Big Contracts, Big Buyouts, Big Pressure: College Football Coaches Hit the Jackpot


The contract terms for Louisiana State University’s new football coach promise an unusually huge payoff for mediocrity: If the Tigers win just half of their regular-season games, de rigueur for a program that has won three national championships since 2003, Brian Kelly will receive $500,000 – on top of at least $9 million per year in other fees.

And every July, regardless of his track record, Kelly will earn a $500,000 longevity bonus if he stays in charge of Baton Rouge.

The mediocre performance line items help set the stage for the college football era with $10 million per year coaches. And they’re part of the latest blurring of coaching contracts and buyouts, which together are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, at a time when the college sports industry is accused of exploiting the athletes who can’t earn a salary for actually playing the games.

“If you compare it to college education, it’s insane,” Jackie Sherrill, the retired soccer coach and director of athletics at Texas A&M University, said of the industry and its surging coaching deals. “If you compare it to business, it makes sense.”

A perks agreement Sherrill signed in 1982, when he became the highest-paid public university employee in America, was worth about $831,000 in today’s dollars, less than half of what some assistant coaches have recently ordered.

Maneuvering this year is proving particularly wild and expensive, reflecting a sport with fan bases known for impracticality and impatience. Kelly signed with LSU even with his Notre Dame team still in the national championship picture, which will get some more attention on Sunday when the College Football Playoff announces the four teams that will make it into the semifinals.

LSU, which agreed to pay $16.9 million to buy out the contract of Ed Orgeron, a coach who won a national title two years ago and then saw his personal life and program go into turmoil, is just part of the deal. frenzy. Florida, Southern California, Texas Christian and Virginia Tech are among the prominent schools that, intolerant of losing (or simply seeing rivals win too much), expelled coaches before the end of the regular season. Oklahoma and Notre Dame, two of the most celebrated programs in college football history, abruptly began seeking new coaches after USC and LSU lured theirs west.

Coaches have also renegotiated their deals to extraordinary heights in exchange for staying put, a signal of turnover and the tumult in college sports.

“I don’t know if it’s necessarily part of the new business model, but broadly speaking, we’re experiencing the acceleration of change across our entire culture, our society, our world,” said Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey, who said: LSU, Georgia and reigning champion Alabama.

“The days of 40, 50 years of working and enjoying retirement in a corporate environment are over, and it’s no different in athletic college,” he added.

Wealthy boosters typically donate money for large contracts and buyouts; school officials sometimes grumble that the contributions prefer coaches rather than chemistry labs, yet often accept the money. Taken together, the coaching windfalls are fueling more skepticism about a college sports industry whose value has grown alongside rising television rights regimes. Although players have been allowed to monetize their fame through endorsement deals and the like since July, few of the roughly 16,000 athletes who play in the NCAA’s richest and most visible tier have benefited greatly.

However, deals for their coaches have skyrocketed for decades, in part because they started to encompass more of a coach’s varied business arrangements, such as performance fees, than in the past. The market, saturated with TV money and other income, did the rest.

In 1997, Steve Spurrier was thought to be the first college football coach to earn $2 million a year (the equivalent of about $3.4 million today). In 2007, Alabama hired Nick Saban and agreed to pay him $32 million over eight years, or more than $5.4 million a year in today’s dollars. In 2019, Clemson reached a $93 million deal for another 10 years with Dabo Swinney.

Saban and Swinney already had national titles on their resume. Sports directors often worry about what they see as a shortage of championship-class coaches, adding to the demand for coaches who don’t have the same outstanding track record, even if they’ve had exceptional seasons, or even a string of them.

In addition to Notre Dame in this year’s title discussion, Kelly sent the Fighting Irish to playoffs during the 2018 and 2020 seasons. Lincoln Riley, the former Oklahoma coach who is now at USC, earned three playoff spots and coached a few Heisman Trophy winners in five seasons atop the Sooners.

USC, a private university, has not disclosed the details of Riley’s contract, but it is widely believed to be larger than his previous Oklahoma deal, where he made more than $7 million a year.

Kelly’s terms at LSU include a base salary of $400,000, plus at least $8.6 million per year in “additional compensation.” Kelly can also earn incentives that together can add $1 million, and possibly much more, to his salary per year. On Friday, Notre Dame said its defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman would succeed Kelly as head coach; the private university has not announced the contract terms.

Coaches defend their contracts as market-driven, arguing that football programs can broaden their universities’ profiles, enhance campus culture, and endorse other athletic teams. They note that their squads dazzle millions of television viewers and fill stadiums with crowds that can exceed 100,000 people, with many in the audience dressed in college-licensed clothing.

“I hear people say all the time, ‘Well, you make a lot of money,'” Saban, who will soon be making more than $10 million a year without incentives, said in an interview with The New York Times in August.

“Yes, but I create a lot of value,” continued Saban, who had won six national titles in Alabama and one at LSU. “There is more money to reinvest because the income sport is doing very, very well, so that helps all the other sports and all the other opportunities that are being created for all the other sports.”

Sherrill, who also ran football programs in Mississippi, Pittsburgh and Washington state, noted the pressure and hours coaches face. At the same time, he said, he is alarmed by what he saw as a maddened bonus culture.

“There’s no way to justify winning six games and getting a bonus,” he said, adding, “That’s your job: winning games.”

Aside from the fear of boosters that appear to live, die and write checks coupled with win-loss records, one factor in the accelerated pace of hires and layoffs is football’s recruiting calendar today. The early signing period, which has lately been the preferred option for many valued prospects to formalize their plans, will begin on December 15th. Many schools felt that before then they should install coaches to reassure recruits and potentially attract new ones. the ones.

A few days after Riley’s arrival in Los Angeles, some players changed their obligations from Oklahoma to USC

But the machinations and contracts are fresh fodder for industry critics.

“Professional payouts for college coaches are only possible because colleges and the NCAA illegally collude to directly limit compensation for the predominantly black athletes so that the mostly white coaches and industry executives can keep all the profits for themselves,” said Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut. “That’s embarrassing.”

There was some speculation among college sports executives last year when the coronavirus pandemic strained the finances of athletic departments that could reset the market for coaches. A resurgent economy almost eliminated that possibility for now.

A cap on coaches’ salaries would violate current federal law — the NCAA tried to cap pay for some assistant coaches in the 1990s — and the Supreme Court this summer made the college’s sports industry more vulnerable to antitrust cases. While there have been rumors in Washington about using legislation to restrict coaching contracts, or to allow athletes to collectively bargain, no measure comes close to being law.

However, the money is still flowing and expectations are rising along with the balance in the bank accounts.

In California, a reporter asked Riley how quickly he could turn USC into the juggernaut it once was.

Soon was an opportunity, Riley replied, especially with the ability to redesign grids quickly and with a machine like USC behind him.

“How,” he said as he sat in his new pressure cooker, “isn’t it going to work?”

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