Nov 19, 2020 - Sports

The broken buyout system in college sports

Illustration of a football sports play with dollar signs instead of X’s and O’s

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

College football and basketball coaches earn wildly lucrative sums of money to do their jobs. The problem, though, is how much they sometimes get paid not to do them.

Driving the news: Just this week, there were two high profile cases where departing coaches earned upwards of eight figures on their way out.

  • Will Muschamp, former South Carolina football coach, collected a $13 million buyout after he was fired for poor performance.
  • Gregg Marshall, former Wichita State men's basketball coach, walked away with a $7.75 million settlement after resigning amid allegations of abuse.

How it works: Buyouts like Muschamp's are simply the cost of doing business in the billion-dollar college sports industry.

  • Coaches are in such high demand that schools tend to overpay so as not to lose them to a competitor, despite knowing there's a decent chance either the coach or school will decide to move on before the contract ends.
  • Buyout clauses are built in up front to avoid the inevitable lawsuit that would stem from a breach of contract on either side. One famous example: Charlie Weis' $19 million buyout from Notre Dame in 2009.

Between the lines: Marshall's settlement is a more egregious situation given the ugliness of the allegations levied against him.

  • It's reasonable to wonder if the only reason Wichita State agreed to such a hefty sum is that they were aware of his misdeeds and chose not to stop them as he continued churning out a winning program.
  • Or, perhaps the school is simply trying to avoid a drawn out legal battle, preferring instead to cut a check and quickly move on from the Marshall era.

The big picture: This broken system is made possible by the labor (student-athletes) being free, which gives coaches all the leverage.

  • Get this: If it's the coach who chooses to leave, his buyout to the former school will often be paid for by his new employer.
  • In other words, coaches are generally protected either way. As one athletic director said, "I'm paying the old coach, I'm paying the school that's not my school, and I'm paying the new coach."
  • Meanwhile, unpaid student-athletes are regularly punished for minor infractions like a $252 phone bill accounting error.

The last word, from The Athletic's Nicole Auerbach (subscription):

"I remember when coaches had to work in the summer, all day in the offseason to make ends meet. Now, just go out there and get fired."
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