Dan Hurley leaving UConn would be a loss for college sports

On August 31, the reigning College Football Playoff champion Michigan Wolverines will kick off their 2024 season against Fresno State. The Wolverines, however, will be missing some key players. J.J. McCarthy, the quarterback who secured 27 wins in his 28 collegiate starts, is no longer with the team. Roman Wilson, the receiver who snagged a dozen touchdowns in 2023, has also moved on. And running back Blake Corum, who rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons, has departed as well. This turnover is the natural order in college sports, where players exhaust their eligibility and transition to professional careers or other pursuits.

Adding to the changes, Michigan will not have head coach Jim Harbaugh, who took the head coaching job with the Los Angeles Chargers after serving two suspensions totaling six games. Despite these absences, the Wolverines will still enjoy the support of more than 109,000 fans in the Big House.

Yet, some are sounding alarms that these departures signal “the end, the very end, of college sports as we’ve always known them.”

Meanwhile, the reigning men’s basketball champion Connecticut Huskies may soon find themselves without head coach Dan Hurley, who is mulling an offer from the Los Angeles Lakers. This isn’t the first time UConn has faced such a transition. After legendary coach Jim Calhoun retired, the Huskies still managed to secure three titles over the next twelve years, surpassing even Calhoun’s best championship streak.

Over the past 50 years, college basketball has seen the departure of coaching giants like John Wooden, Dean Smith, Bob Knight, Billy Donovan, Roy Williams, and Mike Krzyzewski, collectively taking 25 national championships with them. Yet, the notion that Hurley leaving would spell the end of college sports as we know them seems far-fetched.

College Sports Not on the Verge of Collapse

Pundits frequently proclaim the impending collapse of college sports whenever a prominent coach leaves. This was the case when Coach K announced his retirement from Duke at 74, when Williams retired at 70, and when Jay Wright left Villanova at 60. Yet, college sports continue to thrive.

The recent story by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski about Hurley considering the Lakers job sparked dramatic reactions. Veteran sportscaster Mike Greenberg, on his show “Greeny,” declared, “I think this is the end of college sports as we’ve known them.” He suggested that while college sports may remain fascinating and profitable, they will no longer be the same.

The Evolving Landscape of College Sports

Greenberg’s reaction seems exaggerated compared to other significant changes in college sports. Players transferring between multiple colleges, skyrocketing salaries for coaches, and lucrative NIL (Name, Image, Likeness) deals for athletes have transformed the landscape. For instance, Georgia’s Kirby Smart earns $13 million annually, and Jimbo Fisher received $77.6 million to cease coaching the Texas Aggies.

Despite these changes, interest in college sports remains high. Caitlin Clark’s estimated $3.1 million in endorsements and Zach Edey’s Purdue hockey jersey sales haven’t diminished fan enthusiasm. The 2023-24 season drew record viewership, and the College Football Playoff final between Michigan and UW had 25 million viewers.

Without recent NIL developments, stars like Clark and Edey might have turned professional sooner, depriving college sports of their talent. Instead, these athletes’ continued presence has enhanced the competition and the sport’s overall appeal.

The Future of College Sports

Hurley’s decision regarding the Lakers offer will undoubtedly consider the recent changes in college sports. The dissolution of the Pac-12 Conference and the House v. NCAA case settlement, which allows programs to share up to $22 million in revenue annually with athletes, have made the future more unpredictable.

However, suggesting that the departures of Hurley or Harbaugh signify a catastrophic end to college sports ignores the resilience and adaptability of these institutions. College athletics have continually evolved, often for the better.

Embracing Change in College Sports

College sports have not been the same since landmark cases like O’Bannon v. NCAA paved the way for NIL payments. The shift began even earlier, as evidenced by Texas football coach Mack Brown’s substantial pay raise in 2009, despite capped rewards for athletes.

Texas AD Chris Del Conte recently lamented the lost essence of college athletics, emphasizing that only a small percentage of athletes go pro, while the rest become productive citizens. His own lucrative contract extension, however, underscores the broader changes in college sports.

In the end, it’s essential to separate hyperbole from reality. College sports are not collapsing; they are evolving. And this evolution is making them more exciting and equitable for athletes and fans alike.