United States: Coaches And Schools Play Fast And Loose With Contracts

Last Updated: December 29 2014
Article by Aaron Weems

Leaving a job is easy – if not stressful – for almost the entire population: you leave on your own accord or are asked to leave by your employer. Some people have employment contracts which provide specific compensation or benefits upon separation; other people sign agreements with specific clauses which bar them from using their skills in a specific geographic location or directed at a certain clientele (aka, "non-compete clauses"). 

Employment contracts are a powerful instrument. They dictate the conditions of employment, the compensation of the employee and the circumstances which could result in their dismissal. The idea of termination by "cause" is usually defined by the employment laws of the state, but typically means behavior which any reasonable person would identify as "wrong." It usually doesn't mean incompetence, though gross negligence would fall into that category. An employment contract serves to secure both the employer and the employee in the employment arrangement.

All of those concepts, however, go out the window in the world of professional and college athletics. Everyone knows and basically understands that contracts in the world of professional athletics are ruled by the collective bargaining agreements of the sport. Football is notorious as being the most dangerous sport with the least amount of guaranteed money. Seeing a player cut from the roster one year into their three year "contract" happens all the time.

Increasingly, however, is coverage of the machinations of how coaches change jobs. The NFL has had "Black Monday" coverage for years – when coaches get fired the Monday after the last game of the year. Like the athletes they coach, coaches, typically sign multi-year contracts.  These "employment contracts" offer some security, yet every year at this time the proverbial "coaching carousel" starts with coaches fired and others hired away from their jobs in the middle of their contracts.

Let's use college football as an example. Having just finished the regular season, college football programs began firing and hiring their coaches (some before the season ended) immediately. Athletic Directors hoped onto their schools private plane to begin recruiting other coaches to fill their vacant positions. How can this happen so easily? How can Wil Muschamp be fired with three years left on his contract? He wasn't fired for "cause" (Florida fans would argue losing to Vanderbilt and Georgia Southern – in the same season – were crimes in of themselves), but he was nevertheless terminated from his job and will be paid $2 million per year until his contract expires in 2017, notwithstanding any off-set from his contract to be the defensive coordinator at the University of Auburn.

Coaching football is not too different in some respects than many jobs, except the determination of success or failing to meet expectations can be easily identified in the Win/Loss column. A college coach – be it head coach or assistant – signs a contract with the university. It is often a multi-year contract with incentives for specific achievements and other benefits beyond their salary.

Unlike almost any other industry, however, college football coaching appears to skirt all the accepted contract principles when it comes to hiring and firing. As seen by the situation with Wil Muschamp, and his successor, former Colorado State University head coach, Jim McElwain, universities do not honor contracts or have any issue actively recruiting a new coach away from his current employer. Jim McElwain had Florida's athletic director, Jeremy Foley and his staff at his house December 1st – despite that CSU still had a bowl game to play (which they lost). Five days later, he was announced as their new head coach. How can it not be said that Florida has tortuously interfered with McElwain's contract with CSU? The easiest – and probably the truest answer – is that no one cares enough to raise, let alone enforce, that issue. In other words, this is the business of college coaching. If CSU pursed damages or an injunction against Florida for stealing their coach, how attractive will that job be for the next coach if he knows the university will actively try to block his chance at a higher profile job? Not only that, CSU would effectively be hobbling itself in its coaching search by not being able to do to some other university exactly what Florida did to them.

Schools and coaches do have additional options, however. A great example of the fluidity of coaching is at Arkansas State which has seen three coaches leave in the past four years for high profile jobs: Hugh Freeze went from offensive coordinator, to head coach, to his current position as head coach of Ole Miss; Gus Malzahn took over for a year before leaving for the head job at Auburn University, and; Bryan Harsin spent a year as head coach before moving up to Boise State.  Rather than fight against their coaches signing multi-year contracts and leaving after a year or two, Arkansas State and other universities have established buy-out figures paid by the hiring university to release the coach from their contract. Coaches, meanwhile, have negotiated into their contracts "dream job" clauses which allow for them to void their contracts if a particular school offers them a job. Reportedly, Jim McElwain had such a clause with Colorado State.

For schools like Florida or Notre Dame, who allegedly paid the $1 million buyout payment Brian Kelly owed the University of Cincinnati – a pittance compared to the $4.75 million the University of Texas paid the University of Louisville for Charlie Strong's services, who then turned around and paid $1.2 million to Western Kentucky University to hire Bobby Petrino. Petrino, ironically enough, left Louisville in 2006 for the Atlanta Falcons shortly after signing a contract extension. Confused, yet? These are just a few examples among many which occur every year. And we haven't even touched the concept of "dead money" paid to coaches who were fired, but by contract are owed money by the university. Some schools continue to pay millions of dollars to coaches who they fired in addition to the millions of dollars they are paying to coach they replaced him with (and, of course, the money paid to the university they hired him away from).

College football is a huge business and the coaches deserve the money they earn. Coaching is a tough job and the money involved in the industry makes it a high pressure, performance focused job. Alumni pressure, administrative pressure, and the pressure to keep 17-22 year old young men in line could be a full-time job itself. Long hours and long years of climbing the coaching ladder for opportunities at "dream jobs" is standard. If not for the fluidity with which coaches can change jobs and pursue the best situation for them, the sport and the industry would not nearly be at the level it enjoys today.  

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Aaron Weems
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