

Georgia Tech President Ángel Cabrera said he wants his institution to be great at everything, including football. He dismissed athletic director Todd Stansbury and football coach Geoff Collins because they didn’t produce results that came close to meeting that goal.

“I’m dedicated to doing what it takes to get us where we belong: among the best programs in our conference, among the best programs in our country,” Cabrera said Tuesday.

Sounds great in theory. In practice, that’s probably too ambitious for Tech.

The Yellow Jackets certainly should aim for fielding a team that is competitive against peers. Collins is gone because he couldn’t do that. To be better than that consistently, like compete for ACC titles and regular bowl bids, the Jackets are going to have to spend more money on football.

At the college level, that mostly means spending more for coaches’ salaries. The market is irrational, largely because coaches don’t have to compete for salaries with players who are more valuable. But that’s become the cost of doing business in big-time college football. Tech hasn’t paid a price that matches Cabrera’s stated ambitions.

Now the athletic department will have to pay up for a new football coach while also paying Collins the $11.37 million that’s owed to him. Stansbury had success with fundraising, mostly for capital projects. His successor will have to find the money to pay for his mistakes and build a competitive football program.

Frank Neville, the interim athletic director, said that Tech is prepared to up the ante:

“Our goal is to invest in order to make this program competitive. As part of the discussions, we are looking at the financial model for this year and next year and saying, ‘How do we increase sources of revenues? How do we mobilize the community to support (the) program?’”

My interactions with Tech football fans – an admittedly biased and limited sample – lead me to believe they don’t expect (or even necessarily want) the Jackets to compete for national titles. You won’t find many fan bases that are more reasonable at the Power Five level. That’s why it was strange and counterproductive when Collins chided supporters who noticed his team wasn’t meeting even modest expectations.

With Collins, Tech had become noncompetitive against opponents from the Power Five conferences. That’s after Stansbury opened the program’s purses wider for Collins. The salary pool for his assistants was 14% higher than for predecessor Paul Johnson. Tech was just playing catch-up, though.

Even after boosting the pay for Collins’ assistants, Tech’s total compensation for his staff ($7.4 million) ranked ninth lowest of the 52 Power Five teams included in Sportico’s database for fiscal year 2020-21. Tech’s total operating expenses were seventh lowest among those teams in that year. To attract a top coaching candidate, Tech will have to spend more on football.

Tech’s next AD also will have to convince a coach that winning at Tech is possible (without the triple-option, I’m assuming). Interim Tech coach Brent Key already is sold on that part. Key calls the Tech job “one of the greatest in the country” but prefaced that by saying his perspective is that of a former Jackets player who’s on his second stint as an assistant coach on The Flats.

What can Tech offer to coaching candidates who don’t have that personal connection?

“It’s one of (the) rare places in (the) country where you can combine the academic degree for success in life after football, along with (the) game of football and the locale,” Key said.

Tech is one of the nation’s top public academic institutions. That can be a challenge in football recruiting. This is a school where the general education mission statement’s top listed priority is to produce students who are: “Mathematically, scientifically, and technically competent.”

Collins tried to take advantage of Tech’s location. Some of his branding efforts seemed silly, but then they weren’t aimed at older folks like me. Collins’ recruiting success showed that teenagers liked what he was selling. Or at least they did before the losses piled up.

The way Key sees it, Tech football needs to be competitive before the academics and location can be selling points.

“It’s up to the football program to be in the same light and at the same level because now you have a three-headed monster you can recruit to,” Key said.

Key played for Tech during one of its more successful eras after legendary coach Bobby Dodd stepped down. During Key’s four seasons under coach George O’Leary, the Jackets were 34-14 with one ACC title, four Top 25 poll finishes and three wins over Georgia. O’Leary successfully picked up the pieces from the Bill Lewis era before making his ill-fated decision to leave for Notre Dame.

Tech has been chasing those O’Leary years ever since. Chan Gailey’s Jackets had a winning record in each of his six seasons, but he couldn’t beat Georgia during a time when that was expected. Johnson produced one ACC championship (later vacated) and four Coastal Division titles. Johnson’s triple-option offense and prickly personality weren’t for everyone, but Tech shouldn’t scoff at results that included eight winning seasons out of 12.

After Johnson retired, Tech abandoned the idea of overcoming the player talent disparity with a throwback offense. Collins’ plan was to recruit better players to a program with a modern offense. It didn’t work, largely because his defense and special teams were awful. To get the kind of results they had under O’Leary, the Jackets will have to move into the modern era of paying outrageous salaries for a head coach.

Tech gave O’Leary a new contract in December 2000 that paid him more than $1 million per year. At the time, not many coaches had cleared that salary threshold, which is $1.7 million in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars. Nowadays, that figure wouldn’t cover the salary for a top assistant coach at one of the winning programs that Cabrera said Tech aspires to compete with.

I don’t blame any Tech supporters who are turned off by the whole enterprise of big-time football and would be OK with the Jackets deemphasizing the sport. There’s a lot to be said for keeping it in perspective. The chase for money inevitably corrupts the academic mission. University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins saw this coming in the 1930s. He decided to disband his school’s varsity football program even though it had enjoyed success in the Big Ten.

But Jackets backers who want to see the Jackets play winning football like they did with O’Leary, and without an antiquated offense, should hope that Tech spends more to make it happen.