Positive feedback and a productive meeting with then-Clemson athletics director Terry Don Phillips late in the 2008 season left Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster feeling good enough about his chances to land the Tigers’ head coach vacancy that he brought the opportunity to his three children.
This thing is potentially getting ready to happen, he said. We’re excited for you, his kids replied. And then, Foster recalled, they asked a question: But if you get the job, can we still have season tickets to Virginia Tech games?
“That’s when you know you’ve rooted your kids in one place,” Foster said. “They would’ve been happy for me, but I don’t think they ever would’ve been Tiger fans. I think they would’ve been Virginia Tech Hokies all their life.”
Foster would miss out on the Clemson job — it would go to then-interim coach Dabo Swinney — but remain a Virginia Tech institution. This season marks his 32nd year with the Hokies, making Foster the program’s dependable constant during the transition from Frank Beamer to Justin Fuente and one of college football’s true rarities: the longtime, single-team assistant coach.
There aren’t many in the Football Bowl Subdivision, with most situated in programs with rare coaching continuity. The staff at Iowa, for example, where Kirk Ferentz has served as head coach since 1999, has four assistant coaches with at least 15 seasons of tenure with the program. Three assistants have spent at least 17 years at TCU, where Gary Patterson has served as the Horned Frogs’ head coach since 2000. Half of the coaching staff at Ohio has at least 10 seasons of experience with the Bobcats, with both coordinators spanning the entire duration of Frank Solich’s 13-year tenure.
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In excelling in a specific role — as a coordinator or position coach — these longtime assistants represent the outliers in a profession that engages in a raucous game of musical chairs each offseason, with rising salaries and quick-trigger firings often leading talented assistants to hopscotch between jobs and programs in chase of the ultimate end goal: becoming a head coach.
“It seems like everybody is in a rush to become that head coach as opposed to staying at the position that they’re in, that they’re very good at,” said West Virginia athletics director Shane Lyons. “Let’s face it, the salaries for head coaches are very high in some situations. So everybody’s looking to say, ‘Hey, that’s where I want to be, to be a Power Five head coach.’ That’s the enticement as well.”
The “natural progression” is to rise from position coach to coordinator to head coach, said Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, formerly a longtime assistant at Ohio State, “and if you’re not a head coach then you’re not head-coach material.”
“Sometimes you can’t be chasing something that you don’t really have a passion for just because of the title or money,” Fickell said. “I never prepared for it, I never did some of the things you have to do. Because deep down inside, you said that because that’s what the media wanted to hear. In reality, if it’s not your true passion, then I don’t think it’s going to work.”
In a sense, it’s easier — and more lucrative — than ever to remain an assistant coach. Salaries among assistants have soared in recent years, particularly among Power Five coordinators, to the point where key assistants at major programs earn more than most head coaches on the Group of Five level. LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is making $2.5 million a year for the Tigers, more than at least 73 FBS head coaches in 2017. But when he was hired in 2016, LSU marked Aranda’s fourth stop in six seasons. Aranda's path, which seems destined to eventually hand the 42-year-old control of his own program, is more common than not on college football's highest level.
On the other hand, assistants such as Foster have decided to be picky. “The grass wasn’t always greener on the other side for me,” he said.
There was the shot at Clemson. He was a finalist for the opening at Virginia that eventually went to Al Groh. He considered Pittsburgh, which would go on to hire Todd Graham, and could’ve traded in his role as the leader of the Virginia Tech defense for several openings on the Group of Five level.
“I’ve seen a lot of coaches move around,” said Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker, who has spent two decades with the Hawkeyes. “I didn’t want to be one of those guys who moved around and had my kids in a whole bunch of different spots, different houses. I kind of wanted my kids to grow up in one area and go to one school.”
Few assistant coaches have the luxury of such job security. Nearly a third of FBS head coaches were hired within the past two seasons; each change at head coach results in a staff-wide shakeup that casts aside one crop of assistants in favor of another. For every Foster or Parker, there are dozens of assistants pinballing from one program to the next as part of staffs let go due to unrealized expectations.
Meanwhile, single-program assistants face a different battle: judging any outside opportunities that almost inevitably arise, including the chance to run their own programs, and battling against the stigma seemingly attached to assistants who excel in secondary roles without ascending to become a head coach. For college coaching’s rarest breed, comfort and familiarity outweigh the alternative.
“I’m confident enough in who I am and what we’ve done and what we’ve accomplished that my ego doesn’t need to be driven by that title of head football coach. It really doesn't," Foster said. “I hope that makes a statement for other lifelong assistant coaches.”
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