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The best gig in America is being an unemployed college football coach

John Romano | The $21.7 million given to Auburn’s Gus Malzahn is the latest example of the millions thrown around by universities for fired coaches.
Can you hear what former Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn hears? That's right, it's the sweet sound of $21.7 million on its way into his savings account.
Can you hear what former Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn hears? That's right, it's the sweet sound of $21.7 million on its way into his savings account. [ ROGELIO V. SOLIS | Associated Press (2020) ]
Published Dec. 15, 2020

From all appearances, they seem like reasonable people. Polite and intelligent, with a whiff of responsibility.

They represent major institutions, control massive budgets and negotiate major contracts. They hold news conferences, host cocktail parties and look catalogue-ready in their logoed apparel.

So why are the streets filled with crazed athletic directors this time of year?

Case in point:

Auburn University fired football coach Gus Malzahn on Sunday. Nothing extraordinary about that, except for the $21.7 million in paychecks Malzahn will continue collecting while not walking the sideline on future Saturdays.

This comes eight years after Auburn paid Gene Chizik $7.7 million to stop working. And four years before that, the Tigers handed Tommy Tuberville $5 million on his way out the door.

That’s a total of $34.4 million worth of useless game plans.

And Auburn is not alone. Since 2009, Kansas has forked over $20.45 million for the privilege of firing Mark Mangino, Turner Gill, Charlie Weis and David Beaty. And how is that long-range plan working? The Jayhawks are 0-9 under Les Miles this season.

Florida was just about finished with $6.3 million in severance payments to Will Muschamp when it took on a $7.5 million obligation by firing Jim McElwain in 2017. It was as if the Gators were waiting for one used-coach lease to end before applying for a new one.

Muschamp, meanwhile, was so traumatized by the whole affair that he got himself hired and fired at South Carolina, where he is now due $13 million in another get-lost windfall.

South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp yells at an official during a game against Mississippi on Nov. 14. Mississippi won 59-42, and Muschamp is currently without a job.
South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp yells at an official during a game against Mississippi on Nov. 14. Mississippi won 59-42, and Muschamp is currently without a job. [ BRUCE NEWMAN | AP ]

So, yes, this is part of the backdrop of big-time athletics. And, it should be pointed out, coaches in the NFL and NBA often walk away with millions as part of their guaranteed contracts when they are fired. But those are private businesses.

Shouldn’t universities act a little more prudently? Shouldn’t they have a greater sense of responsibility? Shouldn’t they at least care about the optics of throwing golden parachutes out of their stadium luxury boxes?

Muschamp’s departure came just days after South Carolina announced furloughs for professors and other university staff. Two months earlier, the school’s athletic director said his program was facing $58 million in revenue losses during the pandemic and the university’s president wrote that the school was facing its worst budget crisis since the last recession.

But, by all means, let’s put $13 million in the football coach’s off-shore account after dismissing him.

This has got to stop. It’s obscene enough that NCAA coaches are making millions while their players are getting little more than books and tuition. But it’s off-the-charts ridiculous to hand them contracts that continue paying them for failing to live up to expectations, while simultaneously cutting the school’s non-revenue producing programs.

And the truth is, it’s just not necessary.

Every AD and university president is desperately seeking the next Nick Saban or Urban Meyer, but those coaches are rare breeds. For every Saban coming from the NFL, there is a Jim Mora who was a disappointment at UCLA and still walked away with $12.2 million in parting gifts. For every Meyer who finds success at multiple stops, there is a Weis who managed to get out-the-door payments of about $25 million between Notre Dame and Kansas while putting up a combined record of 41-49.

The point is, schools do not need to guarantee contracts for flash-in-the-pan coaches.

Jim McElwain's ouster at Florida came on the heels of the Gators wrapping up payouts to another coaching bust.
Jim McElwain's ouster at Florida came on the heels of the Gators wrapping up payouts to another coaching bust. [ Times (2017) ]

Take McElwain, for instance. He wasn’t exactly a Boy Wonder when Florida hired him. He was 52 and had been a head coach a grand total of three seasons at Colorado State. Did it really take a guaranteed contract to get him to come to Gainesville? And, if it did, shouldn’t the Gators have told him to enjoy life in the Mountain West Conference?

What about Chad Morris? Was he really such a hot commodity after going 14-23 at SMU that Arkansas should give him a deal that guaranteed him another $10.1 million after getting canned following a 4-18 record in his first two seasons in Fayetteville?

Mike MacIntyre was a head coach for a total of nine seasons at two different schools and had a winning record just twice. Yet Colorado was so buffaloed by his resume that the school gave him a contract that guaranteed him another $7.2 million when he was fired in 2018.

Every single one of these stories should be classified as a cautionary tale for athletic directors.

Except none of them seem to understand the moral of the story.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

Failure is an option

In no way is this an exhaustive list of the millions college football coaches have received after being fired. Willie Taggart, for instance, is not listed because there still seems to be debate over how much Florida State will pay of the $18 million he was due. Instead, consider this college football’s greatest hits album. If it were a boxed set, it would include additional cuts by Sumlin ($7.3 million at Arizona), Strong ($3 million at USF), Weis ($6.6 million at Kansas) and Muschamp ($6.3 million at UF). The following includes the year fired and the payout:

• Gus Malzahn, Auburn: 2020, $21.7 million

• Charlie Weis, Notre Dame: 2009, $18.9 million

• Bobby Petrino, Louisville: 2018, $14 million

• Will Muschamp, South Carolina: 2020, $13 million

• Todd Graham, Arizona State: 2016, $12.8 million

• Jim Mora, UCLA: 2017, $12.2 million

• Chad Morris, Arkansas: 2019, $10.1 million

• Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M: 2016, $9.9 million

• Charlie Strong, Texas: 2016, $9.4 million

• Butch Jones, Tennessee: 2017, $8.26 million