There is no such thing as a long-term coaching contract in college football

Sure, Alabama might tout its latest contract extension with Nick Saban—the fourth he’s received since joining the Crimson Tide before the 2007 season—but that’s no guarantee he won’t leave for a more lucrative opportunity a year, or even a month, from now. On the flip side, former Auburn coach Gene Chizik received a contract extension through the 2015 season after leading the Tigers to a national championship. At the time, Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs said, “We look forward to Coach Chizik being our coach at Auburn for a long, long time.” Of course, Jacobs fired Chizik a year later after the coach presided over a 3-9 season.

The reality is that an SEC football coach has only two possible job conditions: He’s either on the hot seat or receiving a contract extension. There’s rarely middle ground. At the first sign of success, athletic directors are eager to preempt any rumors of a coach leaving for another school. But the minute things begin to sour, those same athletic directors go into job-preservation mode and dump the coach, hoping to poach another school’s coach.

Sure, that’s the market at work, and it’s often messy. But we need to keep in mind that most college football programs are under the authority of public (government) universities. That means there’s a public interest in the contracting and personnel practices of athletic departments. Unlike an NFL team, where everyone is accountable to an owner, college programs should operate in a more transparent manner. Unfortunately, the coaching carousel tends to run more for the benefit of middle managers—the athletic directors—than the public at-large.

Extension Misfires

Mississippi limits public employee contracts to four years. Accordingly, both Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze and Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen have four-year deals. Both coaches have received at least one extension, however, keeping the remaining amount of time on their deals at around four years. Neither coach has lit up the SEC. Freeze is 14-11 (6-10 SEC) over two seasons, while Mullen is 35-28 (16-24 SEC) and finished this last season at 6-6.

It’s one thing to give Nick Saban, or even Gene Chizik, an extension after winning a championship. But why give extensions to coaches with mediocre records? One reason is that athletic directors use extensions to publicly reaffirm their initial hiring decision. Allowing a contract to simply run its term is publicly interpreted as a lack of confidence in the coach. Giving him an extension is a signal to the fans and alumni that “we know we have the right man.”

Such affirmation can be expensive, however. To take a non-SEC example, the University of Virginia recently suffered a historically bad 2-10 season. Yet no move was made to remove fourth-year coach Mike London, in part because of the expense associated with a contract extension the coach received after his second season. London’s contract runs for three more seasons at approximately $2.5 million annually. Firing London now would therefore represent an admission by Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage of a gross miscalculation on his part in granting the extension in the first place.

How Long Is Too Long for Nick Saban?

Returning to the SEC, most of the incumbent coaches signed initial contracts of five or six years. Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier, two coaches who came into their present jobs with championship pedigrees, received longer deals. As noted above, Saban has already signed three extensions, the last one in March that would theoretically keep him under contract through the 2020 season—seven years from now. This most recent extension will likely cover an even longer period.

Few in Alabama would object to Saban receiving a 99-year extension at this point. Local columnist Kevin Scarbinsky wrote on December 10, “The cost of doing business dictates that it’s time for Alabama to again acknowledge what Saban is, the most accomplished coach in the game.” Scarbinsky said a fourth extension wasn’t about money, but “respect and recognition.” Ultimately, “It’s about investment and return.”

Scarbinsky’s own argument exposes its flaws. Giving Nick Saban more money isn’t an investment at this point—it’s payment for previous accomplishments. Odds are Alabama won’t win three more national championships on Saban’s watch. College football—particularly in the SEC—is highly competitive and cyclical. No person can credibly argue Saban’s Alabama team will maintain its present level of dominance through the next decade.

When Scarbinsky talks about “respect and recognition,” he’s really talking about marketing. Alabama gave Saban a fourth extension for two main reasons. First, Alabama officials wanted to get the media off the narrative that Saban might bolt Tuscaloosa for Texas. Second, they wanted to reaffirm the notion that Saban was the most important college coach today by upping his well-publicized salary.

Coaching salaries, and indeed coaching contracts, should be viewed primarily as a form of marketing. Which makes sense when you consider college football itself exists as a vehicle for promoting colleges and universities. Nick Saban isn’t paid millions simply to coach football. He’s paid millions to act as a representative of the University of Alabama.

Marketing is a fickle mistress, however, and today’s hot coach can quickly become yesterday’s news. That’s why turnover remains high among Football Bowl Subdivision coaches. Going into the 2014 season, roughly one-in-five coaches will have been on the job more than five years. And more than half of head coaches will have been on their current job three seasons or less. Thus, despite the annual bonanza of contract extensions, in reality there’s rarely such a thing as a long-term coaching hire.