Analyzing college football’s top coaching contracts and disastrous deals is a job often reserved for athletic directors and university decision-makers assessing every offseason. Momentum and forward progress means everything when determining extensions or moving into wait-and-see mode when buyouts loom.
Not all contracts within Power Five coaching ranks are created equal and some are quite exorbitant. One important factor in the recent influx of extensions is the impact agents make on behalf of their clients and the sense of dread athletic departments tend to have when the lure of bigger programs entice promising coaches when the carousel begins to move every December.
Coaching salaries have never been more lucrative in college football and as revenue numbers within major conferences continue to increase in the realignment and Playoff expansion era, wallets will fatten as a result.
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Using USA Today’s coaches salary database as a guide, with slight revisions for recent contract extensions, here’s a look at the nation’s best and and worst contracts entering the 2023 campaign:
Buyout as of Dec. 1, 2022: $16.9 million
The verdict: Given his struggles, Mountaineers coach Neal Brown’s buyout was a hot-button topic throughout the 2022 season and EerSports has done a great job explaining what the program would owe him if they pulled the plug. In short, Brown’s buyout decreases with every passing day he’s employed. He is signed through 2026 and program decision-makers hope Brown provides at least some of glimmer of hope this fall that the Mountaineers show progress on the field. This is a bad deal, one West Virginia clearly has to navigate if things go south again in 2023.
“There is one point in the contract when the calendar would turn and WVU’s obligation would be appreciably less than the day before,” EerSports’ Mike Casazza wrote last season. “When the 2024 contract year expires and the 2025 contract year begins, WVU only owes Brown 85 percent of his remaining salary. His 2025-26 salaries are $4.2 and $4.4 million. On Dec. 31, 2024, WVU would owe him the final day of his 2024 salary plus $8.6 million. On Jan. 1, 2025, WVU would owe him $7.31 million.”
Buyout as of Dec. 1, 2022: $15.2 million
The verdict: Prior to Lincoln Riley’s record-setting deal at USC, Whittingham was the highest-paid coach at a non-private school in the Pac-12 with his extension a signed ahead of the 2022 season following Utah’s conference championship. And fresh off his new deal, Whittingham and the Utes won another one, getting back to the Rose Bowl for the second-straight year after humbling Riley’s Trojans in the conference title game. By 2027, Whittingham will be making about $8 million per year at Utah unless terms are altered by then. Given what others are making around the Pac-12 and other Power Five leagues with no conference championships of New Year’s Six appearances to their credit, this is a steal.
Buyout as of Dec. 1, 2022: $86.8 million
The verdict: One of the ugliest deals in the Big Ten at the moment, the Spartans are on the hook for a boatload of cash owed to Mel Tucker, who signed a decade-long extension early in his tenure. Michigan State signed Tucker near the end of the 2021 season to a $95 million enhancement, more money than most thought was possible in East Lansing. Two MSU alumni — Mat Ishbia and Steve St. Andre — funded the massive raise from just over $5.5 million per season to a $9.5 million annual salary. Michigan State owes Tucker his full salary if fired at any point without cause.
This is thought to be the most lucrative extension in college football history after Year 1 on the job. After winning 11 games with a freshly-signed deal in 2022, Tucker went 5-7 last fall and the Spartans’ projected win total for 2023 is around the same. The issue here is how quickly the program jumped the gun on a coach who previously only had two seasons as the leader of a program before the top-10 finish in 2021 — 5-7 at Colorado in 2019 and 2-5 during 2020’s COVID season at Michigan State. If it continues to go bad for Tucker with the Spartans, there’s not much the contract influencers can do about it.
Buyout as of June 1, 2023: $78 million (estimated)
The verdict: Kentucky is “all-in” on Stoops and was able to thwart potential programs from poaching its coach each of the last two cycles, per sources. Credit the Wildcats for keeping their guy, similar to South Carolina’s recent dramatic increase in salary for Shane Beamer. Kentucky now pays Stoops more than John Calipari. Thanks to his November extension, Stoops is under contract through June 2031 with a salary of $8.6 million per year, up from $6.35 million, according to The Athletic’s Chris Vannini. His buyout has more than doubled, but given his track record of success at one of the SEC’s non-powers, this is likely as good as you’re going to get if you’re the Wildcats. Wise investment.
Buyout as of Dec. 1, 2022: $86.7 million
The verdict: Few saw Texas A&M’s 5-7 faceplant last season coming as a preseason SEC championship hopeful, nor the mass exodus of players leaving the program for the portal that ensued as a result. Is the program better off, right now, than what Fisher inherited following the fall of Kevin Sumlin? LSU was reportedly set to offer Fisher a record-setting deal to leave the Aggies and move to Baton Rouge during the 2021 coaching cycle, but it didn’t happen. In hindsight, that might have been a best case scenario situation for Texas A&M, to get out of what still appears to be a horrid, long-term deal.
Given the Aggies’ record-setting 2022 signing class, enhanced facilities and NIL resources devoted to winning national championships at the program, Fisher has to make it happen now. Fisher’s 10-year, $75 million deal a few years ago was a market-setter at the time. His extension in September 2021 increased Fisher’s 2022 salary to $9.5 million and near the top of the coaching ranks.
Buyout as of Dec. 1, 2022: $35.4 million
The verdict: How much longer can the Wolverines keep a coach who’s won back-to-back Big Ten titles and beaten the Buckeyes both years on a team-friendly deal? He’s currently signed through 2026 and if Harbaugh leaves on his own accord, the buyout is minimal. The relationship between Harbaugh and Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel appears to be on the rocks given the fact one of the nation’s top coaches has flirted with the NFL each of the last two offseasons. Regardless, the fact Harbaugh’s barely inside the top 10 nationally for highest-paid coaches entering the 2023 season is a home run for Michigan in terms of financial obligations.
Now, convincing Harbaugh to stay in Ann Arbor long term is going to take more money. There’s only so much courting between Harbaugh and the NFL the Wolverines can take before he eventually goes back to the professional level for his second stint. And given Michigan’s noticeable momentum on the recruiting trail with an elite-level 2024 class on the way in, this program should do everything in its power to cash in on Harbaugh’s rising level of success and ensure this national title window continues under the current regime.
Buyout as of June 1, 2023: $56 million (estimated)
The verdict: Kudos to Florida State for getting ahead of what could be a special season for Mike Norvell with a three-year contract extension this month through the 2029 season. It’s the second extension Norvell has signed since arriving in Tallahassee. Per Noles247, Norvell’s contract extension features a new compensation structure that averages $8.05 million per year through the end of the deal and right now, that’s the only salary nugget that has been released publicly. Norvell has an 18-16 record in three seasons as Florida State’s head coach, but it’s clear he has the program headed back to the realm of the elites and he has mastered the transfer portal era, at least in its infancy. This is a smart decision by the Seminoles.