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Opinion: UAB’s hire of Trent Dilfer is College Football’s Jeff Saturday Hire

Stop trying to be different for the sake of being different.

2020 High School Football Season Kicks Off in Tennessee Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Earlier this year, the Indianapolis Colts infamously chose to hire Jeff Saturday as their interim coach.

The move came with loads of criticism from across the board. Saturday not only had no NFL coaching experience but his lone football coaching experience was a brief tenure as a high school head coach.

As the college football world entered its own coaching carousel, surely no program would make its own Jeff Saturday hire… right?

*checks notes* Well… there it is.

On Wednesday, The Tennessean announced that Trent Dilfer would become the next head coach of UAB.

Let’s be clear: the Trent Dilfer hire screams a program trying to be different just to be different. It screams like a program that wants to try something unique for the sake of a story.

Dilfer’s resume is similar to Saturday’s. Like Saturday, Dilfer has no college coaching experience. In fact, his lone coaching experience is as the head coach of Lipscomb Academy in Nashville.

Although Dilfer has turned Lipscomb into a successful high school program — including a 2021 Division II Class AA State Championship — there’s one thing that Dilfer is missing: ANY EXPERIENCE AS A COLLEGE COACH.

There’s a lot that goes into running a college program. Hiring a staff, recruiting, and handling the media is different in high school compared to college. Handling NIL and the transfer portal might as well be a full-time job. And that doesn’t include managing a roster of 100+ players.

The players are older and normally more self-sufficient too. A lot of the things that might fly in high school won’t fly in college. Players come from different cultures and upbringings, they’ve experienced different things and are all wired differently.

Dilfer has no experience with any of that at the college level. Even as unique as Lipscomb is as a high school, it still isn’t a college football program. While he may have had similar experiences, it’s all diluted in high school.

In 2017, UNLV made a similar hire with Tony Sanchez. Sanchez had no college experience but a far longer and more successful tenure as the head coach at Bishop Gorman High School, a powerhouse located in Las Vegas.

Sanchez lasted five seasons with UNLV, going 20-40 as the head coach. He never made a bowl game, won five games once in 2017 and the two parties chose to part ways following the 2019 season.

If that hire didn’t work out for UNLV, why would it work out for UAB? Not only is UAB a better job but it’s about to be a job in the best Group of 5 conference, the AAC.

There is no doubt that Dilfer’s time as an NFL quarterback is helping his case. Plenty of former successful high school coaches move to the college ranks and grind it out. So many also don’t get considered for a job in the American Athletic Conference because unlike Dilfer, they never won a Super Bowl.

Sporting News Archive
Trent Dilfer spent over a decade as an NFL quarterback, most notably as a first-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Photo by Ed Nessen/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

There are also plenty of candidates who grind the college ranks looking for a head coaching job.

Bryant Vincent, UAB’s interim coach, began his coaching career with South Alabama in 2011. In 2018, he rejoined UAB and has since been a staple for former head coach Bill Clark. Like Dilfer, Vincent was a successful high school coach, winning a state championship with Spanish Fort.

Vincent also had support from UAB players to get the interim tag removed after going 6-6 and making a bowl game.

Hiring Dilfer over Vincent and many other qualified candidates is a slap in the face to the hiring process.

There is no doubt that Dilfer has been a successful high school coach but that shouldn’t be enough for a marquee Group of 5 jobs. What UAB is showing is that a candidate’s brand will matter, and it may be the difference between someone getting a job and not getting it.

Ultimately, these are not questions or concerns that Dilfer has to answer. He got offered a better job and he took it. We’d all do the same thing. This is a problem that UAB President Ray Watts and athletic director Mark Ingram have to answer.

However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an incident that Dilfer can answer for.

In 2021, a TikTok surfaced of Dilfer shoving and pushing Beau Dawson, a tight end on his Lipscomb team. Dilfer apologized at the time, saying that he takes “all responsibility as the head coach and leader of our team for not deescalating an emotional situation with one of our players.”

I’ve been on high school sidelines for longer than I’ve been in college (I graduate next semester). I’ve interacted with a long list of high school coaches of varying success. Name a head coach in south Florida and there’s a good bet that I’ve been on the sidelines for one of their games.

I have never, and I mean never, seen a coach act the way Dilfer did. As a coach, you have to be more responsible. You have to be the adult of the situation and know how to de-escalate situations before they become TikTok material.

If a similar situation were to happen at UAB, how would he react? This kind of situation can’t happen in college. It definitely shouldn’t happen in high school with kids, but it also can’t happen in college.

Football is long a sport that’s been criticized for its hiring practices. While college football has made progress with its hiring practices, Dilfer’s hire shows that we’re further away than we want to admit.