College Coach Carousel: Five Contracts, Nearly $500 Million in Value

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Add another domino and mega-contract to the college football coaching carousel, as Mario Cristobal left Oregon Monday to take the head job at Miami, where he won two national titles as an offensive tackle and later served as an assistant coach.

“My family and I are excited to return home to the University of Miami, which has been so instrumental in shaping me as a person, player and coach,” Cristobal said in a statement announcing the hire. “This program has an unparalleled tradition and an exciting future ahead of it. I can’t wait to compete for championships and help mold our student-athletes into leaders on and off the field, who will make our University, our community, and our loyal fan base proud.”

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The 10-year contract for the Miami native is worth $8 million per year, according to the Miami Herald. It continues a run of blockbuster deals completed over the past two weeks, with the five largest pacts worth nearly $500 million combined, including likely-to-be-earned incentives.

It has been an unprecedented shuffling among college coaches this year, as a trio of marquee openings at Florida, USC and LSU triggered massive extensions to keep current coaches from leaving and big new deals to those who ultimately assumed those jobs. These three schools, plus Miami, combined for a dozen national titles over the past four decades but have all face turmoil on or off the field recently.

The stakes have been raised in college football, what with conference realignment and new TV deals coming. ESPN’s SEC pact, for instance, starts in 2024 and is worth $300 million a year, nearly six times higher than what CBS paid previously. Annual revenues top $100 million at leading programs, led by Texas at $148 million during the 2019-20 fiscal year. Coaches, who serve as the face of these programs for recruiting and fundraising, have used their leverage in this arms race to secure their fortunes, similar to the way NFL teams once used the threat of relocating to Los Angeles to secure public stadium financing at home.

“Sports is like everything else, it’s a market-driven economy,” Glenn Sugiyama, head of the sports practice at executive search firm DHR Global, said in a phone interview. “As demand goes up, the market goes up.”

Mel Tucker, whom Sugiyama placed at Michigan State last year, was one of the leading candidates at LSU and USC. He is 12-7 in two years with the Spartans, after posting a losing record in his one year at Colorado, but he landed a 10-year, $95 million extension, with the financial backing of Michigan State grads Mat Ishbia and Steve St. Andre. Ishbia is worth $8.5 billion, according to Bloomberg. The only college coach at the time with a higher average annual salary: Nick Saban, winner of seven national titles.

Tucker’s contract reset the terms, both in length and in dollars, of what a college coach with any track record could expect at a top Power Five school. Penn State locked up its coach, James Franklin, to a 10-year, $85 million contract extension last month, with up to $1 million in additional annual incentives, after he was rumored to be on the shortlist for openings at LSU and USC.

Prior to the Franklin and Tucker extensions, there were only three college football coaches in the country with contracts worth at least $8 million a year on average: Saban ($10.7 million), Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher ($9.5 million) and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney ($9.3 million). The trio all had national championships on their resumes, with Saban and Swinney (two titles) in charge of multiple winners.

The $8 million club nearly tripled over the past two weeks, as Brian Kelly, Lincoln Riley and Cristobal joined Tucker and Franklin. Kelly’s 10-year deal with LSU is worth $10 million a year on average, including $500,000 a year in “longevity compensation,” while Riley is expected to pocket at least $100 million from USC under a similar long-term deal, although financial terms have not been released.

USC and LSU both made huge commitments to lure coaches from fellow blueblood programs in Oklahoma and Notre Dame. This doesn’t happen in college football. A coach hadn’t left Oklahoma for another college job since 1947. At ND, it hadn’t happened since 1908. Days before he took the LSU job, Kelly was asked about leaving Notre Dame and said: “Unless the fairy godmother comes by with that $250 million check, my wife would want to take a look at that first. I’d have to run it by her.”

Kelly didn’t get $250 million, but he did get nine figures that will be supplemented by a series of incentives, including $500,000 a year for making a bowl—a pedestrian result that simply requires six wins and at least a .500 record. For context, LSU played in a bowl game for 20 straight years before last season. An SEC title would bump Kelly’s pay $250,000 each year left on the deal, while a national title would add another $500,000 a year to his base pay.

The power of coaches (and their agents) in negotiations can be viewed through the contract buyouts and how skewed they are in favor of the coaches. LSU owes Kelly 90% of his base and supplemental compensation—$9.5 million a year—for all years remaining on his contract if he is fired without cause, and the figure hits 100% if he wins a national championship. In contrast, Kelly, or his next school, would only owe $4 million to get out of his contract by December 2022, a figure that quickly drops to $2 million thereafter. The buyout goes to zero if Scott Woodward leaves his post as LSU AD.

Franklin’s Penn State buyout is similar. He’s owed $8 million times the number of years left on the 10-year deal if fired without cause. If Franklin leaves after 2022, it will cost him just $6 million, and only $2 million starting the following year.

College football coaching salaries have traditionally lagged their pro contemporaries, as the revenues of a college program are just a fraction of an NFL team. Sportico’s study last month on the 25 highest-paid coaches in U.S. sports featured 14 NFL bosses and just three from college sidelines. Bill Belichick led the way at an estimated $18 million, nearly 70% higher than Saban.

Yet, on a percentage of revenue basis, Saban trumps his mentor. The Patriots generate nearly six times the revenue of Alabama football, but the Tide, of course, don’t have to pay players, so they can commit 10% of revenue to Saban, while Belichick gets 3% of the Patriots’ annual revenue.

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