This isn’t Frank Payton’s worst mistake; just his costliest - Howard Carter - The Sports Journal - May 29th, 2019
Just like that, one of the most esteemed coaching careers in the history of collegiate athletics, if not all of sports, is over.
Many fans and journalists alike have speculated over the past few weeks that this recruiting scandal would cost Frank Payton his job, and at 9:35 this morning, those people were proven right. A source close to the program confirmed to the Journal that Payton was indeed stepping down as head football coach at Birmingham State, with a formal press conference to come this afternoon.
I think that all of us that care about this game have had that moment over the past few days where we look at ourselves and ask: Is this really happening? Well, now there’s no doubt. The king is gone. Under normal circumstances, you’d be able to hear cheers echoing around the athletic complexes of every major university in the Southeast, but considering the grim context, they’ll probably just do it in private.
Of the many twists and turns that this story has taken so far, this one is by far the gravest. When reports emerged that Birmingham State was being investigated for alleged recruiting violations, few could have guessed that we’d be here just a few short weeks later. After all, major college football programs get investigated all the time. One of the biggest talking points from Payton’s many supporters over the years has been that, unlike many of his peers, his State program has been squeaky clean (ostensibly, at least) when it comes to NCAA compliance. Now, though, the many critics that scoffed at that lily-white image appear to be having their day in the sun. The godfather is gone, and, despite his singularly well-stocked trophy cabinet and dozens of NFL first-rounders among his former players, his legacy is now as complicated as anyone else’s.
With 248 wins and five national championships in 29 years at Birmingham State, in most people’s mind, Frank Payton is the greatest coach in college football history. All the way up until Payton got the job in the late ‘80s, the State football program was always seen as an underachiever, if not a diamond in the rough. State reached conference title games intermittently and had a smattering of ten-win seasons, but the narrative that they had no penchant for winning big games was difficult for them to shake. Instead, the Ironmen had to watch their biggest rivals, Poly and Tennessee, claim titles while they prepared for their bowl game in late December.
Frank Payton changed all of that. Before he even got to State, Payton had completely turned Indiana’s program around in his five years there, wildly overachieving in a period that nearly saw them make the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1967. Despite having been named Big Ten Coach of the Year in his final season, though, he was not the popular choice to replace Mike Martin as State’s head coach in 1988. For years, State’s policy had been to only hire coaches with connections to the program. Former head coach and athletic director Jim Sturt made sure of it, citing the need for a man with “State DNA” to lead the program. Purists and boosters alike lauded their commitment to the “State way”, so the announcement of Payton, a stern, snarling, Catholic, Ohioan as head coach, was deemed an enormous risk despite the program’s continued underperformance while enacting that policy. Success, it seemed, was not as important to the Ironmen as pedigree.
Soon, however, they learned to embrace a new level of pedigree. By the year 2000, State was winning national championships nearly every other year, and all issues about Payton’s heritage were forgotten. In just shy of three decades, he ascended to near godlike status in Central Alabama. Cover articles were written (at least one or two of them by me) about his comprehensive approach to running a football program, from personally choosing many of the non-team personnel to masterfully manipulating the narrative around the team from year to year. The path from his program to the NFL was so clear and so well-trodden that parents were signing their sons up left and right to play for him. Boosters threw money at State’s athletic program without thinking twice. When Payton was named the athletic director in 2009, it seemed like more of a horizontal move than a vertical one, maybe even a step down. Up until a few weeks ago, he seemed unimpeachable, to the point that he could do no wrong; even when he very clearly did.
While the scope of this scandal is still being unearthed, this latest chapter should not come as a surprise. The scale and brazen lack of control are shocking, to be sure, but this is not the first time that the uglier parts of Frank Payton’s character have been on display. As the years have stretched on, Payton’s short but nonetheless Shakespearean season away from State’s sideline has been relegated to a blip, an outlier in his career. Now, though, the weeks-long drama that surrounded his exit from, and then near-immediate return to, the head coaching position in 2010 seems like it couldn’t be more relevant.
For the sake of those who were living under a rock in 2010, here’s a gross oversimplification: rock star offensive coordinator Dave Medina sheds his infamous “coach-in-waiting” tag to replace Payton after the latter steps down to become the AD, and their first losing season since the 80’s, before Payton became the coach, follows. Regardless of the various factors that led to it, State fans have been spoiled to the point that a 4-8 record is seen as an unforgivable blight on the program’s honor. No matter the circumstances, State is supposed to be above that sort of thing. Under the premise of an unacceptable program environment, a tenuous relationship between Payton and Medina, and the worst season for the program in three decades, Medina is asked to leave, and Payton becomes the coach again after just 11 months.
Ten years after the fact, it seems unthinkable. Medina has now built a mid-major empire at Central Florida, and Payton’s State has failed to hit the same heights since relieving Medina of his duties. And yet, at the time, very few were banging the drum in Medina’s defense.
Why was that?
The poor record that Medina’s inexperienced team earned provided an extra layer of protection for Payton on top of the one he’d already spent decades cultivating. Somehow, despite the somewhat authoritarian nature of Medina’s firing, he escaped the situation with most people assuming that it was the right call, including me. Surely if Frank Payton thought it was the right choice to make, it probably was. There were too many checks and balances in place to ensure he couldn’t make that sort of judgment unilaterally, anyway. Right? Just to make absolutely sure that no one went off message, Payton even came out and expressed solidarity with Medina. It just didn’t work out, he told us with a forlorn face. It hurt him to make that decision. Make no mistake, though, that despite assurances from Payton to the contrary, he was fine with being the coach again, no matter the cost to his former protégé.
I think that whatever the NCAA ends up finding, something similar could be said about the predicament State finds itself in now. Frank Payton may not have signed his name to what went down. He may never have emerged fully from behind the curtain, back then or today, but he was there.
Like most of these high-profile recruiting cases, it’s doubtful that the coach himself was directly involved in the actual scandaling. There are boosters, backchannels, and “bag men” for that sort of thing, the likelihood that such a long-running operation could have been going without Payton knowing anything about it is also quite small.
What he did know, however, was that the players he signed were the best of the best. No matter what was happening off the field, the results on it seemed to justify the means.
If anything, everyone involved probably assumed that he’d get the same protections he’d gotten a decade before. Ironically, though, their perception of his invulnerability would cost them the coach they’d risked everything for.
Payton’s actions have always had consequences. They were just big enough this time for people to actually care. One of those consequences is the head coach at Central Florida now. Payton’s previous lapse into autocracy, when he showed that he was indeed capable of getting his own hands dirty, cost Dave Medina the biggest opportunity he’s had over his entire career. The world might finally get to know what Dave’s known for the last decade: what really happened. The door’s finally open for him to set the record straight, but characteristically, he’s taken the high road so far. Maybe that will change soon. Selfishly, I certainly hope it does. He deserves the chance to finally, really step out from Frank Payton’s shadow.