The effect a “contract year” has on an athlete is undoubtedly an interesting phenomenon to observe. Whether it’s an MLB, NFL, NBA, or NHL player, the stakes involved for a player’s performance entering free agency are through the roof. Even as smart as today’s front offices are in their holistic evaluations, the recency bias of seeing an athlete succeed or fail could mean the difference of tens of millions.
A prime example on the positive side is Aaron Judge. In 2022, Judge was in his last year of club control with the Yankees. He proceeded to break the AL single-season homerun record and inked a $360 Million deal as a result. For a player who’d battled injuries over the course of his career before 2022, if Judge failed to stay healthy and perform in his contract year, he would’ve settled for far less than that this winter.
On the flip side, Joey Gallo was also in a contract year in 2022. In the summer of 2021, Gallo was rumored to be negotiating with the Texas Rangers on a potential nine-figure contract to stay in Texas. The talks fell through, and Gallo was eventually traded to the Yankees (later to the Dodgers), where he struggled mightily over the next year and a half. Once positioned to a lucrative $100 Million deal, Gallo was forced to take a 1-year/$11 million deal with the Minnesota Twins.
So that’s professional sports. But what about college football? Obviously, college athletes (for the time being) don’t have contracts with their schools, so our attention will be on the coaches. In evaluating the landscape of college football coaching contracts, something really stood out: today’s coaches rarely even get to the point where their deal expires.
Why is this the case? While acknowledging that every situation is unique, the contract status for a coach can often be described in one of two ways. The first is if the coach is succeeding and the second is if the coach isn’t.
Hitting on the positive side first, if a coach has a successful season or collection of seasons, athletic directors, university presidents, and boosters are immediately pressured to do whatever it takes to keep that coach at their school. Whether it be another school or the NFL, the fear of losing a successful coach often leads to schools shelling out lucrative extensions. Even if a coach isn’t a real candidate for another job, the magnificent work of agents to push rumors into the public sphere can give coaches tremendous leverage at the negotiating table.
Whether or not these long-term extensions are wise investments is certainly unknown. In looking at Nick Saban’s pay over the years, there’s no question the seven-time national championship coach has been worth every penny to the University of Alabama. But for Jimbo Fisher and Mel Tucker, there’s certainly some early trepidation on whether their schools acted too soon. However, it’s worth mentioning that hindsight is always 20/20, and the 10-year/$100 million deal is the market for the perceived elite coaches today. Without the extension at Michigan State, would Mel Tucker have taken the LSU job? Who knows? But Michigan State, like many other schools today, wasn’t willing to take that chance.
The other reason why coaches rarely get too close to a contract year is quite simple: They get fired well before their contract expires. I’ve written extensively for the site about how coaches are getting fired sooner and sooner into their tenures over the past few years, and I really don’t expect that trend to cease. If a coach doesn’t have success on the field or on the recruiting trail within two years, the pressure to get a new coach in that will is through the roof, especially at big programs. Paying a buyout is undoubtedly a tough pill to swallow for a school’s power brokers. But when pressed to make that decision, they aren’t asking whether or not they can afford to pay their fired coach, they’re asking if they can afford not to.
In total, of the 69 power conference schools (including Notre Dame), 65 have either fired or extended a coach over the past two calendar years. Some, including Washington and Texas Tech have done both. Simply put, when it comes to coaches’ contracts in today’s college football, a coach either gets fired or gets extended within months on the job. There’s no in-between. Below is a conference-by-conference look at the contract status of each coach.
*Denotes private institutions. Private institutions are not required to release contract terms, but in many cases, they do
Although not included in the charts, the Group of 5 data is similar.
Whether or not we see this trend reverse or scale back is yet to be determined. But as conferences continue to sign lucrative media rights deals, it’s clear that big-time programs aren’t pressing for money. Sure, in a day where the players start getting paid directly by the schools like employees, this may change. But for now, the money must go somewhere. A significant portion of it is going to extensions or buyouts for coaches.
Brendan can be found on Twitter @_bbell5