You won't believe how much money SEC teams have spent buying out coaches in the Saban era. It's insane
In the SEC, it just means more (buyouts).
If the SEC’s on-field trend over the last decade or so was modernizing with spread offenses and high-octane passing games, consider the off-field trend paying absurd buyouts. No, it hasn’t always been this way. But during the time that Nick Saban won his 6 rings at Alabama, the amount of buyout money spent on SEC head coaches is, by all means, wild.
Let’s remember that when Saban was hired at Alabama after the 2006 season, he became the first $4 million coach in college football. In 2020, 27 college football coaches made at least $4 million. Saban led the way at $9.3 million.
The 21st century began with head coach buyouts barely dipping into 7 figures. In 2020, 33 FBS head coaches had 8-figure buyouts, 9 of which were in the SEC (via USA Today).
(If you want to read more about why that increased so much, all you have to do is go back to JetGate. That’s better known as the time when Auburn got caught trying to interview Bobby Petrino to replace Tommy Tuberville, and then Tuberville went undefeated a year later, which meant his buyout increased to a whopping $7 million because of fear that LSU would poach him to succeed, ironically enough, Nick Saban. Go figure that Auburn eventually agreed to pay Tuberville a $5.08 million buyout despite the fact that he quit after the 2008 season.)
Two SEC programs (Auburn and South Carolina) elected to pay those 8-figure buyouts to change head coaches. Auburn agreed to pay Gus Malzahn a cool, $21.45 million, half of which was due in the first 30 days of his firing. South Carolina agreed to pay Will Muschamp $12.9 million (after he agreed to a lump sum payment). That alone is $34.35 million. From the end of the 2007 (after Saban’s first season at Alabama) to January 2013, SEC teams agreed to pay head coaches $38.65 million in buyouts.
That’s nothing. From the end of 2007 to January 2021, SEC schools agreed to pay approximately $175.78 million worth of buyouts to head coaches. In other words, SEC schools agreed to cough up nearly $176 million to pay head coaches to not work since Saban arrived at Alabama. Excluding Alabama, that’s an average of roughly $13.5 million per SEC school from 2007-present. Obviously, some schools (Auburn) paid more than others (Kentucky).
Now there are a few caveats to that $175,780,000 number. Vanderbilt is private, so its buyouts aren’t known or included. That number also includes Texas A&M agreeing to pay Dennis Franchione and Mike Sherman a combined $10.2 million; both were fired before the Aggies joined the SEC. If you want to subtract the $10.2 million and drop that number to $167,680,000 because they were technically never SEC coaches, go ahead.
That $175,780,000 number also doesn’t account for offset money, which is what other schools paid those fired head coaches once they got their next jobs.
For example, Arkansas agreed to pay Chad Morris $10 million when he was fired. Auburn hired him at a fully guaranteed $2,205,000 million, which dropped Arkansas’ bill to $7,795,000. LSU was supposed to pay Les Miles a $12.9 million buyout when he was fired in the middle of the 2016 season. However, Miles agreed to forgo the remaining $3.5 million he was set to make once he accepted the Kansas job. That meant LSU ended up paying $9.4 million for Miles’ buyout (via The Athletic).
There are other ongoing buyouts with offset money like Joe Moorhead, who was set to receive a $7 million buyout from Mississippi State, but a $900,000 annual salary as Oregon’s offensive coordinator (which increases by $100,000 every year through his contract) will offset that money owed through 2022.
Without knowing the specific details of Bret Bielema’s ongoing lawsuit with the Razorback Foundation and how that impacts his new job at Illinois, the offset language dropped the SEC’s head coach buyout number during the Saban era from approximately $175,780,000 to $166,945,000. In other words, the vast majority of that agreed buyout money was still paid.
Here’s a team-by-team breakdown of what those agreed upon buyout numbers were during the Saban era:
- Houston Nutt — $3.5 million
- Bobby Petrino — $0 (fired with cause)
- John L. Smith — $0
- Bret Bielema — $12 million
- Chad Morris — $10 million – $2,205,000 (offset by Auburn) = $7,795,000
- TOTAL — $25.5 million – $2,205,000 = 23,295,000
- Tommy Tuberville — $5.08 million
- Gene Chizik — $7.5 million
- Gus Malzahn — $21.45 million
- TOTAL — $34.03 million
- Urban Meyer — $0
- Will Muschamp — $6.3 million
- Jim McElwain — $7.5 million (settlement)
- TOTAL — $13.8 million
- Mark Richt — $4.1 million
- TOTAL — $4.1 million
- Rich Brooks — $0 (retired)
- Joker Phillips — $2.55 million
- TOTAL — $2.55 million
- Les Miles — $12.9 million – $3.5 million (relieved after Kansas hiring) = $9.4 million
- TOTAL — $12.9 million -$3.5 million = $9.4 million
- Sylvester Croom — $3.5 million
- Dan Mullen — $0 (left for Florida)
- Joe Moorhead — $7 million – $900,000 (offset by annual Oregon OC contract, runs through 2022) = $6,100,000
- TOTAL — $10.5 million – $900,000 = $9.6 million
- Gary Pinkel — $0 (retired)
- Barry Odom — $2.85 million – $1.3 million (offset by Arkansas DC contract) = $1.55 million
- TOTAL — $2.85 million – $1.3 million = $1.55 million
- Ed Orgeron — $1.35 million
- Houston Nutt — $5.5 million
- Hugh Freeze — $0 (resigned)
- Matt Luke — $9.6 million
- TOTAL — $16.45 million
- Steve Spurrier — $0 (resigned)
- Will Muschamp — $12.9 million
- TOTAL — $12.9 million
- Phillip Fulmer — $6 million
- Lane Kiffin — $0 (left for USC)
- Derek Dooley — $5 million
- Butch Jones — $8.6 million – $105,000 (Alabama analyst) – $825,000 (Arkansas State HC) = $7,670,000
- TOTAL — $19.6 million – $930,000 = $18,670,000
- Dennis Franchione* — $4.4 million
- Mike Sherman* — $5.8 million
- Kevin Sumlin — $10.4 million
- TOTAL — $20.6 million
- *not in SEC
- Bobby Johnson — $0 (retired)
- Robbie Caldwell — $0 (resigned)
- James Franklin — $0 (left for Penn State)
- Derek Mason — N/A (private university)
- TOTAL — N/A (private university)
To recap, it should come as no surprise that Auburn paid the most in buyout money during Saban’s tenure at Alabama. The Tigers share a state with the Crimson Tide, and the aforementioned Tuberville debacle was what at the root of the buyout boom. Some would say it was justified because Auburn won a national title 2 years after Tuberville resigned and a year after Chizik was fired for a winless season in the SEC, Malzahn led the Tigers to a national championship berth.
It’s still a staggering number.
If we’re ranking SEC programs on who spent the most on just agreed upon head coaching buyouts during that stretch from 2007-present, here’s what that looks like (not factoring in offset language):
- Auburn, $34.03 million
- Arkansas, $25.5 million
- Texas A&M, $20.6 million
- Tennessee, $19.6 million
- Ole Miss, $16.45 million
- Florida, $13.8 million
- LSU, $12.9 million
- South Carolina, $12.9 million
- MSU, $10.5 million
- Georgia, $4.1 million
- Mizzou, $2.85 million
- Kentucky, $2.55 million
Vanderbilt can’t be ranked without knowing Mason’s buyout, though it’s safe to say it’s at least less than the $10.5 million that MSU agreed to pay for its head coach buyouts during that stretch. That would put Vandy somewhere in the 10-13 range with Alabama coming in at No. 14 with … $0.
Keep in mind that those are just the head coaching buyouts. That doesn’t factor in what schools paid for assistants during that stretch. LSU agreed to pay ex-defensive coordinator Bo Pelini a lump sum of a $4 million buyout after his unit ranked No. 124 in total defense in 1 year in Baton Rouge.
That brings us back to 2021.
Even if you split Saban’s run of dominance in half and just go from January 2013-present, SEC teams agreed to pay head coaches an approximate total of $126,930,000 in buyouts. Excluding Alabama and Vandy, that’s an average of $10,577,500 in head coach buyouts agreed upon in the last 8 years per SEC school.
A pandemic didn’t burst the SEC’s buyout bubble. If anything, it expanded it with Auburn and South Carolina agreeing to pay the 2 largest head coaching buyouts in SEC history. Gone are the days of being stunned by A&M paying Sumlin a $10.4 million buyout. In 2021, it’s more likely to see an SEC head coach receive an 8-figure buyout than not.
And to be fair, it’s not just the SEC who watched buyout numbers boom. It’s a national issue. Florida State agreed to pay Willie Taggart a buyout worth about $18 million at the end of his second season in Tallahassee. The Big Ten had 8 coaches with 8-figure buyouts in 2020. Even a school more known for basketball in the Pac-12 like Arizona was reportedly set to pay Sumlin a buyout of $7.29 million after a winless Year 3 in Tucson.
With the exception of the Pac-12, the 4 other Power 5 conferences had at least 1 coach with a buyout north of $30 million last season (Jimbo Fisher led the way with a buyout of $53,125,000). Granted, schools didn’t have to pay those buyouts because their coaches won enough games, but with the way the sport is heading now, who knows when the first $30 million buyout will be paid.
Nobody could’ve predicted what the staggering buyout figures would become when Saban was hired at Alabama. Perhaps it’s foolish to predict what they’ll look like a decade from now.
It might not be entirely due to Saban that SEC schools started forking over hefty buyouts. TV revenue, which boomed during the Playoff era, certainly could’ve pushed athletic directors to be more aggressive with those buyout agreements. Whatever the case, 1 thing is clear.
It just pays more to get fired in the SEC.