Marcus Satterfield and the continuity problem
South Carolina's football program is in desperate need of continuity. But the ineptitude of USC's offense might nevertheless demand a shake-up.
The labor market for college football coaches is fundamentally broken in more ways than can be succinctly enumerated. A recent ESPN report tallied up over half a billion dollars spent by public universities on head coach buyouts between 2010 and 2021, and in a 2019 episode of The College Football Daily, I interviewed an economist about some of the systemic issues that have brought us to this point. The $10 million/year salary LSU is throwing at Brian Kelly feels as though it is ushering in a new era in conspicuous consumption. In a way, the extravagant spending turns up the pressure on the Shane Beamer Experiment, lest South Carolina have to wade once more into the ever-inflating coaching market.
The problem of ballooning head coach salaries is too big to solve in this post, and it’s only tangential to the point I wish to make. But what I will focus on is one aspect of the issue which has influenced my thinking about South Carolina’s coaching staff, in 2021 and beyond. Basically, I think part of the problem is schools are too quick to fire coaches and that they do this because they massively underrate the value of continuity. And in so doing, they are missing out on the reward that often comes on the other side of some underwhelming seasons in, say, years four or five.
Increasingly, it’s not merely enough to have a good coach who fields a team that competes for conference championships most years. Now, there’s an arms race to have the youngest coach. The hot-new-thing coach. The coach at the avant garde of offensive innovation. And the moment their ever-upward trajectory shows the slightest hint of bending downward, it’s time to pay the eight-figure buyout and hire his replacement.
That’s more or less what happened to Dan Mullen. After immediately restoring Florida to where Florida ought to be — and keeping them there for three seasons — he was shown the exit after precisely one bad year. My consternation comes not from an overabundance of sympathy for millionaire head coaches. Rather, it comes from a sense confusion at how, exactly, one is meant to build a successful program if even a single bad season is a fireable offense.
By CFB Playoff-era standards, the most tenured coaches in the sport — Kirk Ferentz, Kyle Whittingham, and even Dabo Swinney — would have each been fired sometime during the 2000s. When you opt to retain a coach despite a bad season or two, they have the opportunity to make changes to their program without having to bring in a new coach and reset the entire program to its factory settings. The downside risk is that you’ll waste years on a coach who lacks the capacity to turn things around. I’m not suggesting that we completely disregard that downside risk; what I’m suggesting is that many schools are currently assigning it far too much weight.
In a 2016 article I wrote on Clemson’s long journey to becoming a blueblood, I laid out how Clemson giving Dabo time to tinker on both sides of the ball eventually elevated the Tigers into national title contention.
The first turning point for Clemson came following the 2010 season that saw the Tigers finish with their first losing record since 1998. Dabo Swinney fired offensive coordinator Billy Napier and hired Texas Spread evangelist Chad Morris. Clemson began the 2011 season playing an attractive style of offense that maximized the talents of Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, and Andre Ellington. But for the next few years, the Tigers' defense was still hemorrhaging yards and points, culminating in a 70-33 humiliation in the 2012 Orange Bowl. Then Swinney fired Kevin Steele and replaced him with Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables. In 2012 and 2013, the hemorrhaging slowed to a trickle, and by 2015 the Tigers had the best defense in the country.
To the extent that Clemson’s employment of Dabo Swinney has been a stroke of genius, it’s less because they decided to hire him in the first place than that they gave him the time and financial support to fail — and having failed, to correct his mistakes. To the extent that South Carolina’s employment of Shane Beamer might someday be regarded with such lofty esteem, it will almost certainly be for similar reasons.
Among South Carolina fans, the buyer’s remorse over Shane Beamer reached its high point following the 44-14 loss to Texas A&M on Oct. 23. But after securing bowl eligibility with wins over Auburn and Florida, any remotely serious talk of pulling the plug on the Beamer Era has receded. (Now, there are even suggestions, however dubious, that he might be a candidate at Oklahoma.) The main question facing Beamer now is whether a shakeup on his offensive staff is necessary heading into Year 2.
The continuity problem for head coaches is also present, on a lesser scale, with coordinators. Having just argued that a key to Dabo’s success has been his free hand in hiring and firing coordinators, it would be ridiculous of me to suggest that Beamer shouldn’t be given the same latitude. At the same time, if Beamer were to fire Marcus Satterfiled, fourth-year players on South Carolina’s offense would face preparations for the 2022 season under their fourth different offensive coordinator.
Continuity at offensive and defensive coordinator is not nearly as important as continuity at head coach, but nor is it unimportant. Indeed, the first hint of trouble at Clemson has come amid their first serious bout of coordinator churn since Chad Morris left in 2014.
For this reason, I have been predisposed toward giving Satterfield the benefit of the doubt so that the USC upperclassmen can, for the first time in their careers, enjoy some schematic stability. So that, on top of whatever talent disadvantages they face, the Gamecocks’ offensive players aren’t also navigating yet another learning curve.
And yet, continuity can’t be the only reason to keep Satterfield around.
Until the final day of the regular season, I was prepared to give Satterfield the chance to demonstrate that there was something in his offense worth preserving. But after 12 games, there is vanishingly little evidence of any redeeming qualities. South Carolina’s offense ranked 118th in the country, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, down from 64th under offensive wizard Mike Bobo. Modest improvement from 2020 in the passing game was more than offset by the loss of a full yard per carry on the ground. This, despite the return of almost the entire offensive line that helped Kevin Harris become the SEC’s leading rusher.
Nor is there anything in Satterfield’s résumé to offer much comfort. His tenure under Matt Rhule as Temple’s offensive coordinator might scan as impressive, but it was defensive coordinator Phil Snow (still with Rhule at Carolina) whose unit helped make Rhule a rising star in the middle part of the last decade. In fact, the best offense Rhule fielded at Temple was in 2016, the year Satterfield left to begin his unsuccessful two-year run as Tennessee Tech head coach.
South Carolina is in desperate need of stability, as it has been at many other points in its history. Between 1999 and 2000, for example, Lou and Skip Holtz came up with an internal solution that turned things around. Twenty-two years later, is a similar change in the offing? Much to the frustration of USC fans, Satterfield has insisted that there isn’t a problem with his scheme. Then again, the Holtzes offered similar denials in 1999 even as they were planning a transition from the Notre Dame power-run offense to the Skip Holtz spread.
In the narrowest possible context, 2021 was a single bad season — just the kind that I’ve said schools should be more inclined to forgive. This is where résumé kicks in again.
With Skip Holtz, he already had his own track record of success at UConn apart from his hall-of-fame lineage.
With Dan Mullen, there was 13 years of coaching in the SEC at a very high level.
With Marcus Satterfield, there is Shane Beamer’s belief in Marcus Satterfield — and little else.
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