COLUMBIA — Any new president at a large Southern university knows football diplomacy is the quickest way to curry favor. Add an extra layer when said newcomer walks into the gig down a controversial path.
That’s why Robert “Call Me Bob” Caslen of the University of South Carolina immediately (and not jokingly) in July offered to reward Gamecock athletic teams with ice cream if they defeat Clemson.
Imagine the goodwill the retired Army general might spread if he oversees what gets perceived as a major football improvement project.
That is, firing Will Muschamp and replacing him with someone theoretically better.
A coach, say, who can lead the Gamecocks to victory against an underdog North Carolina team that started a freshman quarterback and had a new coaching staff.
But while the unpredictable nature of new South Carolina leadership potentially is a huge factor in Muschamp’s future, this 0-1 start is way too early for serious contract buyout discussions.
Let’s wait a month.
For one, it’s expensive: Muschamp gets $18,750,000 if South Carolina fires him after this season (a little more if fired during the season). That kind of silly money goes a long way in the Midlands real estate market, though it’s simply the price of doing business (Muschamp’s buyout figure is the fifth-highest in the SEC).
SEC buyouts range from a ridiculous $68 million-plus for Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M to $12 million for Dan Mullen at Florida to zero for Matt Luke at Ole Miss, Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State and Derek Mason at Vanderbilt.
But mostly Muschamp deserves more time to show what this team can accomplish.
We won’t learn much Saturday against lightweight Charleston Southern, or next week when No. 2 Alabama comes to Columbia to pummel the Gamecocks.
But the importance of the Sept. 21 road game at Missouri and Sept. 28 home game against Kentucky just got turned up several notches.
Recruiting, and Florida
Muschamp’s staff, Muschamp included, is built to recruit. That’s their strength, not game-coaching or strategic innovation. For the last few years and for now, that fits at South Carolina, which desperately needed more talent when Muschamp took over a 3-9 team.
Progress is apparent in the depth chart, Muschamp’s best in Columbia.
Recruiting is humming along, particularly at the most critical position.
Rarely have the Gamecocks, on potential, been in better shape at quarterback with freshman Ryan Hilinski on board and high school Class of 2020 senior Luke Doty (Myrtle Beach High School) on the way, plus redshirt freshman Dakereon Joyner (Fort Dorchester High School).
But a downward trend is hard to hide in a performance business on constant public display.
South Carolina took a step back last season, 7-6 after the surprisingly good 9-4 of 2017.
Muschamp while head coach at Florida also dipped (4-8 in 2013 after 11-2 in 2012) in his third season. He was fired during his fourth season.
At USC, Muschamp is 22-18 overall, 12-12 in SEC games. He was 28-21 at Florida, 17-15 in SEC games.
The bright side
The next month is big for athletic director Ray Tanner, too. He hired Muschamp and will have to explain to his new boss, Bob, why it’s a good idea to stick with the commander in the field or why a change is necessary to avoid widespread fan disinterest.
Tanner, the two-time national championship winning baseball coach, is exceptionally loyal to head coaches. But if he fired his successor and former good buddy, Chad Holbrook, he can hand a football coach $18.75 million to walk.
It was Tanner who presided over Muschamp’s contract extension after the 9-4 season in 2017, and again after last season. The deal includes slightly increased guaranteed compensation each year:
2019: $4.4 million
2020: $4.6 million
2021: $4.8 million
2022: $5 million
2023: $5.2 million
2024: $5.4 million
The buyout terms for termination without cause include “75 percent of the guaranteed compensation for the remaining term of the employment agreement.” That’s how you get the $18.75 million figure for dismissal following the 2019 season.
But look at the bright side.
The Gamecocks unquestionably have better talent than in 2018, when it was better than 2017.
Missouri just lost at Wyoming.
Kentucky had its hands full in a 38-24 win over Toledo and looks to have slipped a bit.
A winning South Carolina season still isn’t far-fetched, which would drum up enthusiasm for Hilinski’s sophomore year in 2020.
Or people will get fired after General Bob scrambles to come up with $18.75 million on his way to introducing the most important hire he will ever make as school president.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff