Mandel's Mailbag: Why did Oklahoma extend Brent Venables? Best historical year for 12-team Playoff? (2024)

On Tuesday, we learned that the less than 24 hours after leading the Aggies to the College World Series championship series.

I’ve seen a lot of backstabbing coaching moves in college football, but I have never, ever seen anything as cold and merciless as that.

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But, as always, money talks. And these SEC schools … they’re swimming in it.

Stewart, what did you think of Oklahoma extending Brent Venables’ contract as well as giving him a raise? Unless Oklahoma was getting hurt on the recruiting trail, I fail to see how this made sense until the upcoming season played out. — Timothy D.

It was only a month or so ago, at the SEC’s annual meetings in Destin, Fla., that the league’s athletic directors took turns bemoaning the impact the proposed House settlement will have on their budgets. “We’re all going to rip open and do a total autopsy on every single part of our program’s economic health,” Florida AD Scott Stricklin said.

Apparently, Oklahoma counterpart Joe Castiglione ripped his open and said, “All good here,” then proceeded to do the classic college administrator thing: Negotiate against yourself. Venables is getting another two years added to his contract and a roughly $1.1 million per year raise.

Venables may go on to lead the Sooners to national championships, but he’s 16-10 as a head coach. Literally no one is trying to pry him out of Norman. Venables still had four years and nearly $30 million remaining on his original, fully guaranteed contract. There were zero realistic concerns about his job security.

But hey, we’re making SEC money now, we’ve got some cash to burn. Why not extend the guy for another two years and give him a $1 million-plus raise that puts him in the neighborhood of what Jim Harbaugh was making at Michigan his last year?

I’m reticent to question Castiglione, who’s been at Oklahoma for a quarter-century and is arguably the most respected AD in the country. Reading his comments about the new contract, it seems to be part of a larger strategy to show strength and stability as the school officially enters the SEC on Monday. It keeps Paul Finebaum and others from questioning Venables’ job security if the Sooners start 0-3 in conference play (Tennessee, at Auburn, versus Texas) or even if they slide back to 6-6 again.

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You’d think there would have been a more financially responsible way to do it than committing yourself to an extra $8 million or so. But, it just shows that SEC schools will be making more than enough money to add a new $20 million-plus annual line item for their athletes while continuing to throw silly money at unproven head coaches.

You’re hired as head coach at a new school. How would you rank the importance of hiring the right person for: offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, strength and conditioning, recruiting coordinator and (now) NIL/salary “capologist”? Which is your most critical hire? I feel like OC and DC now fall to the bottom of the list of those five positions on my staff. How crazy is that? — Michael, Nashville, Tenn.

Easy answer for No. 1: The strength coach. I’m not sure people realize what an impact this person has on a program, well beyond actual strength and conditioning. For roughly eight months a year, he spends far more time with the players than any on-field coach. The head coach may instill the culture, but no one does more to maintain it year-round. Frankly, I’m not sure why these guys aren’t the highest-paid people in the building other than the head coach.

I’d put the “roster management” guy next, though that role varies from one place to the next. When Kalen DeBoer was hired by Alabama, the first guy he brought with him from Washington was his “general manager,” Courtney Morgan. According to his Alabama bio, Morgan will be tasked with “managing the Crimson Tide’s roster while overseeing and directing the daily operations of both the personnel and recruiting departments. He will help organize the head coach’s film evaluations and prospect communication while also organizing transfer portal evaluations.”

Come to Alabama. Transformational over Transactional. #Rolltide #coldsummer pic.twitter.com/qfCR2nBn1c

— Courtney Morgan (@PlayerProMorgan) June 19, 2024

And you can’t oversee recruiting without having a hand in what the collective is doing.

The OC and DC are still important hires, to be sure, seeing as game planning and play calling directly impact the outcomes of the games. But the fact they deal with only half the roster, by default, places them behind the other two.

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I’ve been saying for years, well before roster management became what it is today, that college programs should have a GM-type position that’s as high on the org chart, if not higher, than the head coach. Because they’re truly different skill sets.

In a pro sports franchise, the head coach doesn’t spend half his working hours watching tape of potential roster additions and then calling and texting them to show them how much he loves them. Let the coach focus on teaching, strategy, game planning and practice while the GM handles the bulk of the recruiting/portal/name, image and likeness duties. In recent years we’ve seen programs invest more heavily in roles of that kind (player personnel director, chief of staff, GM, etc.), but they’re still relegated to “support staff.” To me, that belies their importance.

Is the NCAA still investigating Michigan for the staff member (Connor Stalions) recording opposing sidelines? When it occurred, all we heard was how it was the worst case of cheating imaginable. Then they won the national title and everyone pretended it didn’t happen. You even danced around it for some reason. So, nobody cares about the Michigan cheating scandal? — Richard D.

As far as I know, yes, that investigation remains ongoing, but as we know, these things often take forever, usually with radio silence along the way. The NCAA’s previous investigation into Michigan and Harbaugh involved allegations from 2021. It was finally resolved earlier this year.

As I said repeatedly at the time, what made that scandal so explosive was that it broke in the middle of a season in which Stalions had still been operating his scheme right up until the story broke. A team actively in the hunt for a national championship was caught dead-to-rights cheating. Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti deemed it egregious enough to suspend the head coach of Michigan for the Ohio State game and two others. Hard to argue “nobody cares” when he cared quite a bit.

As for the NCAA — what meaningful punishment could it even levy at this point? Stalions got fired and will never work in college football again. Michigan got its CFP trophy, one the NCAA cannot unilaterally remove. Harbaugh got an NFL job. And the Committee on Infractions has already been moving away from postseason bans. If Tennessee did not get one for an elaborate pay-for-play scheme with direct involvement by former head coach Jeremy Pruitt, I can’t imagine Michigan will for in-person scouting violations by a former support staffer, even if it can prove Harbaugh knew all about it. (And good luck proving that one.)

Without knowing what else the NCAA might find, my best guess is the school will have to vacate regular-season wins during the period in which Stalions was still operating (potentially including the 2022 Ohio State game) and pay a nominal fine. If so, Buckeyes fans will take it as vindication that, see, Michigan never would have beaten C.J. Stroud without knowing the play calls, and Wolverines fans will go back to watching YouTube clips of Donovan Edwards ripping off another 80-yard touchdown run that 17 million people saw in real time with their own eyes.

Of the schools that never made the four-team Playoff, which one is most likely to win a national championship in the next 3-5 years? — Martin D.

It’s got to be a school capable of consistently recruiting at a top-10 level. There aren’t many of those left who’ve yet to reach a Playoff, but the short list of candidates (without accounting for current coach or roster) would be: Texas A&M, Florida, Miami, Auburn, Tennessee and USC. Note: All but Texas A&M won at least one national title in the BCS/CFP era.

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Call me foolish, but I’ll go with Miami. Mario Cristobal hasn’t broken through yet, but he’s recruiting at a high level (his first two full classes both finished in the top 10), has the NIL resources to get prized transfers like Cam Ward and Damien Martinez and has a better chance of winning his conference (and securing a first-round bye) coming out of the ACC than the Big Ten and SEC schools on that list.

Also: The U was one of the most dominant programs in the sport from 1983 to 2003. It won more national titles over that 20-year span (five) than Georgia has in its entire history (four). Surely, it’s going to come back at some point, despite the past 20 years of evidence to the contrary.

Will the majority of college football fans now be satisfied with a 12-team Playoff to conclude the season? — Tim F.

You must be joking. It is not humanly possible for a majority of college football fans to be satisfied with anything.

Stewart, which college football seasons during your years as a fan and writer do you wish there had been a Playoff system? When four different teams (yes, four) received some form of national championship recognition after the 1964 season, Dan Jenkins proposed a 16-team playoff in SI’s 1965 College Football Preview. Only took about 60 years to happen. — Richard R., Chicago

If I haven’t said this before, I grew up idolizing Dan Jenkins. He was without question my biggest influence as a college football writer, particularly in shaping my awareness that this is an inherently absurd sport ripe for endless mockery.

And my man sure nailed it with this paragraph from that story:

“Although the NCAA decides national champions in most other sports — for instance, fencing — its main argument against a football playoff centers vaguely around overemphasis. But as long as the administrators fire coaches, sell tickets, recruit athletes, play postseason games and peddle their product to television they are kidding no one.”

Nearly 50 years before the College Football Playoff was born, Dan Jenkins suggested a 16-team tournament in SI's 1965 college football preview: https://t.co/qGBNsIwfUZ pic.twitter.com/lGPtKM0n9e

— SI Vault (@si_vault) March 8, 2019

The obvious first choice is the zany 2007 season, when no one could stay on top for more than a week and 11-2 LSU got tapped from among seven other two-loss teams to face 11-1 Ohio State in the national championship game. Based on the final BCS rankings, the electrifying Pat White/Steve Slaton/Noel Devine version of West Virginia would have been a No. 9 seed that I predict would have knocked off the top-seeded Buckeyes in a quarterfinal. And No. 7 seed USC would have taken down No. 2 seed LSU in another.

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The next year, 2008, could have merited one, too. That’s the year 11-1 Oklahoma emerged from a three-way tiebreaker with 11-1 Texas (which it lost to) and 11-1 Texas Tech (which beat the Horns) to reach the Big 12 title game and, eventually, the BCS Championship Game, where it lost to Florida. I do think the Tim Tebow Gators were the best team that season, but No. 5 USC was loaded and could have won the thing. And I’d have liked to see undefeated Utah get its shot.

An interesting one would have been 2015. No. 7 Ohio State (11-1) spit the bit against Michigan State that year but caught fire after that and may well have won a 12-team Playoff. And No. 6 Stanford with Christian McCaffrey would have handled No. 3 Michigan State (that is, if it survived No. 11 TCU first).

And then last season, solely because of what happened to Florida State. I never thought we’d see an undefeated Power 5 team left out of a four-team CFP. It would have also given Georgia a chance to three-peat, Missouri a chance to legitimize itself with a first-round win at Oregon and Penn State a chance to convert more than one third down in its second trip to Columbus.

When all the complaining starts from coaches and fans about who the last at-large teams should have been to get into the 12-team Playoff, can we all finally agree that the only solution will be to bring back the BCS? — Robb Miethaner, Buffalo, N.Y.

Absolutely. Let’s bring back a system that was so reviled it prompted someone (Dan Wetzel) to write an entire book called “Death to the BCS.”

I’ll admit, though, it was a fantastic source for content.

Fox proclaims earlier this year they are going to go “all in” on bidding for the CFP media rights extension. They end up not even bidding, and ESPN gets a less-than-market-value deal ($1.3 billion a year) for the sole bid. How in the heck did this happen? — Vincent R. G., Grapevine, Texas

Fox didn’t publicly proclaim the “all in” thing, though there was a report by Front Office Sports in early January proclaiming that Fox Sports was weighing a “massive” bid. Only days later, ESPN itself reported that ESPN was “in the midst of negotiations to maintain the network as the sole rights holder of the event for the next eight years.” Somebody was trying to leverage someone with that Fox “massive bid” that never materialized.

When the CFP first floated the 12-team proposal in 2021, research firm Navigate valued the new format at $1.9 billion a year. The CFP didn’t get close to that, in part because expanding the thing with two years left on the current contract worked against it. Contractually, ESPN got first right of refusal for the new first-round games in 2024 and ’25, which, given they’re going against the NFL, were not particularly coveted. (The Athletic’s Andrew Marchand put their average value at $25 million.) But ESPN was able to fold those rights into its larger extension for 2026-31 and is now presumably recouping some of the cost by sublicensing them to TNT.

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Sublicensing games from ESPN could also become a cheaper way for Fox (or CBS or NBC) to get a piece of the next deal. As I reported at the time the new deal was announced, “The parties have a commitment to air a minimum of one game per round on an over-the-air network beginning in 2026-27.” ESPN could simply put games on ABC to fulfill that requirement or it could make some nice bank selling a Rose Bowl quarterfinal to someone else.

While $1.3 billion a year is still a lot of money, the deal sure seems like a big whiff. The NBA is reportedly going from two partners to three (ESPN, NBC and Amazon) and nearly tripling its rights fees from nine years earlier. The CFP increased its package from seven games (including the other New Year’s Six bowls) to 11, raised the stakes for the four non-CFP bowls and is getting less than double what it did 12 years ago.

On the bright side, it was only the second-worst TV negotiation of the past year in college football.

What’s the closest college football analog to the Lakers hiring J.J. Reddick? — Raman, Washington, D.C.

UAB hiring former NFL QB and ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer last year bears some similarities, though he’d at least coached in high school. And UAB is hardly the Lakers. Same thing with Jackson State hiring Deion Sanders a few years back.

The closest thing I can think of where a Lakers-esque college football program hired someone having never coached at that level was when Notre Dame hired Gerry Faust, the longtime coach of Moeller High in Cincinnati, in 1981. He lasted five seasons and never finished better than 7-5.

Unlike Reddick, he did not have LeBron.

What is the best concession item you’ve ever had at a college football stadium? —Landen, Olathe, Kan.

Autzen Stadium at Oregon used to sell a Wild Pacific Salmon Sandwich at a stand right next to the elevator to the press box. It was both delicious and convenient.

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But my experience at 99 percent of college stadiums is that 99 percent of their concessions are the same basics (hot dogs, hamburgers, maybe a pulled pork sandwich).

Therefore, I hereby open this question to the masses — let us know if there’s a must-have at your favorite venue.

(On-campus stadiums only, please.)

(Photo: Nathan J. Fish / The Oklahoman / USA Today Network)

Mandel's Mailbag: Why did Oklahoma extend Brent Venables? Best historical year for 12-team Playoff? (2024)
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