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9:32 AM Tue, Oct. 23rd

Column: The escalation of college football coaches salaries

'Beyond the Lines'

College football is a revenue machine on par with most professional sports leagues in the country. And football coaches have the salaries to prove it.

Division I football programs generate an estimated $8 billion per year, more than the NBA and the NHL. Most football programs also spend that revenue, in part by lavishing mega-contracts on their head coaches.

The highest paid coaches are Alabama’s Nick Saban and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh at $11 million per year. Saban and Harbaugh aren’t the only coaches making a fortune coaching “amateurs.” Texas A&M recently gave former Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher a 10-year, $75 million contract, which temporarily qualifies as the richest deal in college football history in terms of total value. It’s also double the amount paid to Fisher’s predecessor, Kevin Sumlin, who “only” went 51-26 during six seasons in College Station.

When asked what he was looking for in his new coach, Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp said, “Nothing serious, just want him to win a national championship.” For that kind of money, Fisher should come with a guarantee.

The Aggies were so determined to make the switch that they will pay Sumlin a $10.4 million buyout by January 25, even though he’s rumored to be signing a five-year contract with Arizona. According to an analysis by USA Today, Sumlin’s buyout represents approximately 10% of the total buyout-related salaries colleges will pay to this year’s group of terminated coaches.

Fisher’s new gig comes only one year after he signed an extension with the Seminoles that guaranteed him an annual base salary of $5.5 million through 2024.

The extension included a buyout clause which was triggered by his move to A&M. Fisher must repay Florida State the total sum remaining on the contracts of his assistant coaches, which could total $7 million, depending on incentives contained in the contracts. Of course, Fisher won’t pay a dime of that amount.

His new employer will pick up the entire tab, which, along with Sumlin’s buyout, means Fisher will cost A&M in excess of $90 million, not counting incentives. That’s more than the budgets of at least ten countries.

The Oakland Raiders recently conferred a 10-year, $100 million contract on Jon Gruden, the largest salary commitment to a coach in NFL history. But at least the Raiders make no pretense of the fact they’re a professional team, one that had a $170 million team payroll in 2017.

It’s not just head coaching salaries that are out of control. Assistant coaches at major college programs are making upwards of $2 million a year, an incomprehensible and indefensible sum.

Is there an end to the spiraling salaries? SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey told USA Today he believes there is, although he didn’t venture a guess as to when and at what figure. Sankey is a smart man and a great commissioner, but on this issue he’s dead wrong. As long as the NCAA adheres to its model of “amateurism,” where student-athletes provide free labor and coaches can move at will, salaries will continue to escalate.

Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a Professor in and Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.