How does Jimbo Fisher's contract ever wind up being worth it? A breakdown of that challenging scenario
To a certain extent, we’re all a bit numb to lucrative coaching salaries.
Fifteen years ago, Nick Saban became the first $4 million coach in the history of the sport. Now, there are Group of 5 coaches in the $4 million club. Buyouts have risen to Monopoly levels. Now, more Power 5 coaches have an 8-figure buyout than those who don’t. There are coaches in the Pac-12 , Big Ten and SEC who just inked fully guaranteed 10-year contracts in the past 7 months (Mario Cristobal is also on a 10-year deal at Miami, but the specific buyout terms aren’t known).
And then there’s Jimbo Fisher’s contract.
You know, the new deal he signed last fall that gave him a raise from a fully guaranteed 10-year, $75 million contract. Fisher’s new deal, which runs from 2022-31, is worth $94,950,000. It’s still fully guaranteed, meaning the buyout numbers are insane.
Here’s a breakdown of what A&M would pay to fire Fisher at the end of each of these seasons:
- 2022 — $85,950,000
- 2023 — $76,800,000
- 2024 — $67,550,000
- 2025 — $58,200,000
- 2026 — $48,750,000
- 2027 — $39,200,000
- 2028 — $29,550,000
- 2029 — 19,800,000
- 2030 — $9,950,000
- 2031 — Nothing
That’s bonkers. If A&M wanted to fire Fisher and pay less than $50 million, it would need to wait until 2026 … when his buyout would be $48.75 million. That would still be more than what the No. 2 buyout in the sport was in 2021. After Fisher agreed to that contract last fall, his buyout to be fired at the end of 2021 was double the next-closest coach (per USA Today):
- Jimbo Fisher, $95,575,000
- Dabo Swinney, $47,500,000
- Nick Saban, $38,400,000
- Ryan Day, $28,416,000
- Matt Campbell, $28,333,000
Again, I get it. We’re sort of numb to this. The difference between Fisher’s contract compared to those other new 10-year deals, I’d argue, is that we’re already 4 years in. Fisher has yet to hit double-digit wins and he’s 21-12 against SEC competition. Sure, in 2020 Fisher earned A&M its best AP Top 25 finish since 1939, which was also the program’s last national title. That matters, too.
The question moving forward should not be about whether Fisher is on the hot seat. Even 3 subpar seasons from 2022-24 would still mean A&M is still on the hook for $67,550,000, which is roughly triple the largest buyout ever paid in the sport.
The better question is: What would make that contract worth it?
The simple answer is that Fisher replaces the fake national championship plaque he received before he coached a game with a real one. Obviously. If Fisher nets the program its first national title since 1939, he’ll get another new contract and several years of grace before any hot seat conversations resurface.
It’s pretty clear. If Fisher doesn’t win a national championship, spending more than $124 million on him (he already made $30 million and is guaranteed another $94,950,000) will be considered a bust. But dare I say, shouldn’t A&M expect a little more stability than just 1 dream season?
The standard shouldn’t be Saban’s version of Alabama; it should be Kirby Smart’s version of Georgia. Smart ended the Dawgs’ drought, but it wasn’t like 2021 was some outlier season. He had 4 consecutive top-7 seasons leading into 2021. Now he’s in line for a massive raise — the words “10-year fully guaranteed contract” seem imminent — with UGA in position to potentially be the team of the 2020s decade.
If Fisher elevates A&M to that level, those buyout numbers are meaningless. There’s a reason we never discuss what great coaches like Saban or Riley would be owed if they were fired. Did you know that Saban’s buyout was $38 million last year? You probably didn’t because in no world was he getting fired.
In A&M’s perfect world, Fisher retires an Aggie and that buyout is never paid. In theory, you’d still hope a coach making north of $9 million would, at the very least, give you your best decade in program history. What’s that, you ask?
- AP Top 25 finishes: 9
- Top 10 finishes: 3
- Top 5 finishes: 0
- Top finish: No. 7 (1992)
- AP Top 25 finishes: 3
- Top 10 finishes: 2
- Top 5 finishes: 1
- Top finish: No. 5 (1956)
The best 3-year stretch in program history was 1939-41, when A&M finished No. 1, No. 6 and No. 9. If you’re going to spend like A&M is in relation to its competition, Fisher making good on that money would be a 3-year peak of at least that, if not more.
It’s unrealistic to say that Fisher needs to go to 6 consecutive Playoffs like Clemson did. Why? Well, when Saban’s Alabama is in your division (for probably the next 3 years and TBD after that), no amount of money can change the fact that the greatest coach in the sport’s history is on that opposite sideline. Usually, reaching a Playoff game is a byproduct of winning the conference, which A&M has yet to do in the 21st century in the Big 12 and the SEC. Shoot, A&M hasn’t even played in a conference championship game in the 21st century.
(I know that A&M claims a division title in 2010 because technically, the Aggies were in a 3-way tie for first place in the Big 12 Southern Division. But did they get to play in the Big 12 Championship that year? Nope.)
Anybody who claims Fisher shouldn’t be held to that of an elite annual contender standard is living in yesteryear. Nobody is going to pat Fisher on the back if and when he gets A&M consecutive Top 25 finishes for just the second time in the 21st century. It’s not like A&M earning consecutive top-10 finishes for the first time since 1994 is going to make everyone say, “wow, what a great investment Fisher was.” Even Paul Chryst did that at Wisconsin.
In order for Fisher to deliver on the contract he’s operating on right now, these are the boxes he’d have to check (note that I didn’t put any caveats about division titles or Playoff berths simply because we don’t know what that’ll look like in the latter half of the 2020s):
- No losing records in SEC play
- At least 5 more top-10 finishes
- At least 3 SEC Championship berths
- Multiple SEC Championships
- Multiple (more) victories against Alabama
- 1 national championship
The crazy thing is that if Fisher does check those boxes, another raise would be on the way. Who knows if/how those buyout numbers would be impacted.
And for those saying that multiple more victories against Alabama is an unfair bar to reach, remember that Gus Malzahn beat Saban 3 times. Of course, Malzahn was also paid $21.5 million to not work at Auburn. That was his buyout at the end of Year 8, and it was a constant topic of discussion in the final years of his post-2017 extension. Fisher could get fired at the end of Year 8 (2025) and still pocket a $58.2 million buyout.
Fisher isn’t being held to the Malzahn standard, whatever that actually was. It’s all but certain that Fisher will get more time to build a championship program than his predecessor, Kevin Sumlin, who like Malzahn, peaked in Year 1. Well, that’s assuming A&M isn’t about to pay Fisher $76.8 million to fire him at the end of the 2023 season.
A&M and Fisher are connected at the hip more than some care to admit. He could go 1-11 this year and still not get fired (I don’t expect that at all). Maybe Fisher will take a page out of his mentor’s playbook. The late Bobby Bowden didn’t have a top-3 finish at Florida State until Year 12, which would mean Fisher’s first top-3 finish in College Station would come in … 2029?
OK, never mind. A&M has been patient with Fisher, but those Aggie dollars aren’t that patient.
Fisher isn’t running out of money or time, but it does feel like he’s at a critical juncture for his and A&M’s legacy as a whole. By 2025, Oklahoma and Texas will join the SEC and winning the toughest conference in the sport will take on an even greater meaning.
Now seems like as good a time as any for Fisher to start showing his worth.