Hunter Yurachek did the reasonable thing.
In November 2019, with the Razorbacks embarking on yet another coaching search, Arkansas’ athletic director was ready to bring some common sense back into an industry seemingly growing out of control.
Firings in the previous 24 months had put Arkansas on tap to pay two former head football coaches a total of $22 million. Whoever the next coach would be, Yurachek wanted to make sure he wouldn’t walk away with the GDP of multiple small nations if he too didn’t deliver on the field.
Win more. Get paid more. Win less. Get paid less.
The logic seemed sensible enough, a counterpunch to the euphoria that sometimes clouds administrators’ judgment when trying to sign a coach with the potential to rake in so many millions of dollars more than what they are paid.
So, Yurachek decided to do something about it after finding his man. He and his hire, Sam Pittman, agreed to a new buyout structure in Pittman’s contract that corresponded to Yuracheck’s more fiscally prudent approach.
Pittman inked a contract for $3 million per year until Dec. 31, 2024. His buyout would work in one of two main ways:
1. If another program hires him away before Dec. 2, 2021, he would owe the UA $6 million. That drops to $3 million through December 2022 and to $1.5 million through the rest of the deal.
2. If he’s fired for losing too many games, i.e. for convenience, then he would get 75 percent of his remaining contract so long as he had won at least half of his games. But if he had won less than that 50 percent, he would get only 50 percent of his remaining contract.
It’s that second form of buyout, where coaches amass millions while leaving their programs in a (usually) worse place that has gotten so many onlookers up in arms as the figures grow bigger every year.
“I don’t think we should pay a full buyout to coaches who aren’t successful at the job we hire them for,” Yurachek said in a press conference after the signing. “We’ve got to stop in this industry these huge buyouts.”
Yurachek’s move looked all the more prescient when the COVID-19 pandemic hit America in March 2020. The virus shut down all team sports for a few months and led to abbreviated football and basketball seasons played in front of smaller, socially distanced crowds.
Revenue plunged at all college athletic programs. To mitigate the damage in Arkansas’ athletic department, employees retired early, coaches and athletic staff took pay cuts and virtual recruiting trips became standard. In all, Yurachek said in January, the athletic department revenue deficit in 2020 came in around $25-$30 million.
If there was ever a time to flatten the growth curve of ridiculously outsized buyouts, this was it. For a while, it seemed, tightening the fiscal belt was in fashion again.
Except that’s not how it has played out.
Other SEC athletic directors aren’t following Yurachek’s lead and making on-field performance a factor in their buyout clauses of new contracts when it comes to firings for convenience. Nor are those overall figures declining. In November 2020, South Carolina fired its head coach Will Muschamp after a 2-8 season. The buyout price tag there was $15 million. Then, in early December, the ax fell on Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, who had finished a 6-4 season and never had a losing season in eight years.
Malzahn, a native Arkansan and former Razorback assistant, gets a total of nearly $21.5 million — the highest buyout in college football history. Which means the highest paid state employee in Alabama is now a fired football coach.
In all, from the end of 2007 through January 2021, SEC schools agreed to pay roughly $175.78 million worth of buyouts to head coaches.
How did this craziness begin?
Tommy Tuberville and Bobby Petrino
In 2003, Camden native Tommy Tuberville was Auburn’s head football coach with a then-astounding $4 million buyout in his contract. In November, coming off three losses in four games, a group of Auburn administrators sought to make a change. So, they tried to secretly meet with Bobby Petrino, then Louisville’s head coach.
But that rendezvous was discovered, and news about the school’s behind-the-back tactics and consideration of actually paying the huge buyout motivated coaches and their agents to start asking for higher buyouts from their own schools.
“I can’t imagine not having buyouts in some of these contracts,” Tuberville, now a Republican U.S. Senator from Alabama, told USA Today in 2019. “The big thing you’ve got to remember is it’s not just about one person. It’s about 100-150 people. It’s the assistants and their wives and families. It’s the strength coaches and their wives and families.
“When the head coach has got that kind of buyout, I think [there’s] security for all the families involved. I think it’s really helped college football.”
This folds into what Jeff Long explained in 2014 when he discussed the origin of the buyout clause he put in former Razorback coach Bret Bielema’s contract.
As multiyear contracts prevailed in the late 1980s and 1990s, “the institutions began looking for a commitment from the coach,” said Long, then Arkansas’ athletic director. At first, “it was really a one-way street, and now it’s evolved into a two-way street on the contractual buyout terms.”
Administrators also know that college coaches with short-term contracts and lower buyouts struggle more on the recruiting trail. Opposing coaches often cast those shorter terms in a negative light when talking to recruits and their families about the need to go somewhere with stability.
This is one reason coaches sometimes get extensions so relatively early in their contracts.
In Arkansas, Exhibit A is Bret Bielema. His Razorbacks finished the 2014 season on a roll, shutting out Ole Miss and LSU at home and then hammering the Texas Longhorns in the Texas Bowl. Bielema described that win over the Hogs’ historic archrival as “borderline erotic.” Euphoria swept through nearly the entire fanbase about what the future may hold.
In the aftermath, Long extended the end date in Bielema’s contract from 2018 to 2020 and raised his base salary and buyout should the university fire him. In this case, the guarantor of Bielema’s contract was the Razorback Foundation, the athletic department’s unofficial fundraising arm.
In November 2017, Bielema was indeed fired after a disappointing 4-8 season.
Soon afterward, Bielema and the Razorback Foundation agreed to a buyout of about $12 million. The foundation ended up paying more than $4 million through January 2019. In the interim, Bielema took on relatively low-paying jobs working for the New England Patriots. The foundation’s lawyers insist that Bielema failed to live up to his contractual obligation of “best efforts” to land a new job that would offset the buyout amount. Bielema and his lawyers disagree. This case is set for a jury trial on June 1.
Bielema’s obligation to search for employment and get paid a market-based salary for that job is also in Pittman’s contract. It’s not, however, a universal feature in the industry.
Gus Malzahn, for instance, doesn’t have to seek work elsewhere now that he’s unemployed.
His agent, Jimmy Sexton, masterfully worked a dynamic involving Auburn, Alabama and Arkansas in late 2017.
That October, Malzahn was on the hot seat — as he so often was in the last few years of his tenure despite his winning record. Then, in the span of seven weeks, Auburn knocked out then-No. 2 Georgia and throttled No. 1 Alabama. It was the third time Auburn had beaten a Nick Saban-coached Alabama team under Malzahn.
That matters since Alabama is a) Auburn’s top rival and b) no current SEC coach can boast more than one victory in a head-to-head matchup with Saban. Auburn had someone who could actually knock off the king of college football with regularity.
That wasn’t the only advantage Sexton had when negotiating for an extension on Malzahn’s behalf after those big wins. He also got leverage from reports of interest from Arkansas, which had a head coaching job opening in the wake of the firings of Bielema and Jeff Long.
It made sense for Arkansas brass, then led by interim athletic director Julie Cromer Peoples, to show interest in Malzahn given his deep state ties and proven success in the SEC.
Malzahn had originally climbed the coaching ladder in the Arkansas high school ranks. He parlayed big success there into an offensive coordinator position at Arkansas and later his first college head coaching position at Arkansas State.
The prospect of Arkansas hiring Malzahn, combined with his success against rivals Alabama and Georgia, created a perfect storm for Sexton to negotiate what turned into a seven-year, $49 million extension and a buyout clause that didn’t dip below eight figures until 2023
Before Auburn fired him, Malzahn indirectly helped Arkansas by hiring Chad Morris as his offensive coordinator in the 2020 season. Morris agreed to a three-year deal worth $735,000 annually. That offset the $10 million Arkansas owed him after his November 2019 firing.
Morris, along with 10 other Auburn assistants, was let go in the aftermath of Malzahn’s firing.
Unless Morris lands another job elsewhere, Auburn owes him a buyout of $1.47 million. That’s on top of what Arkansas already owed him. Yet, whereas the Razorback Foundation was the contractual guarantor for Bielema’s contract, the athletic department itself has guaranteed payments for Morris and Pittman.
Hunter Yurachek referenced this in his state of UA athletics press conference on Jan. 21.
“When I let Coach [Morris] go, I anticipated we were going to have some financial hardships prior to COVID just because we were going to have to pay Coach Morris out. That was no longer the foundation’s responsibility,” he said, adding that the UA was also on the hook for some of Morris’ assistants.
“I went out and met with several of our donors and created through our Razorback Foundation what I call the Football Enhancement Fund that would provide Coach Pittman the opportunity to spend those resources to hire and retain the best coaches, to buy the type of equipment he needed … to recruit where that didn’t have to come from an operational budget.”
Pittman then added that salary increases for current Arkansas assistant coaches, namely defensive coordinator Barry Odom, will come from this auxiliary fund.
The fact these are private dollars, mostly coming from boosters, is key.
Here, Yurachek discusses the part of this dynamic that has good optics — money flowing from private, not public, funds toward things that are needed.
Yet the flip side is that boosters are also largely responsible for most of the obscene payouts going to fired coaches at major colleges nationwide. Malzahn’s buyout, for instance, is possible because enough wealthy Auburn boosters wanted a fresh start badly enough to pay enough to make it happen.
As long as Americans crave football and athletic departments can tap into private donors’ pockets when the going gets tough, we will see buyouts on the whole get bigger and bigger — despite exceptions like Pittman’s contract.
Yes, those pockets often hold the key to fulfilling head coaches’ desires for so many upper hands. But they can also hasten those same coaches’ exits when they fall short in an arms race with no clear end.
University of Arkansas graduate Evin Demirel has written about Arkansas sports for multiple national outlets. He is the author of African-American Athletes in Arkansas: Black Razorbacks, Muhammad Ali’s Tour and other Forgotten Stories.
The numbers don’t lie: A team-by-team breakdown of football buyouts for SEC member schools in the Saban era (2007-).
• Houston Nutt — $3.5 million
• Bobby Petrino — $0 (fired with cause)
• John L. Smith (interim) — $0
• Bret Bielema — $12 million (pending lawsuit)
• Chad Morris — $10 million – $2,205,000 (offset by Auburn) = $7,795,000
• TOTAL — $25.5 million – $2,205,000 = 23,295,000
• Tommy Tuberville — $5.08 million
• Gene Chizik — $7.5 million
• Gus Malzahn — $21.45 million
• TOTAL — $34.03 million
• Urban Meyer — $0
• Will Muschamp — $6.3 million
• Jim McElwain — $7.5 million (settlement)
• TOTAL — $13.8 million
• Mark Richt — $4.1 million
• TOTAL — $4.1 million
• Rich Brooks — $0 (retired)
• Joker Phillips — $2.55 million
• TOTAL — $2.55 million
• Les Miles — $12.9 million – $3.5 million (relieved after Kansas hiring) = $9.4 million
• TOTAL — $12.9 million -$3.5 million = $9.4 million
• Sylvester Croom — $3.5 million
• Dan Mullen — $0 (left for Florida)
• Joe Moorhead — $7 million – $900,000 (offset by annual Ore gon OC contract, runs through 2022) = $6,100,000
• TOTAL — $10.5 million – $900,000 = $9.6 million
• Gary Pinkel — $0 (retired)
• Barry Odom — $2.85 million – $1.3 million (offset by Arkansas DC contract) = $1.55 million
• TOTAL — $2.85 million – $1.3 million = $1.55 million
• Ed Orgeron — $1.35 million
• Houston Nutt — $5.5 million
• Hugh Freeze — $0 (resigned)
• Matt Luke — $9.6 million
• TOTAL — $16.45 million
• Steve Spurrier — $0 (resigned)
• Will Muschamp — $12.9 million
• TOTAL — $12.9 million
• Phillip Fulmer — $6 million
• Lane Kiffin — $0 (left for USC)
• Derek Dooley — $5 million
• Butch Jones — $8.6 million – $105,000 (Alabama analyst) – $825,000 (Arkansas State HC) = $7,670,000
• TOTAL — $19.6 million – $930,000 = $18,670,000
• Dennis Franchione (not in SEC at time) — $4.4 million
• Mike Sherman (not in SEC at time) — $5.8 million
• Kevin Sumlin — $10.4 million
• TOTAL — $20.6 million
• Bobby Johnson — $0 (retired)
• Robbie Caldwell — $0 (resigned)
• James Franklin — $0 (left for Penn State)
• Derek Mason — N/A (private uni versity)
• TOTAL — N/A (private university)
Source: Saturday Down South