9 college football coach buyouts, ranked by inexplicability
College football’s perpetually skyrocketing coach salaries get lots of attention. They’re often, fairly used as evidence that the sport isn’t nearly as “amateur” as the NCAA would have you believe. They’re held up as an example of something state governments spend hand over fist on when they could be using that money on, say, services for citizens.
I’ve always found coaches’ buyouts to be just as incredible. Paying coaches a lot of money to lead unpaid teenagers isn’t jarring to me anymore, but I’m still taken aback by what universities are willing to pay coaches not to work. The answer is: a lot!
Each year, USA Today does the valuable work of collecting almost every FBS head coach’s contract information for that year, including the buyout amount in the case of a firing. Coach contracts at public schools are all supposed to be public record, but here’s where you can find the vast majority of them (parts of 123 contracts) all in one place for 2018.
These are some the list’s least explainable buyouts, pegged to Dec. 1, 2018 — shortly after the regular season ends, and during peak coach firing season. These are the amounts schools pay to coaches to walk away, not vice versa in the event of a coach leaving for another job. Remember that not every buyout amount is public.
9. Kentucky to Mark Stoops: $15.6 million
Placing Stoops here feels weird, given that Kentucky is good now. But this buyout was locked in before Kentucky got good, so it’s still inexplicable, even if it doesn’t look bad.
7 and 8. Colorado State and Wyoming: about $8 million apiece to Mike Bobo and Craig Bohl
Yes, CSU got a ransom from Florida when it gave up Jim McElwain before hiring Bobo. Yes, Bohl has now had two QBs (Carson Wentz and Josh Allen) drafted in the top 10.
Still: why oh why should it cost their schools more to fire them than it would cost WVU to fire Dana Holgorsen or Wisconsin to fire Paul Chryst, among many others?
6. Virginia to Bronco Mendenhall: $18.2 million
Mendenhall did well at BYU, but winning eight or nine games every year at BYU doesn’t strike me as a track record that says, “I’m gonna give you a top-20 buyout and put you in one of the hardest conferences in the country (that used to be true) and see how it goes.”
I even think Mendenhall’s done fine at Virginia. He’s not on the hot seat. But why should Virginia leave itself such a big amount to pay if things aren’t going well? Again, think of other recently non-competitive Power 5 programs that have coaches with drastically smaller buyouts. Why should the Hoos be locked into such a big one?
4. and 5. Illinois to Lovie Smith: $12.6 million; and Rutgers to Chris Ash: $10.4 million
Both of these deals expire between 2021 and 2022. Both teams are bad and showing no signs of momentum. Sure, schools have to pay up to get coaches to take on difficult jobs, and Rutgers’ case is a little bit unique; Ash had leverage to get more money because of the school’s NCAA problems around the time of his hiring.
But consider how the Illini and Scarlet Knights have done relative to their peers at the bottom of the Big Ten. Maryland’s buyout for DJ Durkin is $5.1 million. Indiana’s for Tom Allen is $2 million. Why should Smith and Ash — Smith in particular — be so much more expensive than those two?
At the top of the list is : a three-way tie of buyouts that are inexplicable in different but key ways.
T-1. Iowa to Kirk Ferentz: $22.4 million
Ferentz got a stunningly fat extension after Iowa went 12-2 in 2015. Nobody is saying he hasn’t been a successful coach, but he has the ninth-biggest buyout on that list, and something else almost nobody would say is that Ferentz is really a top-10 coach. The Hawkeyes’ rationale for giving him so much guaranteed money is still not clear.
He’s under contract through 2025. Presumably that’s because teams would’ve been lining up to hire away a 63-year-old Ferentz if his deal expired, say, this year.
T-1. Louisville to Bobby Petrino: $14.1 million
We’ve covered Petrino’s contract exhaustively here. There is a lot to it, including some indications that Louisville recognized it was going into business with the most notoriously unreliable coach in college football, a guy who’d already left them within a year of signing a 10-year contract and had well more than a decade of very public shenanigans to his name.
Louisville prepared for the possibility that Petrino would leave for another job, attaching big buyouts in the event a school hired him away (even though those buyouts were halved when the school fired athletic director Tom Jurich). But the school did not appear to prepare for the possibility that Petrino might just stop winning games and start making impossibly perplexing play calls. That’s the road currently being traveled.
T-1. Texas A&M to Jimbo Fisher: about $68 million
Texas A&M gave a 10-year, $75 million, fully guaranteed contract to a coach who’d just gone 5-6 at Florida State, then let Fisher have an exit buyout of zero dollars on his own end. Yes, this amount looks exorbitant because he’s got nine years left on his deal, and yes, Fisher might lead Texas A&M to the SEC glory it’s sought for so long. But come on. It’s $30 million bigger than any other buyout in the sport.
Those are some of the most inexplicable buyouts, but there are plenty of bad ones elsewhere.
UNC’s Larry Fedora, for instance, has a big one at $12.2 million. But while that looks bad after he said some wild stuff and apparently fielded two bad teams in a row in 2017 and ‘18, paying him made sense when it happened before the first of those years.
College football programs should consider spending more responsibly on coaches. They might win more games and have more money to spend on other things.
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Buyouts are the dumbest things college football ever allow to happen. You can suck at your job and make millions!
And they have gotten ridiculous