College Football Arms Race Leaves Me Feeling Grimey

Geoff Burke

With several news outlets confirming rumors that Virginia Tech offensive line coach Jeff Grimes was departing to fill the same role at LSU, the Hokies football program is at somewhat of a philosophical crossroads.

What exactly is the end-game here? What makes the job that former Virginia Tech and Auburn offensive line coach Jeff Grimes will do at LSU worth nearly twice the money that he would have earned had he remained at Virginia Tech? The story is not yet complete in terms of the financial details released, but the data on hand indicates that in the next year Grimes would have made around $300,000 including a retention bonus for remaining at Virginia Tech through the 2014-2015 bowl season. By contrast,  former LSU offensive line coach Greg Studrawa earned $510,000 to coach the Tigers offensive line. The LSU program has the highest paid assistants in the nation, per USA Today. The Hokies come in at 38th, with 12 SEC teams and five ACC teams (six if you count incoming Louisville) in front of them, including UVA who had a definitive $500,000-plus cushion last year over VT in their salaries offered.

I am not certain if Grimes will come in at the salary level Studrawa left LSU at, as Studrawa also filled in at Offensive Coordinator for two years upon Steve Kragthorpe's diagnosis with Parkinson's Disease. The elevated responsibility might have escalated the LSU salary scale some with regard to that position. Nonetheless, the opportunity for Grimes to return to SEC-caliber football with a top-ten program at a substantial raise had to be impossible to turn down. These are the sunny-side up reasons for Hokies fans to posture with, while deep down most of us know that there are other, far more sinister issues at hand that need to be addressed.

From a business standpoint, if you had a business whose employees were beginning to view their roles as stepping stone positions to help them land a better job, would you continue to fund those positions salaries at an elite level? I personally don't believe that it's wise to try to keep pace with SEC schools, and our upper middle-class standing in the ACC is an indicator that the Hokies are fairly compensating their coaches compared to our immediate competition. We can mince over whether or not we should match UVA's salary pool, but how much good is ranking third in the ACC in salaries paid really helping a team that barely won a single game over an FBS school this past season (BYU, their other win was against FCS VMI)? The devil is one hell of an advocate, ain't he?

So, the answer here is not necessarily throwing more money at the problem. Because, if for instance, Grimes told us it was only about money, and that he'd stay if we'd match, all we'd be doing is re-drawing the salary scale for the next set of replacements. If we establish the standard at Virginia Tech for OL coach at $500K, there is no putting that genie back inside the bottle. A measured approach to filling out the staff is the wisest course. To this end, the replacement needs to earn less than Torrian Gray, our most valuable assistant at any position besides Foster. Gray only earned $221,000 and change, and is going to be coveted as a defensive coordinator elsewhere soon, if he isn't already. Beamer isn't one to effectively manage change, but it's my sincere hope he's been looking out for young, up and coming talent that he can inject into the staff.

A lot of HokieNation is lamenting our lack of financial commitment. But I take this at the same face-value as any non-Yankee fan griping about the lack of a salary cap in Major League Baseball, and how it affords the Yankees to bid against themselves for the top (sometimes debatable) talent. First of all, plenty of teams win championships without paying the most. Sure you have to appear competitive in the market, and spend your money wisely, but it's doable. Second, unless your program is ready to truly compete with the big boys (and let's be honest VT isn't right now), then what's the point of even trying to win that battle?

Watching the VT program grow from 1993 until today, I've seen facilities upgraded to where it makes me uncomfortable with the level of pampering the athletes get compared to the rank and file student body. True, the football team is providing a service to the University at a fraction of its value (an argument for another day); but the average student's amenities pale in comparison. The facilities are all mostly new, so where do we go from here?

That is a question for the incoming Athletic Director. Are we going to add teams to the athletic program? Unlikely. This athletic department exists to turn a profit, and Jim Weaver always made sure of that. VT is not like Maryland, which funds non-revenue programs to a fault, so much so that they had to risk paying out $50MM+ as an exit fee to the ACC in order to push some debt service forward. and maintain the programs they didn't have the heart to cut. Yes, MD made a money grab in bolting from the ACC, but the athletic department there is more about the student athletes than a lot of schools.

VT and it's supporters need to recognize that this "arms race" is manufactured by ESPN and the biggest 10-15 schools. The law of diminishing returns is applicable here, and it is truly the crux of the issue. You ask yourself the following questions:

  • In the declining days of Frank Beamer's tenure, is trying to be a competitor in this divergent labor market tantamount to throwing good money after bad?
  • If you say no, and believe Frank can still get the program back to it's previous level of prestige, how much money would be enough money? How much "commitment" is enough?
  • If you say yes, it is throwing good money after bad, and we opt not to spend the money and settle into this purgatory of 8-4 and 7-5 seasons until Frank decides enough is enough, what's the point of taking resources away from areas that could use some improvement? Like boosting the basketball program so it doesn't get embarrassed as the #GOACC turns into #BIG EAST & FRIENDS

So, I feel everyone's pain when we reflect on the past few Hokie football seasons and not only realize that the best is most likely behind us under Beamer, but that we have been relegated to a lesser recruiting ceiling under coaches who likely view their positions as a simple place-hold. One of Beamer's strengths in building the program is that there was little to no turnover for years. We had an identity on offense for some of that time even. Now the offense consistently appears as though the plays we run in the game haven't ever been practiced before that week's preparations.

Sometime after Kevin Rogers returned to the NFL, Tech ran out of Vicks to coach, and Stinespring put his imprint on the offense (which I labeled The Cheesecake Factory Menu, as it offers tons of options but nothing in the way of exceptional food) and we decided to start running the ball primarily out of the shotgun, and lost sight of the concept of how to grind out wins on that side of the football.  In the past it didn't matter if our opponents knew the run was coming. We dared them to stop it, and we showed them multiple backs, and ran the ball in a variety of ways. The past few seasons, we pass too much on designated running downs, i.e 1st and 2nd down. And we run way too many veers out of the shotgun, and far too many delays. We don't utilize the fullback as a battering ram like we did in the past either. #Jarrett Ferguson nods sadly.

The reason for the history lesson there, is that so much of coaching an effective offensive line is based on your talent and your scheme. You can teach technique and motivate until you are blue in the face, but if your offensive system is a stinker, the line can't do much by itself to impact change. We are all upset that Grimes is leaving, because we can see the intensity and dedication he brought to his job. It was night and day from the many years of Curt Newsome underachieving and operating as though everything was on the upswing, with constant references to improvements never realized. Grimes future is obviously bright considering he was in demand from LSU, so we know that we had something there. There's a definite sense of loss.

However, the Hokies are coming off a season in which they had their second lowest rushing output in Beamer's 27 years (109th nationally, with just under 120 ypg). I don't personally hold Grimes responsible, these were someone else's recruits and he was dealing with the Logan-centric insistence of the existing coaching staff. There was little that he could do this past year but coach up the limited resources at his disposal, and work towards replenishing the coffers with guys he felt might be an upgrade for what Loeffler is trying to accomplish in the future. By all appearances he did his job recruiting as well as possible, as he had five verbal commitments (all on the offensive line) ready to go for signing day.

None of Grimes' recruits is rated higher than three-stars by Rivals. However, it is noteworthy that these recruits came from offensive line-rich states such as Ohio, NJ, and PA. I always consider the star rankings to be subjective anyhow; but if you are looking at them objectively, it's necessary to grade on a curve, and note that three-star CBs from "speed states" are four-star caliber elsewhere, and I think the same applies to OL from the northeast and midwest. As February 5th approaches, Grimes was still listed as in the mix for a few undecided OL, notably a five star from Maryland: Damian Prince. It is likely that there may be some attrition from this group, and that there will be little ability to replace those losses on the fly. This is the unfortunate product of the hiring season for coaches overlapping with the final push for national signing day.

So far, the recruits' response has been as expected, with a couple of them on Twitter noting equally that "this sucks". It is understandable, and it is the primary reason that VT has announced that there should be a "resolution in the matter soon." Already, there had been murmurs about the best of Grimes recruits, Brady Taylor, being a possible defection to Ohio State, upon being offered a scholarship recently by Urban Meyer. If Brady were an in-state kid, I'd be inclined to say we're still in the fight if we make a good hire. But the fact he is from Ohio all but cements his decommitment. Urban gets what Urban wants in Ohio. The fact that all of these incoming recruits hail from out of state makes for a precarious situation. My hope is that we can retain three of the five and have some other prospects on speed-dial. Things will be moving quickly.

Finally, as to who the Hokies hire, we have a couple of options that are readily apparent.

  1. Stinespring already gets paid $318,000 to coach tight ends and run recruiting. We could ramp his OL responsibilities up and hire a new recruiting coordinator. This would save the program money, and at least allow for some continuity under a coach that is familiar with the system. Many Hokie fans have already expressed displeasure with me on this point, and I hear you: I am on the record as saying I hope we can find someone young and energetic who is a comer. However, the job Stiney did as OL coach for us is the best work he's done at VT, and he did it for years. If it comes to it, I'm laying it out there now: He owes us to take one for the team, because we carried his ____ for years when he was single-handedly denying us national title runs with his horribly rated offenses.
  2. Todd Washington has been the "hot take" out there. But he is interviewing with the Lions and already turned down USC's offer to take over their OL in December. He is definitely moving on from the Ravens where he was merely assistant to the OL coach. The Dwight Schrute of OL coaches I suppose. He has two rings though at the NFL level, and played for good Hokie teams, so he knows what things SHOULD look like. I consider him to be a long shot, particularly if the money isn't north of $250K + bonuses. Again, with Torrian due a raise, and Stinespring and Wiles being at the higher end of the scale, the new guy receiving much more than low two's is unlikely.
  3. Graduate assistant Ryan Pugh, who played at Auburn, and coached under Grimes. This is a stretch, but it was brought to my attention by a reader earlier today as a possibility from within.

All told, this is a situation we'd rather not be dealing with on so many levels.

  • Having to adapt on the fly in the face of a lot of uncertainty surrounding the offense and the program in general. Especially with new QB Mark Leal under center, and  him being the first single season place holder at QB since Grant Noel in 2001, the OL needs to be a strength, and it is now decidedly anything but that.
  • Dealing with the crisis in identity and the uncertainty of the future. So much about the program is in turmoil and transition, that it's impossible to deny that everything that has taken so long to cultivate is in danger of being wiped away by the cloth of irrelevancy.
  • The spotlight of signing day once again revealing that we were outdone by in-state rivals and out-of-state poachers. Signing day for most schools is a period of celebration, a time to envision better days ahead, and to pat yourself on the back for your school's reputation and accomplishments that all led to this bountiful harvest of young talent. Losing the coach of the unit that needs to make the largest leap in their level of play stings the nostrils.

Losing Grimes makes this a bad day. But I like to think that we can rebound if we don't get bogged down in the minutiae of who is paying what and to whom. To me that argument clouds the perspective that could be better put to use addressing the larger issue at hand, namely re-establishing our identity on the field. I just think that discussing higher salaries as though they're an elixir for the greater evils perpetrated by years of complacency, institutional arrogance and harrowing inefficiency is a bit short-sighted in terms of formatting an actual solution to the deep-rooted problems that have set in. After all you can't cure bone cancer with a band-aid.

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