Head coach Kirby Smart of the Georgia Bulldogs celebrates after defeating the TCU Horned Frogs in the College Football Playoff National Championship game at SoFi Stadium on January 09, 2023 in Inglewood, California.
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College coaches' million-dollar buyouts: Revealing the unparalleled power shift in sports' lucrative realm

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September 13, 2023
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This story was produced by OLBG and reviewed and distributed by Stacker Media.

College coaches' million-dollar buyouts: Revealing the unparalleled power shift in sports' lucrative realm

Roughly half of all U.S. employers utilize non-competes in their contracts, according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute in 2019. These companies want to exert a level of control over their employees, preventing them from "sharing confidential information or trade secrets." But another major benefit for companies is that non-competes limit employee bargaining power and suppress wages. The New York Times estimated that non-competes "suppress American workers' income by roughly 3 percent to 4 percent, or $250 billion to $296 billion." 

It's rare for talent to turn the tables on employers, but in college football and college sports in general, that is precisely what has happened for coaches. OLBG explores how lucrative buyout agreements have granted coaches near-uncancellable contracts and reshaped the landscape of college sports. In the past twenty years, more and more men's college basketball and college football coaches have successfully negotiated multimillion-dollar buyouts in their contracts. Notre Dame's Charlie Weis was paid "to go away," after an unsuccessful tenure in South Bend, Indiana, 15 years ago. He was paid just shy of $19 million between 2009, when he was fired, and 2017. While his buyout made waves in 2009, it's considered buy-out pocket change for universities in 2023. 

So which coaches are virtually "unfireable" today due to their buy-out clauses? Let's look at what coaches would make if they were fired today. 

Two quick notes: This assumes no one on our list is fired for cause. That could get a college or university off the hook, monetarily speaking. And the second note is that this list comprises coaches from public universities only. Their contracts are publicly available, while private institutions are under no obligation to share contractual information. USC's Lincoln Riley may well have a buyout of over $90 million based on his current compensation that has been made public, but we do not have access to his buyout stipulation. 

Head coach Kirby Smart of the Georgia Bulldogs directs play during a game between Georgia Bulldogs Red and Georgia Bulldogs Black at Sanford Stadium on April 15, 2023 in Athens, Georgia. 
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Steve Limentani / ISI Photos / Getty Images

1. Kirby Smart, Georgia, Head Football Coach ($103.1 million buyout)

You can't buy the kind of job security that Kirby Smart has right now in Athens, Georgia. Smart has led the Bulldogs to back-to-back national championships. As a reward, his ten-year $112.5 million deal is fully guaranteed through 2026. His deal drops from 100% guaranteed to 85% on Jan. 1st, 2027, and would be paid out at that level through the end of the contract. Luckily, the UGA athletic department won't have to entertain the thought of firing their legendary head coach. The same can't be said for other employers on this list with massive contracts hanging like albatrosses around their necks.

Head coach Jimbo Fisher of the Texas A&M Aggies reacts in the second half against the Florida Gators at Kyle Field on November 05, 2022 in College Station, Texas. 
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Tim Warner / Getty Images

2. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M, Head Football Coach ($86.7 million buyout)

The Aggies take their football seriously, so it is no surprise that they pay their head football coach handsomely. Fisher's most recent extension agreed to pay him $94.95 million over a ten-year period starting in 2022. It made sense when the Texas A&M Board of Regents voted to extend Fisher. He was coming off a 9-1 season with an Orange Bowl victory. But since then, Fisher and the Aggies are 13-11 with a losing record (6-10) in SEC play. Last fall's 5-7 mark would have gotten a lot of coaches fired, but not Fisher. His massive buyout ($86m) prevented an ouster at the time. While it has come down by another $9 million, it remains astronomical and would be the largest ever paid if A&M gave Fisher the boot following the season.

Head coach Mel Tucker of the Michigan State Spartans reacts to a play against the Penn State Nittany Lions during the second half at Beaver Stadium on November 26, 2022 in State College, Pennsylvania. 
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Scott Taetsch / Getty Images

3. Mel Tucker, Michigan State, Head Football Coach ($86.6 million buyout)

Tucker's contract is fully guaranteed, according to documentation obtained by Boardroom.TV. Tucker's agent, Neil Cornrich, deserves a raise. Despite an 18-14 overall record, which includes two losing seasons in East Lansing, Tucker is entrenched as one of the sport's highest-paid coaches. He has a losing record in the Big Ten since taking over the Michigan State program, but if the school wants to move on from him, they'd have to pay his enormous buyout. Neil Cornrich 1, Michigan State 0.

Head Coach Brian Kelly of the LSU Tigers on the sidelines during a game against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium on November 12, 2022 in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
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Wesley Hitt / Getty Images

4. Brian Kelly, LSU, Head Football Coach ($78.6 million buyout)

Brian Kelly is one of the winningest college football coaches of all time. He's won at every level, from Division II and the Group of Five to Notre Dame and LSU. He's won 73.2% of his games and made multiple national championship appearances from his time at Grand Valley State. In year one at LSU, he dethroned Alabama in the SEC West and enters this season as a contender for the College Football Playoff. Despite this lofty buyout figure, LSU shouldn't lose much sleep, given Kelly's history as a head coach.

Head coach James Franklin of the Penn State Nittany Lions looks on during the Penn State Spring Football Game at Beaver Stadium on April 15, 2023 in State College, Pennsylvania.
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Scott Taetsch / Getty Images

5. James Franklin, Penn State, Head Football Coach ($72.6 million buyout)

Franklin is the epitome of an excellent, but not great college football coach. He has won 11 games four times since 2016 in Happy Valley, complete with trips to the Rose (2x), Fiesta, and Cotton Bowls. He's gone 3-1 in those New Year's Six bowl games and brought waves of elite talent to Penn State. This season the Nittany Lions may be poised for their best season since 1994, when the program went undefeated and finished second in both the AP and Coaches Polls. Franklin has spurned other suitors in recent years, which means this marriage is solid.

Head coach Dabo Swinney of the Clemson Tigers reacts against the Tennessee Volunteers during the first quarter of the Capital One Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium on December 30, 2022 in Miami Gardens, Florida.
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Eric Espada / Getty Images

6. Dabo Swinney, Clemson, Head Football Coach ($64 million buyout)

Dabo Swinney is one of three active college football coaches (along with Nick Saban and Kirby Smart) with multiple national championships at the FBS level. He's earned his place among the highest-paid coaches in all sports, but what's interesting about his new deal is that while the school would owe him $64 million if they were to fire him after this season, this contract goes both ways. If Swinney, an Alabama graduate, were to leave Clemson and take over for Nick Saban, he would have to pay Clemson $7.5 million. If he were to bolt for another job in 2023 outside of Alabama, he would owe Clemson $6 million. His new employer would likely cover that fee, but it remains a unique contract quirk.

Head coach Ryan Day of the Ohio State Buckeyes is seen during the third quarter against the Georgia Bulldogs in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 31, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia.
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Carmen Mandato / Getty Image

7. Ryan Day, Ohio State, Head Football Coach ($52.4 million buyout)

Day and Ohio State were on top of the world two and a half years ago. They made the national championship game and had beaten arch-rival Michigan eight straight times. At the time, the buyout being discussed concerning Day was the possibility of him leaving for the NFL. His contract stipulates that if he left for another job he would have to pay Ohio State $5 million in 2023, $4.5 million in 2024, and $4 million in 2025. But after two consecutive losses to Michigan, there is smoke that Day could find himself on the hot seat if the Buckeyes were to lose to That Team Up North (TTUN) again in 2023. While unlikely at this price point, he no longer has unassailable job security.

Head coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide leads the team onto the field prior to facing the Texas A&M Aggies at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 08, 2022 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
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Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images

7. Nick Saban, Alabama, Head Football Coach ($43.2 million buyout)

Barring any scandal that could get Saban fired for cause, there is no way the University of Alabama would buy out his contract. He's the undisputed G.O.A.T. of college football coaching. He's won 10 SEC conference titles, seven national titles, and 87.5% of his games in Tuscaloosa. His new deal pays him $11.7 million per season, making the coaching legend college football's highest-paid coach.

Head coach Brent Venables of the Oklahoma Sooners takes the field with his team for Bedlam against the Oklahoma State Cowboys during Bedlam at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on November 19, 2022 in Norman, Oklahoma.
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Brian Bahr / Getty Images

9. Brent Venables, Oklahoma, Head Football Coach ($36.5 million buyout)

The longtime defensive coordinator finally got his shot as a head coach and received a fully guaranteed contract. His 6-7 debut in Norman included a 1-4 finish to the season. As a major underdog, the Sooners nearly upset Florida State in the Cheez-It Bowl but came up just short, 35-32. The honeymoon period is over for Venables. Given that Oklahoma is about to be cash-rich thanks to their new SEC invitation, a quick hook for Venables and a massive buyout check could be in the cards if he posts a second straight losing season.

John Calipari the head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats gives insturctions to his team against the Auburn Tigers at Rupp Arena on February 25, 2023 in Lexington, Kentucky.
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Andy Lyons - Getty Images

10. John Calipari, Kentucky, Head Basketball Coach ($33.3 million buyout)

The famed recruiter has hit the skids in Lexington. Between 2014 and 2020, the Wildcats went 178-40 (.817) under Calipari's leadership. That included three Elite Eight appearances and one Final Four Trip in 2014. But since 2021, they are 57-36 with just one win in the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky's Big Blue Nation has grown restless in recent years and another early exit from the NCAA Tournament could be curtains for Calipari despite his phenomenal track record. That's life in the new SEC where TV contracts have created deep pockets for athletic departments.

 

Methodology

All of the contractual data was obtained by our veteran researcher, Dan Tracey. Sources included press releases from universities and colleges, quotes made on the record by the coaches who signed said contracts, and third-party reporting from sources including Sports Illustrated, ESPN, 247Sports, Boardroom.TV, and South Carolina's newspaper of record, The State. 

This story was produced by OLBG and reviewed and distributed by Stacker Media.

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