Sports

Alabama’s Highest-Paid State Employee in a Pandemic Year Will Be a Fired Football Coach

Gus Malzahn in an Auburn hat with a mask pulled under his nose, on his chin
Auburn’s Gus Malzahn got fired but is getting paid handsomely to not coach. (Above, Malzahn prior to a game against Georgia at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia, on Oct. 3.) Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

A few things make college football college football:

1. The athletes are paid in tuition, which is worth what the paying institution says it’s worth.

2. Every institution is free to come up with its own bad ideas, because there is rarely anyone capable or willing enough to object.

3. Coaches, unlike players, usually have complete freedom to bolt from one college to another for any reason. If a coach is fired, however, his college could owe him six, seven, or eight figures’ worth of previously agreed-upon buyout money. How is there money for this? How can schools afford to pay an outgoing coach while also hiring a new coach? See item No. 1 in this list.

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4. Oh, and there are bowl games, live animal mascots, 121-year-old rivalry trophies that once went missing for eight decades, and wild locales like Wyoming, the Bahamas, and New Jersey.

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Item No. 3 is in the news!

After nearly a decade of Auburn fans bouncing between Fire Gus years and Keep Gus years, the Tigers fired coach Gus Malzahn after their regular season–ending win over Mississippi State. Per his contract, Malzahn—who had eight winning seasons in eight years—is now due $21.5 million in severance, half of it within 30 days. That means Alabama’s highest-paid state employee during this fiscal year, a pandemic year, will be an unemployed football coach. (Counting salaries plus buyouts, fired coaches top several state budgets every year, though those funds largely come from athletic department revenue and private boosters.)

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Last month, South Carolina fired coach Will Muschamp and thus found itself on the hook for $15.5 million. It could’ve been about $2 million less, due to a contract revision approved a year earlier, but Muschamp and his boss never signed it. This comes six years after Florida paid Muschamp $6.3 million to go away, a real bargain in hindsight.

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Arizona’s Kevin Sumlin lost 12 games in a row, including a 70–7 humiliation against Arizona State, which retained that 121-year-old trophy. His reward: a $7.3 million buyout, though his is set up to decrease accordingly once he’s receiving salary from his next college. So to maximize profits and squeeze Arizona tighter, Sumlin can do something like what former Tennessee coach Butch Jones just did: crash on Nick Saban’s couch at Alabama for a few years, collect $35,000 to work as a Bama “analyst,” thus force his Former Employer University to pay nearly the entire severance, and then take a new head coaching job right as the buyout stream runs dry.

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Former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith will receive $2.3 million to leave the Fighting Illini with a 17–39 record. We don’t know how much Vanderbilt owes the fired Derek Mason, since Vandy is a private school and thus shielded from records requests, but we know he had several years left on his contract and that his annual salary had been comparable to Sumlin’s. Call it seven figures.

It’s everywhere. It’s just normal. Every year, dozens of coaches get thrown out of the bar while somehow gathering fat tabs of their own. Last year, FSU waited all of 21 games before paying Willie Taggart $21 million to leave. Arkansas waited one more game than that, then gave Chad Morris a $10 million heave-ho.

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Even schools facing economic hardship agree to contracts with buyout deals. ULM—often the poorest athletic department in Division I FBS even when not missing millions in revenue due to a pandemic—now owes Matt Viator $175,000. Again, on top of paying a new coach.

This probably all sounds really stupid.

Here’s the thing: It’s incredibly stupid.

Every year, college football fans, media members, and onlookers rail against these cash dumps. In a sport where small schools can only make ends meet by agreeing to get pummeled by powers, in an amateurism model that gives many players as little academic value as possible, and in a country with shameful poverty rates, how can we justify shitting money upon mostly proven failures? Even when private boosters are willing and able to cover buyout costs, isn’t it simply embarrassing? Even if you want to waste millions of dollars, shouldn’t you waste it on something cool, like inventing a jetpack that works once?

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So why would a school ever agree to one of these deals?

Because all other schools agree to these deals. You can’t hire the up-and-coming Coach Hotshot away from your rival if your rival’s offer includes plump buyout language, not to mention your other rival who is offering to make Coach Hotshot’s poor real estate investments suddenly bloom.

Coaches’ agents are able to pitch universities on the value of demonstrating stability—as in, empowering coaches to tell recruits, “Of course I, Coach Hotshot, will be here for your entire four years of college. Look how many guaranteed years are left on my contract!”

Those with withering contracts are thus easy targets for rival recruiters: “You sure Coach Former Hotshot will still be there when you’re a junior? Only two years left on his deal right now.”

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So every few years, each college coach who isn’t fired gets an extension, regularly doubling down on what was likely a coach-friendly arrangement to begin with … and happening to ensure the eventual buyout remains ripe. This kind of rote extension can even happen 48 hours before a coach begins a 3–6 season (Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt in September 2020).

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But all of that applies in normal times. 2020 looked like a year that could finally unsettle a lot of things about college football. Right?

Players spoke up over the summer about the pandemic, racism, and amateurism. Schools were forced to make hard choices about whether they really needed to invest in top-level football. 2020 even put the lie to the athletic directors’ bizarre, long-running argument that all high-profile games must be scheduled decades in advance.

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So surely this year’s coaching carousel would be a little more muted, patient, and tactful, or at least demonstrate minimal human shame? Surely only massive underperformers would be fired, big buyouts would otherwise mean mulligans, and we’d all treat 2020 as a kind of exhibition year?

A college football thing being so depraved that it surprises even people like me—joyfully cynical observers who think everything in college football has been stupid since Rutgers played Angry Soccer against Princeton in 1869—requires a lot. I expected this December to be different. But Malzahn’s firing and gargantuan buyout after going 6–4 in a pandemic season managed to startle me.

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2020 has thus confirmed that one of the most idiotic features of college football will remain with us for quite some time. What can we do but throw our hands up?

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Since it’s not our money, and since these things are typically funded by boosters who like hurling big numbers at the problems they asked for in the first place, we’ll just wait to learn who’s next to join this Golden Parachuters Hall of Fame.

And now, let’s gaze up at one of the prominent statues outside that Hall.

• Notre Dame fired Charlie Weis after 2009, and thus owed him $19 million.

• By the time the Irish finished paying Weis off years later, he’d worked his way back up to University of Kansas head coach, gotten fired there as well, and collected a $5.2 million KU buyout.

• So in 2014 alone, Weis gathered $7.7 million just from people who’d wanted rid of him.

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• Add up all of Weis’ buyouts, salaries, and other earnings, and he made $1.6 million for each win in his 41–49 career as a college head coach between 2005 and 2014.

• That doesn’t even include the money he made as the mediocre-ish offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2010 or Florida Gators in 2011.

Master of the effort-to-work ratio, and thus the most college football football coach of all time.

Listen to a special episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen about Michael Jordan’s years with the Washington Wizards below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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