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Why are college football coaches' buyouts so big?

FILE - In this Oct. 24, 2015, file photo, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin looks at the scoreboard as his team gathers during a timeout in an NCAA college football game against Mississippi in Oxford, Miss. Don't be surprised if Sumlin departs on his own terms if A&M has a good season. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)
Published Oct. 11, 2017

As the temperature rises on hot seats in the SEC and across the country, one number has become as important as a coach's record.

His buyout.

If Texas A&M wanted to fire coach Kevin Sumlin — whose Aggies play at Florida on Saturday — the school must pay him $10 million. That's about $2 million less than what Gary Andersen could have had when he left Oregon State on Monday. And it's $5 million less than what Arkansas would need to can Bret Bielema and his 10-24 SEC record.

All of which makes Butch Jones' $8 million buyout a relative bargain for Tennessee — and an outrage to Volunteers fans.

So how did we get to this point, where unsuccessful coaches are paid millions to stop working? The short answer: Slowly, then suddenly.

"It's been in sports forever, this kind of guaranteed contract," said Kenneth L. Shropshire, the adidas Distinguished Professor of Global Sport at Arizona State University.

Buyouts exist in other professions, too. The athletic directors who hire coaches and negotiate their contracts get them. The major difference between what coaches receive and the golden parachutes given to executives in Corporate America is the stock options.

But booming buyouts have become more relevant in college football because they've soared with the rest of coaches' compensation.

"First of all, you have the basic phenomenon of why they get paid so much in the first place," said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College. "That's largely a function of the fact that players' salaries are suppressed."

The Aggies' football program brought in $73.7 million in 2015-16, according to data submitted to the U.S. Department of Education. That money can't go to pay players, but it must go somewhere .

Like to Sumlin, whose $5 million salary was seventh-highest in the country last year, according to USA Today. As exorbitant as that figure sounds, Zimbalist said it's better for schools than the other way to address coaches' market value: Taking the buyout money and splitting it across the life of Sumlin's contract.

"It's less embarrassing to say the guy's annual salary is $5 million," said Zimbalist, co-author of the recent book, Unwinding Madness: What Went Wrong with College Sports and How to Fix It.

If schools don't want to increase salaries even more, they have one other main option to try to limit buyouts.

"The best circumstances are where there's a clause that if you get a job right away, it's limited by that amount," said Shropshire, a lawyer who has consulted on some negotiations.

Consider Florida coach Jim McElwain.

UF owed McElwain's predecessor, Will Muschamp, about $6 million — money he was collecting while recruiting against the Gators as Auburn's defensive coordinator and coaching against them at South Carolina.

McElwain couldn't do that. His buyout ($12.5 million this year) is offset by his next salary, if he takes another SEC job within 90 days of termination.

Schools can also protect themselves by recouping money if another program poaches their coach. To release McElwain from his contract to join the Gators in 2014, Colorado State received a record $7 million package: $3 million from UF, $2 million from McElwain and $2 million to play in Gainesville on Sept. 15, 2018.

While the idea of paying a coach millions for failing at his job strikes some fans as appalling, Shropshire said it's part of the colege sports culture.

Coaches' agents have a lot of leverage in negotiations with an athletic director who desperately wants to land his top candidate. Buyouts are another way to sweeten the deal — like luxury cars and country club memberships.

"I think we're stuck with it," Shropshire said.

Tennessee and A&M fans might be saying the same thing in December.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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