The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Coaching salaries have climbed aboard college football’s runaway train

Paid like a champion? Georgia Coach Kirby Smart won a national title in January and got a raise this month for bringing the school the hardware. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

To conclude another offseason of outlandish change in college football, a predictable thing just happened. Georgia, still celebrating its first national championship in 41 years, gave Kirby Smart a new contract. It reset the laughably lucrative market for elite coaches again: 10 years, more than $110 million. During a fast-changing time in the sport, a coach’s bulging wallet makes for a gaudy symbol of stability.

It’s hard to predict what college football will look like in five or 10 years as superconferences start to form and players navigate the scene with greater freedom to transfer and earn major endorsement money. But one thing won’t change: Coach is gonna get his.

For all their disingenuous concern about amateurism, colleges remain willing to throw absurd dollars at the leaders of their high-profile programs. Brace for this historically abundant era for coaches, one in which schools will declare their commitment to winning by normalizing $10 million annual contracts that last at least a decade.

Smart’s nine-figure deal was inevitable after a coaching carousel that saw Lincoln Riley reportedly receive more than $100 million to leave Oklahoma for USC and Brian Kelly get $95 million to ditch Notre Dame for LSU. Mario Cristobal took an $80 million offer to leave Oregon for Miami. Michigan State rewarded Mel Tucker with a $95 million extension after the Spartans went 11-2 last season. James Franklin also joined the 10-year contract club at Penn State, with a deal in which he can earn $70 million before incentives. But while those are all very good coaches, Smart went to renegotiate holding a national title, one thing the others don’t possess.

Smart now has the largest deal in history and the safest one in this bunch. On any reasonable list, he ranks among the top five coaches in the game. He’s a noted developer of NFL talent, particularly on defense. He is only 46 and has shown he can beat Alabama and Nick Saban, his mentor turned rival, in the big game. He’s a Georgia native and alum of a school that has a 66-15 record and two College Football Playoff appearances in his first six seasons. Barring any scandal, it seems Georgia will be able to justify the crazy cost, much like Alabama has had no qualms about regularly upping Saban’s pay and Clemson has been just fine doing whatever it takes to keep Dabo Swinney.

It’s obvious and warranted to note the bad optics and hypocrisy of tossing so many dollars at coaches while every zombie benefiting the evolving system of exploitation groans about the professionalization of college athletics. But the tradition-rich programs that drive huge revenue and dominate headlines can play this financial game, even as businesses in their communities give money to pay standout players. Programs won’t exactly go broke because doing business this way requires a combination of traditional revenue generation, classic donor involvement and now increased outside sponsorship money to compensate the athletes. But no matter how robust, there are limits. And unofficially, there are more stakeholders to pacify because these companies offering name, image and likeness endorsements have a return of investment, even if it’s just emotional, in mind.

If Saban keeps defying age and winning a national title every other year, Alabama will balance it all well. So will Georgia if Smart continues at his pace. Name any of the remaining top 10 or so programs, and they can live this way. But consider the ripple effect. That’s the problem to monitor.

This season, the 10 highest-paid coaches in college football will earn at least $7.5 million each. The annual salaries of most of the top 10 NFL coaches are in the same ballpark. But when you factor in the length of these college deals and the exorbitant contract buyout clauses, there’s no comparison. You must conclude that the elite college football coach — and even the pretty good one — has the cushiest job of all. The statement is true for all of American sports, not just football.

Soon it will be considered an insult if any coach of a perennial top 25 program doesn’t have a contract of $40 million or more. And the majority of those teams don’t have the resources of Michigan or Ohio State. But there will be pressure to overextend to keep up, either to prevent a rising coach from being poached or to attract some big-name retread. That’s where the system will break, at the second tier and all the middle tiers, as programs enter the arms race as best they can but without a viable strategic approach.

The mentality forces Michigan State to go all-in on Tucker, who has been a very promising college coach at Colorado and with the Spartans since leaving the NFL. But he also has one winning campaign in those three years, and now he must prove that last year’s 11-2 mark is either consistently replicable or an indicator that he can be even more dominant at Michigan State. The Spartans have banked $95 million on it, and if Tucker doesn’t work out, his contract stipulates Michigan State will owe him whatever is left on the deal if he’s fired without cause.

Perhaps the Spartans showed incredible foresight in locking up Tucker early. Perhaps Texas A&M, which has already boosted the $75 million contract it gave Jimbo Fisher in 2018, wins a national title for its generosity. But for most universities, this is risky business, at best. It’s reckless and impulsive. It speaks to the pitfalls of a whimsical business practice in which college presidents and athletic directors are too comfortable spending wildly because they have donors subsidizing them and donors are too comfortable urging them to waste their money because they’re so emotionally invested.

In this world, coaches are still the superstars, and amid all the uncertainty in the sport, they were destined to push for more security. They’re too cynical and paranoid to resist. They grew up in a disposable culture for coaches, so don’t blame them for seeking comfort and certainty. Now, when the coaches have leverage, their schools are too insecure to deny them.

Soon we will hear about a college football coach earning $15 million a year. But don’t just think about the highest-paid one. Think about the run-of-the-mill program that will strain to pay the run-of-the-mill coach $5 million because it fears falling behind.

The formation of superconferences seems like an unstoppable movement when you look at it that way. There’s already a caste system in college football, and the different classes are becoming more and more distinct, and no one cares about the importance of a thriving and competitive middle tier or how refreshing it is when new powerhouses emerge. The pursuit of more money is the primary motivation at the top, and to get more money, the so-called haves will do whatever the television executives have in mind. If today’s concern is that every school can’t play this game, tomorrow’s reality is that every school won’t be invited to play it.

This is the gradual end of college football as we know it. But rest assured, some traditions will remain. Coach is gonna get his. Stability has never been more costly.

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