Here's hoping athletic directors realize they can no longer sign off on massive buyouts for coaches
It might take a pandemic for athletic directors to realize just how absurd buyouts have become for college football coaches.
Let that sink in.
Coaches like Will Muschamp and Gus Malzahn who have buyouts in the 8-figure range could avoid getting fired in a post-pandemic world in which money no longer grows on trees. Well, at least not like it used to in college football. Far too often, the rest of us have been left saying, “wait, the buyout is what?!?”
(This is the part where I remind you that Jimbo Fisher agreed to a 10-year, $75 million contract that was fully guaranteed. I imagine agent Jimmy Sexton was on the phone with a giddy Scott Woodward during those negotiations. Sexton, sensing the excitement in Woodward’s trembling voice, half-jokingly threw out a “what about $75 million over the next 10 years and it’s fully … ” and Woodward jumped in before he could finish the sentence to say “DONE!”)
It was an expensive, frustrating trend in the 2010s that needs to end in the 2020s. You know, like hoverboards. A few people started getting them, and then everyone freaked out and decided that overpaying for something that isn’t that functional — like paying someone who underachieves at their job 8 figures not to work — was the cool thing to do.
Check that. I shouldn’t say that everyone did this.
Take Mizzou. When the Tigers fired Barry Odom, he was owed a buyout of $2.36 million, part of which would be offset by his next employer. That made sense because, well, Odom was the definition of a mediocre Power 5 head coach. It didn’t matter that in the previous year, he received a 2-year contract extension that was set to keep him in Columbia through 2024. That is, if he succeeded at his job … which he didn’t.
Credit Mizzou athletic director Jim Sterk for doing exactly what an athletic director should do these days — reward quality seasons with extensions and make an incentive-based contract with a low buyout.
Read this excerpt from the Kansas City Star after Odom agreed to his new deal in Dec. 2018:
Odom’s new contract automatically gives him a one-year extension for each nine-win season — the Tigers are 8-4 entering the Liberty Bowl — and gives him a $37,500 raise for each bowl berth starting in the 2019 season. His agent is Jimmy Sexton of CAA, who represents every head coach in the SEC.
Any week that Missouri appears in the AP Top 25, coaches or College Football Playoff polls nets Odom an extra $5,000 that tops out at $80,000. Odom also receives a 20 percent bonus of the amount of Mizzou football ticket revenue that exceeds $11.7 million.
If Mizzou decides to buy out Odom from the contract it will owe him his base salary of $450,000 multiplied by the number of years remaining, which would equate to around $3 million as of Wednesday. He would also receive money from a deferred compensation fund that grows by $150,000 each year. If Odom terminates the contract on or before Feb. 28, 2019, he must pay MU $2.35 million.
Put that in the Smithsonian.
Sterk deserves a medal for negotiating a deal like that with Sexton. He might not deserve a medal for giving Eli Drinkwitz $4 million per season with his 1 year of FBS head coaching experience, but that’s a different discussion for a different time.
If you’re wondering why these athletic directors continue to get muscled into bad contracts, consider this basic flaw in the current system.
If you’re an athletic director at a Power 5 program, your tenure is often defined by who you hire as a football coach. That makes sense given how much money is to be made, and how most Power 5 schools are dependent on the football program funding the vast majority of their athletic department budgets. I know, I know. there are definitely other things associated with an athletic director’s legacy such as facility upgrades, other coaching hires, attendance numbers and all of that, but at a Power 5 program, the football coaching hire is the meat and potatoes of how one is perceived as an AD.
Why agree to those bigger buyout figures? In a way, it can serve as built-in security for the athletic director, too. If there’s a high buyout figure, there’s less pressure on the athletic director to pull the plug. That buys time. It’s time to make it work and not prompt boosters and the board of regents to say, “look, that coach you hired has to go.”
There are athletic directors like Shawn Eichorst. The former Nebraska AD made an out-of-the-box decision to bring Mike Riley to Lincoln to replace Bo Pelini, who was set to earn a $6.5 million buyout from the previous regime (it was $8 million, but his job at Youngstown State offset some of that).
How did that end up? In the middle of Year 3, Riley’s underachieving program sank to a new low by losing to Northern Illinois at home. Eichorst, however, refused to fire Riley. That was his guy. Instead, it was Eichorst who got the axe a few days after that embarrassing loss. Riley eventually followed at season’s end … and was awarded a $6.6 million buyout after arguably the worst tenure in the history of the program. Oh, and Scott Frost had a buyout over $20 million heading into the 2019 season thanks to Eichorst’s successor, Bill Moos. Of course.
Again, athletic directors are defined by that hire. They do whatever they can to make it work (unless they agree to fire a coach early in the process because of overwhelming pressure from administration and boosters like Arkansas and Florida State). If they’re going down either way, who cares about leaving a hefty buyout for the next regime to deal with?
Look at South Carolina. Athletic director Ray Tanner wants Muschamp to work. Badly. As a first-time athletic director, Muschamp was his big hire. Surely he was accepting of such a massive buyout because if administration and boosters saw in Year 4 that he clearly wasn’t the guy, that would give them pause to pay nearly $20 million to cut bait (it was $18.6 million before the staff was accounted for).
Tanner was asked about Muschamp’s buyout last year and he said “it falls in line with other coaches across the country.” The crazy thing was that Tanner wasn’t wrong. A whopping 33 coaches entered the 2019 season with buyouts of at least $10 million. Muschamp was only No. 15 on that list nationally, and he was No. 6 in the SEC (according to USA Today database).
If Muschamp’s buyout were at the level that Odom’s was at after Year 4, would he still be in Columbia right now? No way. Or perhaps you missed when South Carolina allegedly asked Florida State how it covered Willie Taggart’s $18 million buyout last year. Muschamp’s rich buyout bought Tanner time to make his hire work. It remains to be seen if that’ll be the case at the end of 2020. Muschamp’s buyout is still north of $13 million if he’s fired before Dec. 1. Given the context of what the world economy looks like, paying that type of money for someone not to work seems silly.
What doesn’t seem silly is athletic directors finally having a reason to not get locked into these deals. If that means we see more incentive-based raises baked into these contracts like Mark Stoops has at Kentucky, so be it. That makes an increasing base salary easier to justify.
Let’s get back to where we were at in the middle of the 2010s when the idea of Nebraska paying Pelini an $8 million buyout was stunning, and LSU athletic director Joe Alleva was slammed for getting stuck with a $12.9 million buyout to fire Les Miles.
At a time when universities across the country are busy crunching numbers, this should serve as a turning point. It has to. Think about the jobs that Texas A&M could secure even if it only had the majority of the $10 million buyout it gave Kevin Sumlin after he was fired.
Universities will be better for it, and by virtue if not having coaches keep jobs they shouldn’t because of their buyouts, the product on the field will improve if these figures start to come down. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t have taken a pandemic for these buyouts to look so ridiculous. Welcome to 2020. It can still mean more, but hopefully this leads to a universal thought.
It shouldn’t mean that much.