Power Ranking the 10 Worst Coach Contracts in College Football
Many people believe college football coaches make way too much money, especially in the context of the argument about whether or not college football players should receive compensation—in excess of the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars they already receive in scholarships, that is.
But what constitutes a truly bad coaching contact?
Are the worst contracts those that fail to compensate a head coach well enough for running a major college program? How about those that seem inflated? How about those giant buyouts for coaches that a university wants to dismiss?
We might be able to argue that Nick Saban's $5.5 million per year salary is grossly inflated. After all, he is the highest-paid public employee in the United States. The president of the University of Alabama makes $464,000 per year. The governor of Alabama makes only $121,000 annually. Heck, the President of the United States makes $400,000 every year, far behind Saban—and nearly every FBS coach. But Saban—and ultra-successful coaches like him—could argue that they provide a benefit to the university in excess of the salary he receives. So money alone can't be the determining factor.
What about contracts unfair to either the coach or the university? Let's take a look at those contracts, the ones that make you simply scratch your head. Here are the 10 worst college football coach contracts today.
Note: The figures used are for 2012, as that is the most recent season for which all 125 coaching contracts are available. While some 2013 details are available, it seemed unfair to compare a 2013 contract for one coach to a 2012 contract for another.
Links to most FBS coaching contracts can be found here.
No. 10: Rich Ellerson, Army
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We'll start with a contract that seems a bit unfair to the coach. In this case, we're looking at the most easily understood part of a coach's contract: the salary.
Rich Ellerson's annual salary at West Point is $600,000 per year. Considering he's essentially an employee of a federal institution—the United States Military Academy—and makes more than the President or any general or admiral wearing a uniform, there's probably not a whole lot to complain about. You might also consider that Army has been perfectly awful over the past four-plus seasons under his leadership (18-34), including an 0-4 record in the only game that matters at West Point: Army-Navy.
But take a look at what his compatriots at Navy and Air Force make ($1.65 million and $900,000, respectively) and the unfairness to Ellerson seems to come into focus.
Perhaps if Army wants to attract a coach who can pull the program out of the muck, they should start offering a salary at least on par with the other two FBS service academy programs.
No. 9: Bill O'Brien, Penn State
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In the wake of the whole Penn State-Jerry Sandusky saga, you would think that The Pennsylvania State University would have had enough of cover-ups and general opaqueness in its internal affairs—particularly when it comes to football.
You'd be wrong.
Penn State has been extraordinarily reluctant to discuss details of head coach Bill O'Brien's contract, despite the fact that as a public institution, it has a legal requirement to release such information. But when the public finally got its hands on the contract, it turned out it was about as confusing as a contract can get.
O'Brien's contract is unique in the fact that it doesn't appear on this list of worst contracts from its inflated salary or it's perceived undervaluation. Instead, its convoluted and twisted pay scale earns it a special place on our list.
Let's face it: Penn State should pay O'Brien nearly anything he wants. The Nittany Lions program is in a rough spot, and things are probably going to get worse before they get better. Having a coach with the quality of O'Brien leading things is probably the best thing to happen to Penn State football in quite some time.
That's also probably why O'Brien has a pretty hefty buyout on his contract should he decide to leave Penn State.
But, the buyout also has some odd clauses. The major portion of the buyout states that O'Brien will pay Penn State his current salary multiplied by the number of seasons remaining on his contract should he leave the program for an NFL job.
What about another NCAA gig? Penn State and O'Brien have been mum on that point.
No. 8: Mike London, Virginia
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Mike London's claim to fame as a head coach was guiding the Richmond Spiders to the FCS National Championship in his first season as a head coach in 2008. The following season, Richmond posted an impressive 11-2 record, finishing the season ranked No. 4 in the nation after losing in the FCS quarterfinal round.
In 2010, Virginia hired London to take over the struggling Cavaliers program, and despite paying $2.6 million per season (after incentives), the Cavs still finished tied for last place in the ACC's Coastal Division. In 2012, Virginia was 4-8, again finishing last in the Coastal Division. Coming into the 2013 season, the Cavaliers were 16-21 under London, meaning UVA has spent nearly one half million dollars per victory.
Like so many other coaches, London used a flash-in-the-pan successful season in 2011 to lobby for a new contract. Virginia gave in, increased his base pay, extended the term of the contract through 2016 and even chipped in a longevity bonus should London remain at Virginia through January 15, 2015.
We don't begrudge coaches for asking for more money after a successful season. We do begrudge athletic departments from signing silly contracts based on a small handful of games.
No. 7: James Franklin, Vanderbilt
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James Franklin's contract at Vanderbilt is mostly kept out of the public eye, but Franklin is still known to be among the top 20 best-paid coaches in college football (and top half of the SEC) with annual compensation near $2.7 million. Not bad for a first-time head coach at a perennial conference doormat.
Private universities are sometimes at a disadvantage when it comes to athletics. Not every private program is flush with rabid alumni oozing cash, like the folks in South Bend or Los Angeles. It's even more difficult to find all that extra cash when your football program is traditionally looked on as a cream puff opponent by the big boys in the conference.
Still, Vandy has come up with a pretty attractive offer for its head coach, and Franklin has so far delivered more than many expected. Vandy finished ranked in the final AP Poll in 2012 (No. 23), won a bowl game and finished with the highest two-season combined win total since 1926 and 1927.
But with such a lofty starting salary, we really wonder how long Vanderbilt will be able to keep Franklin around. Let's assume the Commodores' success continues (which is by no means certain). Franklin will obviously be in line for a pretty hefty raise once he begins to renegotiate his contract. But can, or even should, Vanderbilt start paying its football coach on par with other, long-term successful SEC programs like South Carolina, LSU and Alabama?
Does a moderately successful Vandy program even pull in enough money to warrant such a salary?
No. 6: Gary Pinkel, Missouri
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Gary Pinkel is probably squarely on the hot seat at Mizzou this season, so there's bound to be a lot of focus on his contract for the rest of 2013. Despite being in his 13th season at Missouri, it's hard to explain how Pinkel makes what he does based on the level of success the Tigers have seen as of late.
Pinkel has never won a conference title at Missouri and has only had three seasons (2007, 2008, 2010) in which his team finished ranked in the final AP Top 25. That doesn't appear likely to change anytime soon with Missouri's move to the SEC.
We all knew the move would be rocky for a program like Mizzou. But rather than building hope for the future, Pinkel's inability to attract top recruits to his program has us wondering where the Tigers go from here under Pinkel.
According to 247sports.com, Missouri has had the worst recruiting class in the SEC in 2013, and is on pace to repeat that distinction with the class of 2014. How can Missouri ever hope to compete with the likes of Georgia, South Carolina and Florida in the SEC East without attracting top-tier talent?
It seems Missouri isn't getting it's $2.75 million worth each season, especially on the recruiting trail. Luckily for Mizzou, Pinkel's contract only runs through 2015, and an early buyout of his contract (listed at 100 percent of the remaining owed salary) wouldn't be too painful.
No. 5: Charlie Weis, Kansas
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Apparently Kansas was desperate for any semblance of success in its football program. Just when you thought the jury was in on Charlie Weis' ability to run a college football program as a head coach, along come the Jayhawks offering bagfuls of money.
How much money you ask? A guaranteed $2.5 million each and every season for at least five years. Even if Weis is fired before the end of his contract, he'll still be collecting that $2.5 million every year. And what's worse, we could probably still list Charlie Weis on this list for his contract with Notre Dame; he's still getting a paycheck from the good folks in South Bend for what was clearly a boneheaded contract extension.
We're not entirely sure Weis is worth $2.5 million per year, but we are entirely sure Kansas should have known better than to guarantee anything to Weis not tied directly to performance.
No. 4: Lane Kiffin, USC
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It's always difficult to figure out the precise details of a USC coaching contract, as many private schools like USC aren't required to release employment contracts to the public. Still, we know that Kiffin is making in the neighborhood of $3 million each season at Southern California.
We're pretty sure that even Trojans fans are pretty unanimous now that whatever SC is paying Kiffin is a bad deal for the university.
Just what has Kiffin done to deserve $3 million per season? If you can answer that, you probably have a future as a coaching agent. No Kiffin-coached team has ever finished the season ranked in the final USA Today Coaches Poll (ineligible in 2011, finished No. 6 in the final AP Poll). He has never coached a bowl-winning team. He has never won a conference title (ineligible in 2011, won Pac-12 South Division).
Maybe USC had great faith in Kiffin. Maybe USC had high hopes for the post-sanction years. Maybe USC honestly thought Kiffin was worth it. But in hindsight, $3 million is looking like a pretty inflated figure for what Kiffin has been able to deliver.
No. 3: Larry Coker, UTSA
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Fans in Miami probably still have mixed feelings about Larry Coker, but regardless of the issues on and off the field, Coker's Hurricanes won three conference titles during his six seasons, finished ranked in the top three times, the Top 25 five times, earned six bowl berths (going 4-2) including three BCS games (2-1) and won a BCS National Championship Game following the 2001 season.
After he was fired following the 2006 season, Coker fell out of the coaching scene for a few seasons before being hired to be the first head coach of the new FCS football program at the University of Texas at San Antonio. UTSA quickly transitioned to the FBS, and the Roadrunners are 14-12 under Coker, including a 10-6 mark as an FBS program.
Not too shabby. But for all of his history of success and his ability to guide a program through the very difficult phase of starting—quite literally—from scratch, Coker is currently the lowest-paid coach in the FBS. His performance at UTSA is apparently good enough for an extension, and hopefully it will contain a raise above his current salary of $350,000 per season.
Note: We also include Coker's contract as one of the worst with a nod to Dan Enos at Central Michigan and Todd Berry at Louisiana-Monroe, both of whom also make a paltry $350k.
No. 2: Mack Brown, Texas
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Longevity isn't always a good thing.
A few years ago, Mack Brown's contract at Texas probably wouldn't have been much of an issue. But with how poorly Texas has performed recently, Brown and his future in Austin have been shoved to the forefront of any talk about the Longhorns.
Brown, smartly, renegotiated his contract just after Texas received an invite to the BCS National Championship Game following the 2009 season—but before Texas lost to Alabama in that game.
Brown's current contract extends through the 2020 season, and he's being paid $5.4 million per season. For the 2010 season, it cost the University of Texas $1.1 million per victory.
Perhaps the silver lining in this whole situation is that the contract won't be particularly expensive to buy out; at this point in the life of Brown's new contract, he would be owed less than $3 million, total.
No. 1: Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
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Who is Kirk Ferentz's agent?
Seriously, whoever the genius was that structured Ferentz's contract for him better be well compensated by the coach. It's also pretty amazing that he doesn't represent every FBS coach in the country.
Why, you ask? Because Ferentz has the greatest contract a mediocre coach could ever dream up.
Why does that rank it among the worst? Because the schmuck at Iowa who actually signed this thing should be fired for incompetence. This contract puts the university at such a disadvantage, Iowa probably couldn't afford to fire Ferentz even if he was 0-12 every season and selling the team's equipment out of the back of his car on Sundays.
Ferentz, despite failing to ever win an outright Big Ten title (and not sharing one since 2004) and finishing the season with a ranked team only five times in his 14 seasons, signed an extension through 2020. Ferentz is also the sixth-highest paid coach in America (and second-highest in the Big Ten), making $3.9 million every season.
He, like many coaches, receives a bonus for finishing the season ranked or winning a national championship. But Ferentz's contract doesn't require his team to finish the season ranked in a particular position. If his team is ranked at any point during the season in a particular grouping (Top 25, Top 20, Top 15, Top 10 or Top Five, he gets a bonus based on the highest ranking attained during a particular season—even if the Hawkeyes completely fall out of the Top 25 by season's end. Imagine Iowa is a preseason Top Five team. Then imagine the Hawkeyes fall apart and finish with a paltry 5-7 record. In that case, Ferentz still gets a bonus as for having his team ranked in the Top Five. Nice, huh?
But there's one more kicker. Should Iowa want to buy out his contract, it will cost the university nearly $3 million for every season left on his contract! Should Ferentz be fired this season, Missouri would pay him over $17.5 million to not coach.
SBNation's Peter Berkes put together a pretty entertaining list of things Iowa could buy instead of firing Ferentz. Included on the list: nearly 27,000 corn futures on the agriculture market, 2.8 million burritos from the popular Iowa City Pancheros, nearly 775 pounds of gold, 10 million cups of coffee and many, many other things.
Is there any wonder why Ferentz's contract gets the nod as the worst coach contract in college football today?
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