How to Not Get Fired

Three simple rules

I used to write an occasional column at SB Nation, including one that offered advice to aspiring college football coaches about how to not get fired. Although that particular column is seven years old and some of the references are therefore outdated, job retention advice is mostly timeless so I’m sharing it again below with hope that these ideas will help you not get fired from your own job.


How to be a college football coach who doesn't get fired for a while

[Originally published November 19, 2014 at SBNation.com]

You watch a lot of college football on television, and you have become very good at that.

You know exactly which plays are working, because those plays make yards and touchdowns. We should run more of those plays, you say to yourself. Those plays were working earlier; why did we stop running those plays?

You are very good at clock management, too. You know exactly when a runner should get out of bounds, when the quarterback should spike the ball, when to call a time out. You often shout these instructions at your TV screen.

Sometimes you tell your beer that you could be a football coach. When you're stuck at a red light or eating a hot dog or watching cartoons, you think about how awesome that would be, and you are mostly right. Coaches make a lot of money. They are on TV a lot. They get a bunch of free clothes with logos and bright colors. They get to be in commercials and fly on special airplanes.

But before you take your first head coaching job, you need to know there are also many things that are bad.

You have to recruit a lot. This means visiting and texting 17-year-old boys every day, something that would get you arrested if you had a different job. 

You also have to spend time with rich alumni and pretend you are not spending time with them because they are rich alumni, that their richness isn't the reason you are drinking Bud Light with them on a Tuesday night in a weird banquet hall when you should be texting a 17-year-old.

But by far the worst thing about being a coach is that every day of every week, fans and alumni and media people grade your job performance. They are the Judgers. The Judgers review the score of your last football game, and if your team scored fewer points than the other team, they will explore what you did to make this horrible thing happen. The Judgers will say that you had a terrible game plan, that you didn't have the kids ready to play, that you were outcoached. The Judgers cannot know whether these things are true. But that does not matter, because these are not really explanations in the first place. They are insults.

The Judgers speak these insults as part of an evil plan. They repeat them at work and at bars and at gas stations until they seem true. They call radio stations from their cars. Dave from Springfield is a long-time-listener-first-time-caller, and even though he has never met you, he wants you to lose your job, to move to a new city, to force your kids to make new friends. You will pretend that you do not hear Dave and that you do not care, but you do and you do.

If you disappoint the Judgers, they will destroy you. They will not stop until their words force you onto something called the Hot Seat. They will then talk about how you have landed on the Hot Seat as if it was a sad accident and not something they did.

The Hot Seat is not a place to sit. It's not an actual thing at all, yet it can wreck your career. So before you take your first job, you must understand the most important thing: YOU HAVE TO AVOID THE HOT SEAT AT ALL COSTS. There are three rules for doing this.

RULE No. 1: Be expensive.

Make sure that it costs a pile of money to fire you. Your agent can help you do this by negotiating a big buyout clause or a backloaded contract or a weird penalty that your school will have to pay to get rid of you.

Once you have done that, find out which people would have to pay that money. These are the Money People. You must make the Money People happy, or at least not make them sad. Who are the Money People? Your bosses have budgets, so they are Money People. The donors who write big checks are Money People. The season ticket holders are Money People, in a sort of tiebreaker way.

The Firing Formula is the thing that will determine whether you get fired at any point in time. You will get fired when:

The cost of firing you < How much the Money People hate you

Once firing you becomes worth it under the Firing Formula, your job will be gone.

RULE No. 2: Have the two intangibles (the Mack Brown rule).

Intangible No. 1: Be likable. Nobody likes firing a nice person. Be charming. Smile a lot. Be humble. Say things like, (1) "We were very fortunate," and, (2) "Oh I don't know about that, Jim!" and, (3) "I'm just so proud of these kids." And talk about adversity and how much of it you have to overcome. SO MUCH ADVERSITY. If you don't have any adversity, you need to make some up, then overcome it and talk about it.

Intangible No. 2: Be your school's boyfriend. Make everyone believe you love your school more than anything. This is a giant lie, of course. They hired you because they had a job opening, and you took the job because you needed one. But pretend that fate brought you to the school and that you love it MORE THAN ANYTHING IN THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD, because the Judgers and Money People want to believe this very badly. Also, the longer you are at your school, the more everyone gets used to you, like a paint color or a comfortable couch, and the more weird it would feel to not have you there, even if you have become bad at coaching.

Now, even if you have these two intangibles, you will not keep your job longer than the Firing Formula allows. But you will be able to minimize how much the Money People hate you and keep your job longer than you should.

RULE No. 3: Know the Main Thing.

The most important thing is to understand why you were hired in the first place.

This is easy, you say. Coaches are hired to win a bunch of football games.

Well, yeah, except not exactly. Studies show that on average, coaches lose approximately half of their football games every year, and only one of 128 at the top level wins the national title. Winning games is hard. Every coach you go against spends 110 hours a week trying not to get fired, just like you do.

The secret is that your job isn't just to win a bunch of football games. It's to win enough football games and do a few other things in order to allow the Main Thing to happen.

Each school has a different Main Thing, and it's up to you to figure out what your school's Main Thing is. The people at the school won't tell you, because they may not want to admit it or even realize it, but it's there.

At Nebraska, for example, the Main Thing is to make the fans feel like it can one day be the 1990s again. Whether it can or cannot actually be the 1990s again is not the point. That means the coach must win big games and bowl games and recruiting battles so it feels like the train is once again leaving the station for Titlesville. When Nebraska loses big games, the fans aren't just frustrated about the loss. They are frustrated because THIS ISN'T WORKING. Nebraska fans want building blocks and things to celebrate so it seems like the team is just a couple tweaks away from the top five. Tom Osborne created a monster; you must feed the monster, or the monster will eat you.

The open jobs

[Remember, this column ran in 2014, and these jobs won’t necessarily be open after the 2021 season. But these schools will fire their coaches again soon enough.]

The good news is that there will be some pretty good job openings at the end of this season, so this is your big chance. For example, Michigan, Florida, and Kansas will be looking for a person like you. But you're smart, so before you accept one of these jobs, you want to know each school's Main Thing.

Michigan. At Michigan, the Main Thing is to make the fans feel proud of Michigan. Michigan, you see, is an Institution. Some people will tell you that the Main Thing is to beat Ohio State, but that's only important because it's a quick way to make people proud of Michigan.

This year, Brady Hoke's Michigan team got crushed by Notre Dame and then lost to Utah and Minnesota and Rutgers and Michigan State. As the losses piled up, Michigan people didn't want to talk about Michigan football as much. They were less proud of Michigan. Brady Hoke failed at the Main Thing, and he was placed on the Hot Seat.

And Hoke sent a concussed kid back into a football game either by accident or because he was disorganized or stupid. And that was very embarrassing. This was a different type of sin, but really the same one. BRADY HOKE EMBARASSED US, AGAIN.

He failed at the Main Thing, and he will soon be throwing all of his Michigan clothing into a garbage can.

Florida. When Florida hires you as its head football coach, they hand you a chest of shiny tools and treasures and expect you to unleash them and protect them. You have everything you need: beautiful weather, the neatest conference, and gifted high school athletes who were required by law to play no fewer than seven hours of football every day starting at age six.

So at Florida, the Main Thing is to make everyone feel like you are not going to get in the way of the winning, that you will let the winning happen. And if you can do it in a flashy way and score a lot of points, even better. Be cool. Be humble. Be tough. As a random example, don't be a yelly, inexperienced defensive-minded meathead. That is someone who appears to get in the way of the winning.

Kansas. If Kansas offers you the head coaching job, I want you to take it. It's in a good conference. The school has money and nice buildings. And their Main Thing is simple: make Saturdays fun. Play games that matter, avoid off-field drama, be likable, and have a chance for a breakout year once in a while. Pave the way to basketball season. THAT'S IT. You will never be the biggest deal at Kansas as long as the sport of basketball exists, but there are good things about that. You can have that job for a long time, if you just make Saturdays fun.

As you read this, Charlie Weis is lying on a very large couch and not coaching Kansas, mostly because he made Saturdays not fun at all. He was kind of a penis and made the football feel hopeless. Don't do that.

So, good luck with your first coaching job. I'm sure you'll do great. Make the Judgers and Money People happy (you won't) and you'll have a long successful career (you'll be fired).