It’s hard to predict what college football will look like in five or 10 years as super conferences start to form and players move around the scene more freely to move and earn big support money. But one thing will not change: the coach will get what he has.
For all their disingenuous fears about amateurs, colleges remain willing to throw ridiculous dollars at the leaders of their high-profile programs. Prepare for this historically bountiful era for coaches, one in which schools will declare their commitment to winning by normalizing $10 million in annual contracts lasting at least a decade.
The nine-figure Smart deal was inevitable after Lincoln Riley received over $100 million to leave Oklahoma for USC and Brian Kelly got $95 million to give up Notre Dame for LSU. Mario Cristobal received an offer of $80 million 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 in Pennsylvania, with a deal in which he could earn $70 million before incentives. But while those are all very good coaches, Smart has gone to renegotiate a national title, something the others don’t have.
Smart now has the largest and safest deal in history in this group. In any reasonable list, he is considered among the top five coaches in the game. He is a well-known developer of NFL talent, particularly in the field of defense. He is only 46 years old and has shown that he can defeat Alabama and Nick Saban, his mentor turned competitor, in the big game. He’s a Georgia native and is a school graduate who has a 66-15 record and two college playoff appearances in his first six seasons. Barring any scandal, it seems Georgia would be able to justify the crazy cost, just as Alabama had no qualms about regularly increasing Saban’s pay, and Clemson was just fine doing whatever it took to keep Dabo Sweeney.
It’s obvious and justifiable to note the poor optics and hypocrisy of throwing tons of dollars at coaches while every zombie takes advantage of the sophisticated exploit system groaning about the professionalization of college athletics. But tradition-rich programs that generate huge revenue and dominate the headlines can play this financial game, even as companies in their communities give money to premium players. Programs will not be completely disrupted because doing business in this way requires a combination of traditional revenue generation, classic donor engagement and now increased outside sponsorship funds to compensate athletes. But no matter how powerful it is, there are limits. And informally, there are more stakeholders to calm down because those companies that offer name, image, and likeness endorsements have a ROI, even if it’s only sentimental, in mind.
If Saban continues to defy a lifetime and win a national title every two years, Alabama will balance it well. So will Georgia if Smart continues at its pace. Name any of the remaining top 10 or so programs, and they can live that way. But consider the ripple effect. This is the problem to watch.
This season, the 10 highest-paid coaches in college football will earn at least $7.5 million each. Annual salaries for most of the top ten coaches in the NFL are on the same field. But when you consider the amazing length of these college deals and extravagant contract buyout clauses, there is no comparison. You should conclude that an elite college football coach—and even a good coach—has the best job ever. This statement applies to all American sports, not just soccer.
Soon, it would be considered an insult if no coach for a permanent top 25 program had a contract worth $40 million or more. The majority of these teams do not have the resources of Michigan or Ohio. But there will be pressure to over-expand to keep up, either to prevent a rookie coach from being poached or to attract some big-name renewals. This is where the system will break, at the second level and all the middle levels, with programs entering the arms race as best they can but without a viable strategic approach.
The mentality forces Michigan State to move on with Tucker, who has been a very promising college coach in 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 repeatable or an indication that he could be more dominant at Michigan State. The Spartans made $95 million on it, and if Tucker didn’t work out, his contract stipulated that Michigan would owe him whatever was left in the deal if he was fired without cause.
The Spartans may have shown incredible foresight in locking up Tucker so early. Texas A&M, which has already cemented a $75 million contract awarded to Jimbo Fisher in 2018, may have won a national title for its generosity. But for most universities, this is a risky business, at best. He is reckless and impulsive. It talks about the perils of an eccentric business practice in which college presidents and athletic directors are too comfortable to spend wildly because they have donors backing them, and donors too comfortable to be tempted to waste their money because they’ve been emotionally invested.
In this world coaches are still the stars, and amid all the uncertainty in the sport, they are destined to push for greater safety. They are so pessimistic and paranoid that they cannot resist. They grew up in a disposable culture for coaches, so don’t blame them for seeking comfort and certainty. Now, when coaches have influence, their schools are too unsafe for them to do so.
Soon, we’ll hear about a college football coach who earns $15 million a year. But don’t just think about the most profitable price. Think of a regular program that would struggle to pay the average coach $5 million because he’s afraid of being left behind.
Forming super conferences seems like an unstoppable movement when you look at it that way. There is already a class system in college football, the different seasons are becoming more and more distinct, and no one cares about the importance of a burgeoning, competitive middle class or how well it will bounce back when new powers emerge. The pursuit of more money is the primary motivator at the top, and to get more money, the so-called rich will do what TV executives think. If today’s concern is that not every school can play this game, tomorrow’s reality is that not every school will be invited to play it.
This is the gradual end of college football as we know it. But rest assured, some traditions will remain. The coach will get. Stability has never been more expensive.