Hey, Georgia: The time has come to make Kirby Smart the highest-paid coach in America
On the day of the Orange Bowl, I sat in the lobby of the media hotel in Fort Lauderdale and chatted with a well-informed Georgia beat writer. He brought up something that I’d sort of forgotten about amidst the post-SEC Championship reaction — it was a contract year for Kirby Smart.
Let’s back up a second.
Technically, college football coaches are never truly in a contract year in the traditional sense. It’s not like how we’d refer to a professional athlete entering the last year of a contract before entering free agency. With college football coaches, it’s a bit more complicated.
You see, it had been 4 years since Smart’s last extension, which was negotiated just after he led UGA to its first national championship berth since the Herschel Walker era (Smart made $3.75 million in 2017). And now in 2022, Smart has less than 4 seasons left on his contract (he’s under contract through 2024). Ergo, Smart and super-agent Jimmy Sexton were inevitably going to revisit that deal, regardless of what happened in the Playoff. That aforementioned Georgia beat writer estimated that Smart had roughly $20-30 million at stake with UGA’s Playoff run.
Well, a lot has happened since then. Smart did indeed throttle Michigan, take down Alabama and ultimately win Georgia’s first national championship in 41 years.
Leverage? You bet. New contract? Most definitely.
You already knew those things. If Georgia athletic director Josh Brooks plays his cards right, he’ll know that the time is now to make Smart the highest-paid coach in the sport.
It was Brooks who declared on Saturday at Georgia’s victory parade that Smart was “the best football coach in America.” Brooks might be new to the job, but nobody needed to explain the significance of Saturday’s celebration, or the promising future that awaits in Athens. Remember, it was Smart who gave the thumbs up on Brooks taking over for Greg McGarity, who announced he was stepping down as UGA athletic director in December 2020.
When Brooks took over as UGA’s athletic director around this time last year, here’s what he told DawgNation about working with Smart:
“I understand there are coaches who are stars. If this were a movie set, I’d be the director and they’d be the actors, right? And we have to find ways to make them successful, and we’ve entrusted Kirby to lead this football program. He knows what he needs to be successful. It’s our job to support him, and that goes for every coach.”
That’s someone who gets it. Brooks spent more than a decade in 5 roles at Georgia before he got the AD job.
Squabbling over a $1-2 million here or there doesn’t seem like something Brooks will do, but you never know. Even though he was part of UGA’s administration in 2018 when Smart’s deal got renegotiated, this is the first time he had to negotiate with the ever-powerful Sexton on the heels of a coach winning a national title.
So what might that contract look like?
Well, here’s what we know. Last year, Smart made $7,133,600, which made him No. 8 on the list of the highest-paid coaches in the sport (per USA Today). Nobody made more than Nick Saban, who rolled in a casual $9,753,221 in 2021.
But in case you haven’t heard, the coaching carousel went a bit crazy in the past month or so.
Brian Kelly and Lincoln Riley both left premier programs for other premier programs. Kelly’s deal at LSU is reportedly 10 years, $95 million — it’s also loaded with favorable performance-based incentives — while Riley’s new contract at USC is reportedly worth $110 million over 10 years.
That’s a whole lotta cabbage.
Also significant was the fact that Mel Tucker ($95 million), James Franklin ($70 million) and Jimbo Fisher ($90 million) all agreed to new 10-year, fully-guaranteed contracts to stay at their current schools. Also, also of significance? Franklin and Fisher are both represented by Sexton.
Let’s start with the obvious here. That 10-year, fully-guaranteed contract? It’s coming for Smart. Bank on that. Don’t overreact to it, either. That’s now the going rate to keep a top-tier coach. That’s a perfectly fair timeframe for someone who is just 46 years old.
As for the compensation, well, I’d be surprised if it were anything less than $100 million. Perhaps that’s what UGA will start with. After all, that’s a show of good faith. The criticism with these mega-deals is that schools are negotiating against themselves and for someone like Smart, who played at Georgia, it’s clearly his destination job.
At the same time, if UGA plays this right, it could have a top-3 coach in the sport for 20 years. Easily. The downside of being cheap at the negotiation table is too great, especially after an offseason in which we just watched Kelly and Riley leave places like Notre Dame and Oklahoma. Nobody will need to tell that to Brooks. It won’t be lost on Sexton, either.
This isn’t just rewarding a 1-off season like Ed Orgeron after 2019. Smart is the only coach in the country riding an active streak of 5 consecutive top-7 finishes. Neither Riley nor Saban can make that claim.
If you had to bet your house on a coach to win the most titles in the 2020s, you’d have a tough time not picking Smart. That’s not to say his new contract would demand he repeat Saban’s 2010s, but nobody is set up better to win than Smart. The recruiting, the facilities, the talent development, the championship-or-bust mindset … Georgia has it all … with Smart.
Smart is in position to now join Saban in the category of “they’re actually underpaid.” Dominating a sport like college football is essentially printing money.
In that 10-year stretch from pre-Saban in 2006 to peak-dynasty in 2016, Alabama increased its annual football revenue by 142%. When Alabama first got rolling under Saban, the football program reported $95.3 million in revenue with a $53.3 million surplus in 2013-14 (via AL.com). That was on the heels of winning 3 of 4 national titles. In 2018-19, that annual revenue number was still at $95.2 million, though the surplus decreased because expenses rose by roughly 64% (fire up the “ya gotta spend money to make money” cliché).
In other words, yes, there’s a whole lot of value in sustaining championship-level success. Smart came to Georgia in hopes of building what Saban had at Alabama. One thing Saban never had to worry about in Tuscaloosa was whether the compensation would match his immense value. Saban became the first $4 million coach when he was hired, and at every turn, Alabama never got cheap with the G.O.A.T.
It’s up to Brooks to give Smart similar treatment. If Brooks does indeed believe that he has the best coach in the sport, he should be paid as such. That means at least matching the reported 10-year, $110 million deal that Riley got to leave Oklahoma for USC. It was, however, Smart who beat Riley, and it’s Smart who now has a 3-0 advantage in terms of total Playoff game wins. Call me crazy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was mentioned by Sexton.
Making Smart the highest-paid coach in the sport? That isn’t crazy at all.