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Big money at stake in one USC football game

USC Trojans interim head coach Ed Orgeron celebrates the Trojans' 20-17 victory over the Stanford Cardinal with fans at Los Angeles Coliseum on November 16, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.

The University of Southern California plays UCLA on Saturday, and there'll be a lot of money at stake on that football game. Not so much for gamblers, but for how it could prove decisive in who gets an extremely well-paying and high-profile job.

USC’s looking for a head coach. Interim coach Ed Orgeron was initially considered a long-shot for the gig. But he’s nearly undefeated since taking over after the school fired the previous coach, Lane Kiffin. USC’s surprising performance is shaking up the high-stakes coaching search.

Big money is on the table. College football’s highest paid coach -- Alabama's Nick Saban -- makes more than $5.5 million. USC may be willing to top that for a proven coaching star. And much more money than that is at stake.

“The attention that a great head coach can bring to a school is pretty phenomenal in terms of the dollars that are related to it and in terms of the marketing value,” says Kenneth Shropshire, sports business attorney at Duane Morris and a Wharton School professor.

Orgeron’s unexpected success complicates USC's search. His previous head coaching run -- at the University of Mississippi -- was a disaster. So football watchers thought USC would choose a big-name coach with a shelf of national titles. But winning matters, and now Orgeron's getting support from current and former players, alums, and importantly, the wealthy and powerful fans who write checks.

“You have to listen to those donors because they are the people who are primarily funding your program,” says Daniel Durbin, director of the Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society. The institute is at USC, so he’s following the situation closer than most.

Passionate support aside, the school needs to be sure the interim coach’s current success is no fluke.

“He is to a degree catching lightning in a bottle, says Temple University sports economist Michael Leeds. “The question is: is this a one-time boost or is this evidence that he has grown as a coach and is ready to take over a marquee program?”

That means what happens on the field Saturday will be critical. Leeds, Durbin and many others believe it will be hard for USC not to give Orgeron the job if he defeats crosstown rival UCLA. A victory just might be enough to clear doubts stemming from bad seasons past.

Mark Garrison: College football’s highest paid coach makes more than $5.5 million. USC may be willing to top that. And much more money than that is at stake, says sports business attorney Kenneth Shropshire.

Kenneth Shropshire: The attention that a great head coach can bring to a school is pretty phenomenal in terms of the dollars that are related to it and in terms of the marketing value.

Ed Orgeron’s unexpected success complicates the University’s choice. His previous head coaching run—at Ole Miss—was a disaster. So football watchers thought USC would choose a big-name coach with a shelf of national titles. But winning matters and now he’s getting support from players, alums and importantly, the wealthy fans who write checks.

Daniel Durbin: You have to listen to those donors because they are the people who are primarily funding your program.

Daniel Durbin directs the Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society. It’s at USC, so he’s following the situation closer than most. Passionate support aside, the school needs to be sure the interim coach’s current success is no fluke.

Michael Leeds: He is to a degree catching lightning in a bottle and the question is: is this a one-time boost or is this evidence that he has grown as a coach and is ready to take over a marquee program?

Temple University sports economist Michael Leeds says what happens on the field tomorrow will be critical.

Michael Leeds: If he wins, it would be extremely hard for USC to let him go.

Many share that opinion. A victory against an archrival just might be enough to clear doubts stemming from bad seasons past. I'm Mark Garrison, for Marketplace.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter for Marketplace and substitute host for the Marketplace Morning Report, based in New York.
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