In a post I wrote earlier this month, I discussed the effect that the college football coaching market has on institutions and their decision-makers. Specifically, I noted that the demand for a big-name college football coach has led institutions to enter into exorbitant, one-sided contracts that give all the leverage to the head coach. As of 2021, the following coaches carried the largest buyouts in college football.
College Football’s Top Buyout’s (As of October, 2021)
In addition to the above data, several high-profile coaching contracts were reached for the 2022 season. For example, Brian Kelly and LSU agreed to a 10-year, $95 million contract that guarantees 90% of Coach Kelly’s salary. Moreover, Coach Kelly’s contract shifts from 90% guaranteed to fully guaranteed in the event he leads LSU to a national championship during his tenure. Id. In addition, Lincoln Riley (USC) and Mario Cristobal (Miami) both are rumored to have exorbitant buyout clauses within the contracts they just recently signed. Id. Both Coach Riley and Coach Cristobal coach at private schools and therefore the terms of their agreements are not made publicly available.
Jimbo Fisher’s Contract and Situation Illustrate the Issue
Nevertheless, the coach with the most leverage (i.e., largest buyout) in all of football is Texas A&M’s head football coach, Jimbo Fisher. Coach Fisher gained this leverage after agreeing to a contract extension during the 2021 season that fully guaranteed him an average of $9.5 million per year through 2031. Id. Currently, his buyout sits at $85,950,000. Id.
Coach Fisher is 3-5, in his fifth season leading Texas A&M. Moreover, his Aggies football team sits dead last in the SEC’s West Division and 13th out of 14 teams overall in the SEC. Furthermore, despite being deemed an “offensive guru,” Coach Fisher’s Aggies have not scored more than 24 points against an FBS opponent this entire season. Moreover, the 2022 season isn’t the only season where Coach Fisher hasn’t lived up to the expectations of his fully guaranteed contract extension. In fact, Coach Fisher is 37-19 overall at Texas A&M. By comparison, his predecessor, Kevin Sumlin, who was fired for Coach Fisher, had compiled a 39-16 record in his first 55 games. Id.
While Coach Fisher performance has not been satisfactory, there is essentially nothing that Texas A&M can do about it. While some may point to the “for-cause” language in Coach Fisher’s contract that alleviates the fully guaranteed money, the fact remains that the school would still have to find a “for-cause” reason to fire Coach Fisher. If Texas A&M thinks that searching for a for-cause reason to fire Coach Fisher is a good move for their program, they need not look any further than Auburn and the toxicity it generated by trying to do so last year with still-current head coach Bryan Harsin. Without a for-cause reason to fire Coach Fisher, Texas A&M really has no other alternatives.
The situation at Texas A&M illustrates the conundrum of college football. Here, Texas A&M has devoted $95 million in guaranteed money to a head coach. While there is no doubt that the market demands these types of contracts, the issue remains that a single person in a sport that involves over one hundred people consisting of athletes, staff, administrators, trainers, and more is given full power.
Perhaps situations like the one in College Station, Texas will continue to compound until a point is reached where institutions decide that it’s time for the pendulum to swing against the demand sought by “elite-level” coaching. Until then, institutions are faced with the decision of handcuffing themselves to a single person and losing all leverage in these buyouts or choosing to bring in a lesser-known coach with the more financial flexibility if they have to make changes for poor performance.
President of the Buffalo Sports and Entertainment Law Society. Before law school, I coached college football at the University of Rochester for five seasons. I am excited to take these experiences, along with a legal education to make an impact on the ever-evolving landscape of college athletics. Thanks for reading our posts!