SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The coaches at the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl understood what Alabama coach Nick Saban meant Wednesday when he bemoaned the "playoff or bust" mentality that is gripping big-time college football. In fact, they felt it more acutely because while Saban was in the College Football Playoff for a second consecutive year, they were on the bust end of the equation, despite owning top-10 rankings and playing in a major bowl game.
Said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, "Welcome to my world, Nick."
No. 8 Notre Dame and No. 7 Ohio State were in the CFP race practically the entire season. The Fighting Irish fell out because of nail-biting defeats to No. 1 Clemson and No. 6 Stanford. The Buckeyes' lone loss came on a last-second field goal to No. 3 Michigan State. The margin between winning and losing is often slim, but that slim margin creates a seemingly vast distance between being happy or disappointed heading into the postseason.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, whose team was an overwhelming preseason No. 1 after winning the first CFP last season, said the all-or-nothing expectations began during the BCS era, and he suffered through it firsthand in 2009 when his Florida team was an overwhelming preseason No. 1 after winning the 2008 national title.
“A very similar season to this [with Ohio State], a lot of players back from returning national champs," Meyer said. "We get to go to the Sugar Bowl. We couldn’t sell the seats and it was a letdown. It was a shame. But you can’t control that. I think the BCS era started that, where the bowl game you play in is a letdown. The playoff just multiplied that.”
That playoff or bust mentality also has multiplied the stress of coaches at top programs. While it's noteworthy that long-tenured coaches posted distinguished seasons this fall -- Meyer's four-year run at Ohio State is the shortest among coaches in the top eight of the final CFP rankings -- longevity is likely to become rarer at the FBS level, where more than half of the coaches have been at their present jobs for three seasons or fewer.
Meyer bolted Florida after the 2010 season because of stress. When he took over at Ohio State, he said he was a changed man, a man with perspective. But his newfound perspective doesn't mean he thinks many coaches can remain atop one program for decades in the current environment.
“I personally don’t see that happening very frequently," he said. "People get tired of you. Change is sometimes good. I don’t think you’ll see that very often. It has to be a very unique place. You’re are going to have [ups and downs]. How far will they let you go to build it back up?"
Kelly deals with different challenges than Saban and Meyer. While winning the SEC or Big Ten has been good enough to get a team into the first two iterations of the College Football Playoff, despite early-season defeats, Kelly is unsure the independent Irish will be granted such forgiveness.
“We don’t have a conference championship at Notre Dame, so if you lose your first game, you’re like, 'All right, what are we playing here for?'" Kelly said. "There's this incredible pressure as an independent. Ohio State loses to Virginia Tech early in the year a year ago and they can still say, ‘Don’t worry about it guys. We can still win a Big Ten championship.’ We lose early and now we’re fighting because we might not even get into the playoff even if we run the table. So we’ve been living that newfound pressure every single year.”
That said, Kelly, who's been coaching Notre Dame for six seasons, says he does believe a coach can find long-term stability at a big-time program -- only it's a matter of fit and control.
"If the head coach has control over a lot of things that affect his team on a day-to-day basis, I think he can be," he said. "Clearly Nick Saban has full control over whatever happens in that program. He can stay for as long as he wants, regardless of whether he throws a 9-3 in there. The fan base might be upset for a little bit but he’s going to get right back to 12-0. I think that’s the same thing we’re seeing with [Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops]. He may throw you an 8-5 every once in a while just because the talent can go up and down a little bit. But he’s going to put a 12-0 back in the books.”
That, of course, posits that 9-3 and 8-5 are the only tolerable down seasons -- and if they are rare. Mark Richt was fired at Georgia after he went 9-3 in his 15th season.
Six of the 11 longest-tenured FBS head coaches entering this season were either fired or left for another job. The new reality with playoff-or-bust is that no coach is safe and lasting longer than five years in one place might become increasingly rare.