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How have the transfer portal and NIL changed rebuilding timelines?

“It’s just very different,” Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell says.
 
Miami Hurricanes coach Mario Cristobal and the Florida Gators' Billy Napier are entering their pivotal third seasons.
Miami Hurricanes coach Mario Cristobal and the Florida Gators' Billy Napier are entering their pivotal third seasons. [ MARK STOCKWELL | AP ]
Published Dec. 30, 2023

TAMPA — When Luke Fickell took over four-win Cincinnati after the 2016 season, the transfer portal and name, image and likeness (NIL) weren’t around to help or hinder his rebuilding job. Which makes many of the details of that process inapplicable to the one he started at Wisconsin a year ago.

One constant, however, is the time necessary for turning a struggling program into a successful one.

“I don’t think that changes the timeline …” Fickell said. “Doesn’t mean it’s worse. Doesn’t mean it’s better. It’s just very different.”

His belief is relevant far beyond his Badgers’ ReliaQuest Bowl matchup with No. 13 LSU at Raymond James Stadium on Monday. It’s important context for the renovations underway across the state as Florida’s Billy Napier and Miami’s Mario Cristobal enter their pivotal third seasons.

Brian Kelly and Billy Napier will both enter their third seasons at LSU and Florida next year.
Brian Kelly and Billy Napier will both enter their third seasons at LSU and Florida next year. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP (2022) ]

Three years (or less) has been the traditional timeline for a turnaround like the ones the Gators and Hurricanes expect. Urban Meyer won the national title in Year 2 at Florida and Year 3 at Ohio State. Jimbo Fisher went 12-2 in his third year at Florida State and won it all in Year 4. Nick Saban, Kirby Smart, Bob Stoops, Jim Tressel all either won the national title or played for it by the end of their third year.

Since the Bowl Championship Series began crowning a national champion in 1998, only one winning coach failed to notch a 10-win season in his first three full years: Mack Brown had nine victories in each of his first three seasons at Texas and won 11 in his fourth.

Napier is 11-14 through two seasons. Cristobal is 12-13 after Thursday’s Pinstripe Bowl loss to Rutgers and former Bucs coach Greg Schiano.

Napier said last offseason that the portal and name, image and likeness mean “you’re giving away two years of your life, to some degree.” That’s because they’re additional, complex organizational changes that didn’t exist when he took the Louisiana job six years ago. The extra year of eligibility players received from the 2020 COVID season remains a factor, too, because it affects roster management and the value of a sixth-year senior against a freshman recruit.

But if those changes are slowing down teams’ paths to the College Football Playoff, they’re not showing up yet.

Monday’s Sugar Bowl semifinal features second-year Washington coach Kalen DeBoer and third-year Texas coach Steve Sarkisian. The other playoff game, the Rose Bowl, pits Saban (who won the national title at Alabama in Year 3) against Jim Harbaugh (who started his Michigan tenure with back-to-back 10 win seasons and an Orange Bowl appearance). Last year’s field included TCU’s first-year coach Sonny Dykes and Ryan Day (who made the playoff in his first full season as Ohio State’s head coach).

Though Florida State’s Mike Norvell hasn’t made the playoff yet, he came as close as possible this fall. His first season was filled with COVID restrictions, but he still found a way to use the portal to win 10 games in Year 3.

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Florida State won 10 games in Mike Norvell's third season and made the Orange Bowl with a 13-0 record in Year 4.
Florida State won 10 games in Mike Norvell's third season and made the Orange Bowl with a 13-0 record in Year 4. [ D.A. VARELA | Miami Herald ]

Building a program today is “probably on the pace” LSU is on now, coach Brian Kelly said recently. His Tigers went 10-4 last season and will be 10-3 if they beat Wisconsin.

“Rebuilding a program is like anything else — it’s structurally from the foundation up,” Kelly said.

“You can put a good team on the field through the portal. You don’t necessarily put a good program on the field.”

The second part remains the goal at Miami and Florida after years of mediocrity and instability. College football’s ongoing transformation undoubtedly has affected the way Napier and Cristobal can and must make that happen. But the early returns from the portal/name, image and likeness era suggest the timeline itself remains constant.

If they don’t show signs of a breakthrough by the end of Year 3, they probably never will.

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