I never thought we’d see the day.

But on Dec. 13, 2020, it happened. Gus Malzahn was fired and we saw the first SEC program agree to a buyout north of $20 million ($21.45 million was the total damage). Go figure that it happened during a pandemic season in which universities across the country took major revenue hits.

(I realize that buyouts aren’t paid by ticket sales and that teacher salaries aren’t cut so that a coach can be fired. Buyouts are more about booster momentum than anything else.)

Still, Malzahn was part of what turned out to be a revealing offseason for the SEC. Even though Will Muschamp ultimately settled for a lump payment of $12.9 million instead of the original $15 million that was reported, 2 SEC coaches picked up 8-figure buyouts.

Oh, and Jeremy Pruitt is involved in a lawsuit in an attempt to get his 8-figure buyout. So there’s a chance that the 2020 offseason could yield 3 SEC coaching buyouts of 8 figures.

Eight-figure buyouts are quickly becoming the norm. In 2020, 33 FBS head coaches had 8-figure buyouts. Nine were in the SEC, and 3 of those coaches were fired. Two decades ago, it was rare to have 7-figure buyouts. Times have changed.

Before factoring in offset money, 6 SEC coaches were owed 8-figure buyouts after getting fired (Chad Morris, Bret Bielema, Kevin Sumlin, Les Miles, Will Muschamp and Gus Malzahn). All of those happened in the last 5 years, too. Soon, others will join that club. It’s inevitable.

Who’s next?

Well, this is not a hot-seat list. This is instead the list of coaches who are the most likely to eventually join this club. In order to do that, you actually have to have a buyout of 8 figures.

Nick Saban isn’t getting fired at Alabama, and I’m not holding my breath on Mark Stoops getting fired at Kentucky, where he coached with a $24 million buyout in 2020. Someone like Eli Drinkwitz had a buyout of $14.35 million in 2020, but that was in Year 1 (and it was a solid Year 1). That number will decrease the deeper he gets into his current deal.

Keep that in mind as you read this list:

Ed Orgeron, LSU

I banged the drum for Orgeron not just in 2019 but in 2018 when he overcame some low expectations and won a New Year’s 6 bowl. I believe Orgeron can coach, and I don’t think he’ll get fired after 2021. If anything, I’d expect a bounce-back year.

But this is about understanding the dynamics at play here. Scott Woodward didn’t hire Orgeron. Joe Alleva did. Granted, Woodward gave Orgeron that new 6-year deal after LSU won it all in 2019. That buyout was at $23.8 million in 2020 (via USA Today). One would assume that Orgeron, who makes $7 million annually, is going to be in the 8-figure buyout range for the duration of that deal, which ensures him 70% of the remaining contract as the buyout. Coaches at big-time programs rarely have less than 3-4 years on their deal because of recruiting (allegedly), which would mean Orgeron getting fired with 3 years left on his current deal would still net him somewhere in the neighborhood of $14.7 million.

If Orgeron doesn’t fade off into the sunset at LSU, he’ll join the 8-figure buyout club. Then again, a national championship-winning coach hasn’t been fired since Gene Chizik in 2012. Woodward is the same guy who “negotiated” Jimbo Fisher’s $75 million guaranteed deal at Texas A&M.

Speaking of Fisher …

Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M

Like with Orgeron, any situation involving Fisher getting fired is going to equal an 8-figure buyout. That’s reality when you sign a fully guaranteed, 10-year contract worth $75 million. In case you were keeping track at home, Fisher coached in 2020 with a buyout of $53 million (!), which was the largest in all of college football. Even if Fisher gets down to 2 years left on his current deal, which runs through 2027, that’s still $15 million that he’d be owed.

It was always going to be interesting to see Fisher get deeper and deeper into this deal. In most scenarios, the coach who just put together the team’s best finish in the AP Poll since 1939 would be due a hefty raise and an extension. Even 3 years after he agreed to it, though, it’s still hard to imagine a deal much more favorable than Fisher’s. Ross Bjork left Ole Miss to go to Texas A&M knowing that Fisher’s contract would essentially be locked in for several years.

While I’m now in the camp that A&M will start cranking out top-10 seasons like it never has, what happens if Fisher puts together 3 years in which he misses a New Year’s 6 bowl? If years aren’t added to that deal at any point between now and then because of the nature of the contract, that would Bjork in quite the spot. Fisher, with 4 years left on his deal, would still be owed roughly $30 million. Would Bjork, who didn’t hire Fisher, pull the trigger? Maybe, maybe not depending on what those 3 years looked like.

I don’t want to say that the Aggies are going to pay a $30 million buyout … but if there was a future with something like 5-to-1 odds on the first team to pay a $30 million buyout, well, let’s just say I’d be super intrigued.

Kirby Smart, Georgia

Smart’s buyout was $19,835,834 in 2020. That seems low. Look at some of the coaches who had steeper buyouts in 2020:

  • Scott Frost, Nebraska
  • Greg Schiano, Rutgers
  • Luke Fickell, Cincinnati
  • Mark Stoops, Kentucky
  • Mel Tucker, Michigan State
  • Kyle Whittingham, Utah
  • Tom Allen, Indiana
  • Matt Campbell, Iowa State

Yes, all of those coaches had buyouts north of $20 million in 2020. Wild, I know.

Also wild it is to think that this May will mark 3 years since Smart got his extension. That paid him an average of $7 million annually on a deal that runs through 2024. His buyout is 65% of the remaining deal, which means that if he were to get fired after the 2022 season, he’d still be owed just south of $11 million.

Do I expect that to happen? No, but it is worth noting that longtime athletic director Greg McGarity just retired at the end of 2020. Josh Brooks got promoted after serving as the deputy athletics director. That’s different from an outside hire stepping in, but it’s something to be aware of when we talk about a coach’s job security.

Smart is likely due for another extension within the next year or so, barring a collapse. If he ever does get fired without cause at Georgia, though, one would assume it’ll be an 8-figure payday.

Mike Leach

Do I think MSU is all in with Leach? Yes. But this is about the dynamics at play here. State employees in Mississippi cannot have contracts longer than 4 years. That’s why Leach’s deal was worth $20 million over 4 years. That’s an average of $5 million per year. Understanding that, and also understanding that the vast majority of Power 5 coaches have at least 3 years left on their deal at all times, pretty much any scenario in which Leach gets fired without cause would net an 8-figure buyout.

Leach is fully guaranteed the remainder of the contract. If he doesn’t retire or resign at MSU, one would think that he’ll always have at least $10 million remaining on his contract as long as it has at least 2 years left on it.

It’s possible that Leach could wear out his welcome in Starkville. Lord knows Joe Moorhead got the boot quicker than many expected. My gut says there will be more patience with Leach, and he’ll get at least 1 extension at MSU. But it seems entirely possible that a failed Leach experiment would result in an 8-figure buyout.

And a thought on Dan Mullen …

Something to keep in mind is that he has a flat buyout of $12 million if he’s fired without cause. The years left on the deal don’t matter. His contract pays him $6 million annually, so even if he did have a normal buyout, any firing with just 2 years left on the deal still would net him 8 figures.

It’ll be interesting to see how these negotiations play out. Scott Stricklin made it publicly known last March that they were working on an extension after Mullen became the first FBS coach to start his tenure with consecutive BCS/New Year’s 6 bowl victories. Then the pandemic happened and those talks were apparently shelved.

Had Florida finished in a somewhat normal fashion, we might’ve already been talking about an extension. Instead, a 3-game losing streak with 2 bizarre losses spoiled an otherwise spectacular year in Gainesville. Rumors of reported NFL interest could’ve had something to do with Mullen seeking an extension and/or a new deal. He has yet to sign any sort of extension halfway through the contract he agreed to shortly after the 2017 season when he left MSU.

Mullen already ranked No. 10 among the highest-paid coaches in America. Could Stricklin rework a deal to get Mullen at the same price as Smart, which is closer to $7 million annually? Or could Stricklin wait and decide Mullen’s future based on what happens in 2021? We don’t know.

If Mullen is ever fired from Florida, which I wouldn’t bet on but isn’t impossible, that buyout will be in the 8 figures. Stay tuned.