When I die, I want to come back to earth as a college football coaching agent.
Forget Alabama vs. Chattanooga or Brett Yormark vs. George Kliavkoff. There is no more lopsided contest in this sport than Jimmy Sexton vs. SEC athletic directors. He and his ilk have done a masterful job of exploiting schools’ emotion-driven coaching searches and amateurish negotiators to the tune of hundreds of millions in their clients’ bank accounts, whether they’re successful, or whether they fail spectacularly.
Texas A&M fired Jimbo Fisher on Sunday, invoking what was universally derided at the time as the sport’s most lopsided contract, one that will cost a staggering $77 million in guaranteed buyout money. Fisher earned $75 million before he even coached a game, then got a new $90 million deal — also fully guaranteed — following a 9-1 record in the weird and deceiving 2020 season.
Three seasons and a 19-15 record later, he will be paid a sum greater than the GDP of Tanzania to go away and let someone else make gobs of money chasing glory.
An econ professor or a Fortune 500 CEO would probably find the college football coaching market hilariously inefficient. The schools often negotiate against themselves, paying a coach far more than it would actually take for him to come there or stay there mostly because others are doing the same. They rush to lock themselves into stratospheric obligations to guys not named Kirby Smart or Nick Saban, then go begging for donations when they somehow can’t balance their budgets.
Texas A&M might be the most recognizable offender, but it’s not like other schools haven’t done the same thing.
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Two years ago, Penn State gave James Franklin a 10-year, $85 million contract amid speculation that USC maybe, possibly might try to steal him away after the season. On Saturday, Nittany Lions fans mercilessly booed Franklin as he walked through the tunnel exiting Beaver Stadium after yet another loss to a top-10 opponent. This would normally be a time when the school stopped to consider whether someone else might be better equipped to lead the Nittany Lions to Big Ten championships, except it would cost the school $65 million to send him packing.
Around that same time, Michigan State gave Mel Tucker his infamous $95 million deal less than two years into his tenure. Two years later, the Spartans are terrible, and if Tucker hadn’t sabotaged his employment, the school would still be on the hook for roughly $80 million of it.
Despite the fact roughly half of coaches wind up getting fired eventually, nobody ever thinks their coach will be one of them, so nobody stops to consider whether committing so much money to one person is a financially prudent move. Clemson gave Dabo Swinney the biggest contract in sports history — 10 years, $115 million — last year. At the time, throwing that much money at a two-time national championship coach probably made all the sense in the world, but a year later, Clemson is 6-4, enduring its worst season in 13 years. No one would rationally suggest the school should fire him for it, but what if things don’t get better over the next couple of years?
But also: Who exactly was Clemson competing with when it gave Dabo that monstrous contract? Did it think he was going to leave for another job if it only gave him $105 million instead of $115 million?
And it’s not just the blue bloods making rash and financially prohibitive deals.
Long-suffering Indiana was so elated that Tom Allen led the Hoosiers to a No. 12 ranking in 2020 — with a 6-2 record, mind you — that it gave him an incredibly one-sided new contract. Understandably concerned that a more prestigious program might pluck him away, it put in a clause that he would owe 50 percent back were he to leave prior to the 2022 season, but after that just $4 million. But IU, of course, owes the full amount (currently $20.8 million) if it wants to let go of a coach who is now 9-25 since signing the deal.
Ubben: Despite the massive sunk cost of Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M will keep spending until it wins big
Prior to Sunday, that $20.8 million figure would have been the second-highest buyout on record, trailing only Auburn’s $21.45 million payout to Gus Malzahn after the 2020 season. But Texas A&M just broke that record by roughly 350 percent, and now, much how that school normalized gigantic guaranteed contracts when it hired Jimbo, it will likely open the floodgates to other schools paying previously unheard-of buyouts.
On the list of world problems, football coaches getting enormous buyouts is not remotely close to the top of the list. Even within college athletics, there are more pressing concerns, like a multi-billion dollar suit against the NCAA and the Power 5 conferences arguing athletes deserve a share of TV revenue, and multiple cases involving the threat of athletes being classified as employees.
However, these horribly negotiated coaching contracts go hand in hand with the other issues. In the months and years to come, you will hear no shortage of administrators in courtrooms and in the media decrying all the negative consequences sure to come if the NCAA model changes — non-revenue sports being cut, women’s athletes being marginalized, etc.
Yet any plaintiff’s attorney could easily look at the USA Today coaches salary database and say … really? Do you think perhaps the reason you’re going broke is because you’re paying people well into eight figures only to vanish from your payroll?
The only way this trend is ever going to stop, though, is if the schools start exercising some common-sense restraint in their negotiations. It might mean that — brace yourself — sometimes a school’s No. 1 choice might say no. And that’s OK. Sometimes the less-obvious guy winds up faring better than the big-splash guy. See: Arizona’s Jedd Fisch, who took over a disaster of a program and has it ranked in the top 20 in his third year.
It might mean that sometimes the guy doing very well opts to leave for another school because they wouldn’t give into this agent’s completely unreasonable salary ask and umpteen demands about facilities improvements and whatnot. And, with the exception of the top five or so coaches in the country, that’s OK, too.
But the current market is just ludicrously one-sided, with no sign of letting up.
Being a college athletic director can be a fun job with a seven-figure salary and lots of perks.
But I’d much rather be on the other side of the table from one.
(Photo: Johnnie Izquierdo / Getty Images)