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How college football's coaching carousel turned into the plot of "Succession" overnight

Credit: LSU Athletics

Upon watching HBO’s prestige-television hit Succession, a dark comedy-drama about the absolute worst family in the world, the Roy family, vying to be the successor to their CEO father in the massive, conglomerate he founded, it becomes quite clear that not a single soul in the show has a single shred of loyalty. Most go far beyond that. The vast majority lack any redeeming qualities at all. And why would they? In the cutthroat world Succession operates in, human qualities like affection and loyalty are seen as weakness. That weakness won’t get you to the top, in this instance, the CEO chair of Waystar Royco.

The events of the last four days or so don’t need much more repeating. Big time coaches whose blue-blood football program and universities seemingly were happy for them to be coach for life, or at least for quite a while longer, suddenly left so-called destination jobs for other so-called destination jobs.

They say money talks, and that’s true. Brian Kelly and Lincoln Riley are getting quite a bit of money to move on from Notre Dame and Oklahoma and go to LSU and USC, respectively. It’s not immediately clear, given that private schools are involved in both changes and those institutions do not disclose contract details at the level that public institutions do, just how much more money it really is. It appears to not be that big of an upgrade financially, judging by initial reports.

There are a variety of reasons, large and small, that Kelly and Riley decided to make the move when they did. Some are specific to their own situations, like Riley wanting his young family to experience new things, something that Los Angeles offers at a level unmatched in the college football world. It sounds like Brian Kelly was unhappy with Notre Dame’s slow playing of upgrades he thought were necessary to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, the on-campus host of the day-today operations of the Irish program. LSU’s facilities are unmatched.

Yet, what I think is the biggest reason for their abrupt, surprising, and what some (though not me) would call unethical departures is something both men have in common. They felt like they could get closer to the national championship that has eluded both than they could at their previous spots.

The allure of the title of national champion coach is the end-all, be-all in this business. The idea of it is so powerful that it will make people who, on the outside, have everything, feel like they simply cannot live without the one thing that in their mind will get them that title. It’s why type A people like Lincoln Riley and Brian Kelly get up in the morning, it’s why they have their seventh cup of coffee at 11:30pm on a Tuesday in May to get them through one more hour of film study, and it’s why they’re making these moves.

It’s no different in Succession. Season one revolves around Kendall Roy, who appears to be the least incompetent of patriarch Logan Roy’s three sons, trying to oust his dad from the CEO chair by any means necessary. The depths that Kendall will go to in order to sit in that coveted seat almost make you feel sorry for him, until you realize that he is just like his morally bankrupt father, willing to do whatever it is necessary to accumulate power. He fails, of course, or else the show could’ve ended after one season.

Kendall doesn’t regret chasing the crown, though, because it’s all about the crown. It’s about the chase for him, just like it is for top college football coaches. Riley and Kelly have lived for that chase since they entered the business, and them leaving seemingly safe, cushy jobs that have a punchers chance of getting them a national championship, makes sense when you realize that they left for places that move them, in their estimations, ever so slightly closer to the top.

There are times when you want to like the characters, and think to yourself, “oh, this person is not the same as the rest of them. They care.” Every single time, that same character will let you down, doing something so far removed from humanity you feel sick to your stomach and wonder why you watch at all. Somewhere, though, you realize that if you just accept the fact that none of these people are role models, the show is actually pretty entertaining. The constant backdooring, two-timing, and groveling for one more inch of leverage over other people they seemingly love, whether they be siblings, spouses, longtime mentors or parents, stop being nauseating and instead becomes the main attraction.

College football is the same way, and it’s never been more apparent than in this latest flurry of news. Coaches will say things at press conferences that will make you truly think that PJ Fleck’s childhood dream job was to be the head football coach specifically at the University of Minnesota. James Franklin did the same thing at my alma mater, Penn State. That opening press conference is full of a coach professing how much they love this place, a place they’ve been aligned with many times for less than 24 hours, and that this specific job is their life’s work.

Credit to Franklin and Fleck, who both have stuck with those jobs when they had the opportunities to move on. But, as much as I would love to buy what Franklin said at that opening press conference, when he exclaimed that he was a “Pennsylvania boy with a Penn State heart”, I know that if he believes a different situation could get him closer to that national title, his heart will belong to someone else. It took me awhile to realize that both on a Penn State level and a national level, and some Notre Dame and Oklahoma fans are having the same realization, albeit maybe at a more abrupt and costly time.

I like James Franklin. I was lucky enough to intern for the program for one summer early in his tenure, and ever since he has always said hello, asked how my family is, etc. But he’s no different than anyone else in this business, just like Lincoln Riley and Brian Kelly. They want what gets them closer to the eternal glory of a national championship, and I can’t blame them for that. I know how much I want one for the team I root for, and it adds nothing to my own legacy as a person if they win zero in my life or fifteen. It’s the entire legacy.

Once I realized that there’s no loyalty in this business of college football, that it’s a never-ending, dog-eat-dog rat race, and that, someday, the machine would devour Penn State, too, I started to embrace the machine. There’s no other choice. It’s either play or get played.

The hypocrisy of the characters in Succession, outraged that anyone would screw them, all the while trying to screw someone else themselves, was well on display Monday, when Oklahoma leadership said they were saddened they didn’t get notice from Lincoln that he was leaving. Oklahoma, of course, made the Big 12 find out they were leaving the conference on twitter. The machine came for Oklahoma. It will come for everyone.

I’m sure that Riley and Kelly understand that they’re leaving a lot of young men, not to mentions fans and boosters, out to dry. They may be even leaving staff members, people who have trusted them with the future of themselves and their families, in limbo. They know what I just said. You have to embrace the machine. There’s no other choice. It’s either play or get played.

At the end of the second season of Succession, sycophantic company man Tom and his wife, the only daughter of Logan Roy, and the smartest of all the Roy siblings, Siobhan (Shiv), talk through Tom potentially taking the blame, and in turn, prison time, for a scandal that shook the company. Not able to comprehend how the machine chewed him up and spit him up so quickly and comprehensively, Tom finally breaks the tension that’s been apparent since their wedding night, a night where Shiv sprung on the groom that she wanted an open marriage.

“I wonder if the sad I'd be without you is more than the sad I am with you,” Tom says to Shiv.

It’s quite clear by now their marriage is nothing more than a mutually beneficial pact to help both of them get to where they want to go in the company. Tom and Shiv stay together though, knowing that this is the game they signed up for, and they need each other to reach the top. In the game they’re playing, as in college football, there’s no other choice.

Follow Garrett Garr on Twitter @RealGarrettCarr

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