I’ve always understood a contract to be more than just a piece of legal paper.  The writing wasn’t important — it simply made it official.  The real significance was in the spirit of the document – it was the extra firm handshake, the gentleman’s agreement.  As far back as I can remember, the pinky swear was the ultimate binding contract – the two smallest fingers of each party interlocked represented much more than a simple gesture of comfort – it was a commitment.  To break a pinky promise was to defy the code of the playground itself: an act that would shame even the boldest of tattle-tales.  Now it turns out, in a world of lawyers, agents, and seersucker suits, one area particularly close to me seems to have forgotten what commitment was all about – the world of coaching.

While coaching has its issues at all levels of sport, this dilemma shows its worst side at the college level.  I am, first and foremost, a college sports fan.  We can argue the merits of college vs. professional another day, but this is the “league” I choose to watch.  As a result, I’m no stranger to the annual coaching carousel that leaves the idea of a “contract” harder to understand than a game day prediction from Lou Holtz.

Every year, coaches all over the country bring recruits to their respective colleges and preach to them about the values of loyalty and accountability, and then every year, those very same coaches hop on a plane to cash the check with the most zeros.  Worst of all, the NCAA’s own rules state that if a recruit isn’t released by the school they originally committed to, they can’t even transfer without having to sit out for a season and losing a year of eligibility.  For all of the coaches who use the “accountability” word, why shouldn’t they be held to the same standards?  Who wouldn’t like to see old Billy Gillispie spending his Spring collecting rebounds for Patrick Patterson with the rest of Kentucky’s student managers?  What does a contract mean when either side can break off their end of the deal with no consequence?

Coaches, I’m not condemning you for wanting to advance your careers.  We all want what’s best for our families, and there is nothing wrong with that.  But once you sign that contract, it isn’t just about you.  When a coach gets hired, he doesn’t just commit to a clipboard and a whistle.  For whatever period of time is written on that paper, he (or she) commits to something much bigger.  They commit themselves to the same dream of every player wearing and whoever wore the uniform; to every fan, student, graduate, and parent, tuning in their TVs or traveling hundreds of miles every year for the same purpose — that annual glimmer of hope that this is going to be their year.  We all know the feeling.  As fans, when that coach commits himself to us, we return the favor.

 
That said, the same applies to the schools as well.  Presidents, athletic directors – if you’re going to bring somebody in to lead your program, they deserve every bit of support you can reasonably give them.  Once that contract is signed, there is no more room for petty squabbling and politics.  It’s simple: if you don’t want to deal with the consequences of four straight losing seasons, don’t give them the eight-year, $40 million dollar contracts.  For better or worse, he or she is the face of your program, and when you put that in writing, you should be bound to honor that.

Otherwise, we’re just going to have to go back to using our pinkies.