Security for college football coaches has never felt more … secure. At least in 2020. This is a bit of good news for the game's coaching millionaires amid a global pandemic threatening the health and safety of not only the coaches and players but the game itself.
Start with the fact that most of the nation's coaches haven't been around long enough to fire. There have been 73 coaching changes involving 70 schools in the last three seasons. That indicates a lot of athletic directors are skittish.
All that occurred before the profound impact of COVID-19 on college budgets nationwide. A case can be made that the collegiate model is changing before our eyes. Arguably, the most successful athletic department in the country (Stanford) just cut a third of its sports.
Sports Illustrated reported that the purge of college sports this offseason (56 overall) is the most in 14 years.
A lot of it is arguably being done to protect college football.
"College football is almost too big to fail," said longtime athletic director Eric Hyman, who led five institutions for a combined 33 years before retiring. "The dilemma is, you're right. There's going to be a lot more [job] security. … The turnover is not going to be as fast as it was because of the economics, but it's going to put athletic directors in a financial pinch."
It will be difficult to properly evaluate coaches in 2020. The Big Ten and Pac-12 are moving to conference-only schedules. The rest of FBS may soon follow suit.
That trend could result in possible mulligan seasons for coaches on the hot seat.
How do you fire a coach with both games and budgets dwindling?
History has proven that major-college football will be preserved at every expense. At the FBS level, football provides 80% of the revenue for the average athletic department.
As painful as the process of dropping sports may be for some, the alternative is not having an athletic department. Football profits pay for the losses from non-revenue sports.
It can cost up to eight figures to change football coaches. During a national emergency, college football's status quo looks darn good to the bottom line.
"You have so few agents representing the vast majority of Power Five coaches, it makes it easier to control the market," said Darren Heitner, a South-Florida based attorney specializing in sports law. "[They're not going to] allow individuals to go against the grain and agree to a lower-term deal."
There is no overt evidence of contract renegotiations just yet, but don't be surprised if that becomes a strategy. Dozens of coaches have agreed to fractional pay cuts during the pandemic, but those are deemed temporary.
"Spread it out, renegotiate," speculated Jim Livengood, a retired AD who spent a quarter century at UNLV, Arizona and Washington State. He suggested that offering longer-term security in exchange for some sort of salary relief could be an option.
"Spreading out a contract does some other kinds of things," he added. "It locks in a coach who may or may not be locked in. There is a lot more going on that what we think."
Good luck with that. Entering the 2019 season, football coaches' salaries had risen 9%, the largest increase in four seasons, according to USA Today. The average FBS coach was up to $2.67 million per year.
The average buyout of the nation's top 10 highest-paid coaches is $29 million. Sportico reported that Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz's buyout ($22.6 million) is larger than the entire athletic budgets of three FBS schools.
As long as agents have leverage over program desperate to get their man, it's going to be hard for those numbers to come down anytime soon.
"[Buyouts] may be moderated a little bit," Hyman said. "It's marketplace driven. This is what the fans want. Some board members at schools are finally going to pay attention to it in more of an objective perspective more than an emotional perspective."
For the first time, all the coaches in a single conference (SEC) made at least $3 million in 2019.
The SEC is arguably the most competitive conference in the country. It's also one of the most secure for coaches heading into 2020. Four of the 14 coaches are new. Nine of the coaches have won a national championship at least as an assistant.
In the SEC West alone, its coaches have won seven of the last 11 national championships. Two others, Ole Miss' Lane Kiffin and Auburn's Gus Malzahn, have won championships as assistants. Like Kiffin, Mississippi State's Mike Leach and Arkansas' Sam Pittman are entering the first season at their schools.
ADs won't say it out loud, but tougher scrutiny of contracts is also an option.
The Oklahoma State administration got "leverage" over Mike Gundy when players reacted negatively to an insensitive T-shirt worn by the coach. With the death of super-booster T. Boone Pickens, Gundy had been trending toward a consolidation of power at the school.
But both president Burns Hargis and AD Mike Holder came down hard on the program's winningest coach. After Chuba Hubbard and numerous Oklahoma State players spoke out, Holder said there was "grave concern" about Gundy's actions.
How many coaches who are the most successful in a school's history get called out by the president? After his missteps, Gundy voluntarily took a $1 million pay cut and reduced the length of the contract.
Much has been made of installing "force majeure" clauses in all head coaching contracts. Force majeure basically says a school doesn't have to pay a coach (or fully pay a coach) because of an act of God.
The Athletic found 13 instances of force majeure language in 66 publicly available contracts, including in those signed by UCLA's Chip Kelly and LSU's Ed Orgeron. Such language was added to Gundy's contract by AD Mike Holder after the controversy.
"If the athletic departments are crunched, they may be digging up the contracts to see if they can get a way out," Heitner said.
Agents have "done a pretty good job of negotiating [force majeure] out," he added. "But it all becomes a push and shove issue. What takes priority? What kind of leverage does the coach have? By and large, I'd say coaches tend to get the better of the university with these deals."
Example: Theoretically, an athletic department couldn't cherry pick which salaries to reduce if impacted by an act of God like the pandemic. If a school starting slashing coaches' salaries, an AD would save money on the front end but possibly find the school's credit rating decrease. Agent sources have suggested a bank that has lent money to an institution would take notice of an athletic department's financial viability if force majeure was enforced.
What seems hypocritical and arbitrary is the NCAA sports sponsorship minimum (16 sports). Early during the pandemic, the Group of Five conferences sent a letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert requesting a moratorium on that minimum. They were refused. Programs continue to be cut.
"There's going to be a reset button," Hyman said. "There's a lot of bad about what is taking place. But the good side is you might be able to get your arms around expectations that people have in coaching."
One coaching agent concluded the economic downturn may be proving a hard truth: There are too many sports in the average athletic department. Therefore, football has to thrive in its current form.
"It's really going to be hard if this thing continues," Livengood said. "It's really going to be hard in the face of what has happened for the general public. … I'm not questioning why they're there. The salaries are market-driven. But, as we both know, it's [now] a different market."