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College football coach buyouts are getting out of hand

Some of the buyouts are justifiable, but some are downright ridiculous.

Texas Spring Game Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Being a college football head coach is a tough job, and there’s rarely much margin for error. If a coach doesn’t win and win quick, they’re usually booted out the door.

The leash is getting shorter and the contracts are getting bigger.

During a year where the deficits of athletic departments have taken a huge hit leading to layoffs and some cuts to non-revenue sports programs, some college football coaches are getting fired and receiving big buyouts in the process.

Texas head coach Tom Herman, who hasn’t lived up to expectations in Austin, but hasn’t been exactly the worst (4-0 in bowl games, 32-18 overall), is about to get paid $15 million in buyout money. The problem with the buyout is Texas has made it clear they’re not in a great place financially. On August 31 the athletic department announced that 273 staff members would receive temporary salary reductions, 11 staff members furloughed, 35 staff members laid off, and terminated 35 vacant positions. These implementations and others saved the department over $19 million. Yet months later, those ‘savings’ are wiped away when factoring in Herman’s buyout and his staff buyout which leads to a collective total of over $24 million.

Firing Herman seems bad enough, the optics don’t really look good. The university is definitely setting a lot of money on fire here and then has to spend a lot of money on a new coach on top of it. What makes the decision worse is who Texas is choosing to replace him. If it was someone like Urban Meyer, the move makes sense and would be hard to argue with as he’d be a definitive upgrade. But they didn’t hire a coach of Meyer’s tier, they opted for Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Sarkisian’s had off-field and on-field alcohol problems as head coach at Washington and USC, and his head coaching record of 46-35 is worse than Herman’s (54-22). Texas settled for someone who is far from a sure thing, and has to pay their previous coach money to go away. This decision doesn’t make sense. Think of how some of the people who got laid off feel when they were told it was a budget cut yet see the university willing to pay a hefty buyout without good enough cause.

Herman is far from the only head coach with a lot of money left on his deal being let go. South Carolina fired Will Muschamp just two months after athletic director Ray Tanner reported the athletics department was facing a $58 million revenue shortfall. South Carolina owes Muschamp a $15 million buyout. Auburn fired Gus Malzahn, who went 68-34 at the university with a National Championship, and now owe him a $21 million buyout. Auburn’s athletic revenue is down $62 million this year. Per USA Today Reporter Steve Berkowitz, “FBS public schools have committed themselves to as much as $107.6 million in buyout-related payments to football head coaches and assistants this season.”

What’s hypocritical, ridiculous, and out of hand about these buyouts is a twofold issue:

  • The amateurism debate: College football players have had to fight tooth and nail to get paid for their name, image, and likeness, universities make millions of dollars from student-athletes each year when there isn’t a pandemic. Now we’re having coaches get paid not to coach while players aren’t even getting thrown a couple shekels.
  • Erases the point of certain pandemic cost-cutting measures: It’s quite unconscionable in some cases to pay coaches these buyouts when the universities are claiming budget problems, asking season ticket holders to give them money for their seats even in instances where fans won’t be allowed in the stadium this season. Sports like wrestling, gymnastics, tennis, among others have been completely cut from the athletic department budgets. The buyouts are going to make a lot of people angry with ties to these universities.

Let’s be clear, some of these coaches deserve to be fired. Will Muschamp stunk it up this season at South Carolina, Arizona owes Kevin Sumlin a $7 million buyout, he got the axe after losing to Arizona State 70-7. The buyouts are still a tough pill to swallow when athletes don’t get paid, and lots of people in these athletic departments were fired to save money during a deficit year.

Something has to change on the buyout front, but there’s really no clear cut solution. Universities will probably keep throwing money around like they’re the Wolf of Wall Street on his yacht, and players are going to keep getting the short end of the stick.