College football’s Wild West is head coach salaries, not NIL

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart soon will cash in after winning the national championship.(Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin/hshin@ajc.com

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Georgia head coach Kirby Smart soon will cash in after winning the national championship.(Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin/hshin@ajc.com

College football is out of control. Boosters are pooling money to attract talent to their favorite program. It’s all happening out in the open, but no one is doing anything about it. No one really is even talking about it.

I don’t mean name, image and likeness (NIL) deals for athletes. There’s been a lot of noise about that. Players now can profit from their publicity rights, just like everyone else, and they are taking advantage. That predictably has led to calls for regulation from the coaches, athletic directors and conference officials who steal value from those athletes.

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The real Wild West in college football is exploding salaries for coaches. Remember when athletic departments pleaded poverty during the pandemic? Well, those days are over. The truth is they never really ended.

College football coaches were paid plenty during Year 1 of the pandemic. They were getting paid more last year. They are getting paid even more now, and it’s not just those coaches who’ve won national titles.

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Cincinnati will increase coach Luke Fickell’s salary by nearly 50%, to $5 million, after the Bearcats lost in the College Football Playoff semifinals in December. Fickell will become the highest-paid coach among Group of Five teams. Cincinnati is set to join the Big 12 no later than 2024. The school is getting a head start on the Power Five tradition of spending lavishly on pay raises for a football coach as soon as they taste a bit of success.

Fickell has a beefier resume than Brent Venables. The former Clemson defensive coordinator never had been a head coach when Oklahoma hired him for its open position in December. Venables got a six-year deal with a salary that starts at $7 million.

Venables replaced Lincoln Riley, who left for USC. As a private school, USC doesn’t have to release details of his contract. Reports put Riley’s deal at $110 million, with a house and unlimited use of a private jet thrown in. It sounds too preposterous to believe until you look at the contracts that are publicly available.

LSU lured Brian Kelly from Notre Dame with a 10-year, $95 million deal. Incentives could push it over $100 million. The contract buyout for LSU is at least 95% of money owed. It’s 100% if Kelly wins a national title, which he couldn’t do over 12 seasons at Notre Dame.

Michigan State gave Mel Tucker a 10-year, $95 million extension. Michigan State is a decent Power Five program. It will be paying its moderately successful coach nearly as much as Nick Saban earns at Alabama.

All of this is great news for Kirby Smart. The Georgia coach was paid about $7 million for the 2021 season. He earned $1.6 million in bonuses during the team’s run to winning the national championship. UGA soon will give Smart a pay bump that’s expected to push the total value of his deal over $100 million.

Once that happens, it surely will lead to a bigger deal for Saban ($9.75 million salary in 2021, seven national titles). Smart’s raise probably will mean more money for Clemson’s Dabo Swinney ($9.5 million, two titles). The agents for those coaches will enter negotiations with a strong opening position.

Why are their clients making less than Smart? Why is their pay only about 25% higher than that of Venables, who has yet to win one game as a head coach? On and on it will go for every school that has a football coach they want to keep.

Athletic directors will keep paying big money for them while complaining about costs in their departments. NCAA schools aren’t collectively doing anything about it because they can’t. They already tried.

The NCAA imposed a rule in 1992 to cap salaries for some assistant coaches at $12,000 per academic year. A series of court losses followed, so the NCAA rescinded the cap. Eventually, a jury found that the NCAA had illegally restricted the salaries of 1,900 assistants and awarded them $66 million.

I don’t begrudge coaches for cashing in on the market. But that market is distorted in their favor because it doesn’t include players. Salaries for coaches (and athletics directors) are inflated as part of the NCAA’s cartel system. They are getting a disproportionate share of the revenue generated by players, who attract audiences that want to watch them work.

We know that’s the case because of how the pot of money is distributed among NFL players and coaches.

New England’s Bill Belichick reportedly was the highest-paid NFL coach in 2021 at $18 million. He’s also an outlier as the de facto general manager for the Patriots and the winningest Super Bowl coach of all time. The highest-paid coaches without total football authority in 2021 reportedly were Seattle’s Pete Carroll and outgoing Saints coach Sean Payton. Both coaches made $14 million.

Last season, about 90 NFL players made $14 million or more in total cash (salary plus prorated bonuses). That comes out to nearly three players per team. ESPN estimates that the average NFL coach made $8 million to $9 million in 2021. Roughly 230 NFL players made at least that much in total cash last season, according to Spotrac, and that’s with a salary cap.

Clearly, NFL team owners believe that top players are more valuable than top coaches. Unlike ADs, they don’t have the option of not paying the players.

I’m not arguing that college players would make as much as their NFL counterparts on a free(r) market. But a lot of college players would be paid much more than the value of their scholarships, which is diminished because of the time they spend working for no pay. If college players made more, then coaches would make less.

That doesn’t happen because schools are allowed to collude to limit compensation for players. The NCAA has convinced courts to accept a definition of “amateurism” that means everyone but the players get paid. That’s changing, if slowly.

In 2014, a federal court ruled that the NCAA violated antitrust laws by prohibiting athletes from profiting from their NIL. After suffering more legal losses, including a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court last year, the NCAA finally passed NIL legislation. The organization largely left the details up to schools, probably because too much regulation would risk more losses in lawsuits.

That development has caused a collective freak-out by college football coaches, administrators and their water carriers in media. The courts largely have left in place the NCAA’s “amateurism” model. But the reality of players profiting from their NIL with little oversight has upset those with the most power in the system.

Smart said he doesn’t like the idea of recruits picking a school based on the potential to profit from their publicity rights. He wondered whether players motivated by NIL money will be “team” guys. Smart makes as much money as he can and no one doubts his desire to win. Players also can be team guys while getting paid. It happens all the time in pro leagues.

ESPN.com recently posted a story examining the “free agency” created by NIL and transfers. The story quoted zero players. It included the perspective of several concerned coaches, athletics directors and conference officials who earn salaries on unregulated markets.

Saban said he’s bothered that NIL could lead to competitive imbalances in recruiting. Wait until he hears that the 13 head coaches at public SEC schools collectively made $26 million more in 2020 than Pac-12 coaches. Saban might be really upset to learn that SEC coaches make more than the combined salaries of all 56 coaches at Group of Five schools.

Coaches and the people in charge of college football could easily end their anxiety about NIL. Just surrender their losing battle of pretending that players aren’t employees. Then they could bargain with players about rules on transfers, recruiting and other issues. But coaches and administrators won’t let go of the “amateur” model because the scary alternative is to compete with players in the market for salaries.

That’s why they’ll continue telling players that it’s the free market for me, but the Wild West for thee.