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Why bad teams should structure coaching contracts like NCAA Football’s

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P5 bottom-feeders should offer coaches very self-aware goals, then reward them with time.

EA Sports screenshot by Kofie Yeboah. Banner Society illustration

Taking any Power 5 football head coaching job is going to net you millions of dollars. So from that perspective, a job at a place like Vanderbilt, Oregon State, or Kansas is great. But relative to top-tier Power 5 jobs that don’t have built-in disadvantages, these have not been good jobs.

Let’s use Rutgers as an example. How could you entice a good coach to take on this challenge?

Kyle Flood and Chris Ash combined to go 7-39 in Big Ten play. In Rutgers’ first five Big Ten years, they averaged an overall record of 3.6-8.4. Rutgers’ average SP+ ranking in that span was 98th.

Joining the Big Ten East established an almost insurmountable ceiling. Annual games against Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, and Michigan State are nearly automatic losses. Maryland, Indiana, and most of the Big Ten West’s teams are also often better. The Knights were shut out in about a fifth of their Big Ten games over their first six years.

Even Rutgers’ good seasons in this millennium demonstrate why a coach would be wary of this job. Greg Schiano went an incredible 39-20 in the regular season (8-4 average record) from 2005-09. Rutgers made a bowl in each year. The Knights were in the upper half of FBS, averaging an SP+ rating of 40th.

But the schedule was far easier, at an average of 71st in SP+ (compared to an average of 25th in the Big Ten). That rise of Rutgers was directly tied to the departure of Miami, Boston College, and Virginia Tech from the Big East.

Eight of the 10 bowls in Rutgers history (which includes the entire history of bowl games) came when it was a member of a bottom-tier power conference. Put Rutgers’ 2005-09 teams, literally the best in program history, in the Big Ten East, and the Knights might have only made a couple bowls.

But that is where a school like this finds itself. And the candidates that get bandied about for this kind of job reflect the hopelessness.

The names thrown around are often retreads, journeymen, previously fired coaches who are now interested in every job, or coordinators without head coaching experience who wouldn’t seriously be considered for major jobs.

A coach who takes over in the basement of the Power 5 has to confront the reality that it is likely to be his last shot, after he is inevitably fired with a terrible win-loss record next to his name.

But what if a bottom-tier P5 could sell real job security, via meeting reasonable expectations?

If a school can’t offer the ability to win, jump to a better job, or make more money per year than other jobs, what can it offer?

Longevity has value to coaches just like it does to anybody else. In a profession with such turnover, the ability to keep a family in one place, all just for doing a good job relative to reasonable expectations, is hard to attain.

That security could come in the form of a contract that could give the coach the option to extend the deal if certain on-field goals are met (assuming off-field things like academics are also taken care of).

In fact, versions of this have already been tried. Take Kentucky and Mark Stoops. In the 21 seasons between the advent of SEC divisional play and UK hiring Stoops, the Wildcats averaged roughly five overall wins per season, somewhat comparable to Rutgers in the Big Ten East. Kentucky made only eight bowls in that span.

Relative to that, leading Kentucky to a bowl is an accomplishment. UK structured Stoops’ contract so that any time he won seven games, he would get an automatic extension of a year, plus an automatic two-year extension if he won 10 games.

Stoops hit the seven-win mark in 2016 and 2017, then the 10-win mark in 2018. The expectations were clear, giving Stoops and his family the chance to spend at least a decade in the same town, if he chose.

“I think we’ve built in a contract that I think gives him a chance to succeed and grow,” Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart said. “We built that a couple of years back. It wasn’t a mystery how we did that. We were hoping that we’d have to have these conversations. That makes those conversations a lot easier when you do that on the front end.”

What could this look like at one of the few Power 5 schools where it’s significantly harder to win than Kentucky?

There are some key differences. With the UK contract, at least there is the tangible goal of usually making a bowl game. At a school like Rutgers, that is rarely a reasonable goal.

But winning seven games for a Kentucky that’d been averaging five means beating historical performance by about 40%. What if Rutgers defined success in the same way?

Through five years, Rutgers averaged 1.36 Big Ten wins per year. If Rutgers set a goal of 40% improvement on its initial number, like Kentucky did, that would be 1.9 Big Ten wins in a given year. Let’s round that up. If Rutgers could win two conference games in a given year, its coach should have the option to extend his contract by a year.

That seems unimpressive, but relative to Rutgers’ plight, it’s clearly progress.

The same could be said for Rutgers’ overall record. The Knights have averaged 3.6 total wins since joining the Big Ten. A Stoops-style 40% improvement on that would be a 5-7 record, something Rutgers would’ve happily taken in any year from 2015 through 2019.

(Obviously the coach should not be eligible for simultaneous extensions for both accomplishments, since they are correlated, so it could be drawn up as an either-or type situation.)

And this would not need to be a contract that rewards that type of thing in perpetuity — going exactly 2-7 in conference forever won’t feel like long-term success, even at Rutgers. The standards could build upon themselves in some way over time.

Perhaps an achievement matrix would make sense. This could take all sorts of forms.

Laying out real expectations in black-and-white is rare in coaching contracts. But this would set things up about as clearly as the old NCAA Football video game did.

The expectations in the game are sometimes more clear than real life.
EA Sports

If you accept this job, this is what is expected and what we will provide. Got it? Cool.

For example, a newly hired coach would receive a five-year guaranteed contract. He’d be eligible to receive guaranteed extension year(s) that would not increase his buyout should he choose to leave. Instead, they would increase the buyout owed to him should the school look to move on from him without cause.

Here’s one proposal:

  • To earn his first two one-year extensions, the new coach would merely need to win two conference games within a single year.
  • To earn third, fourth, and fifth extensions, perhaps he would need to win two conference games and have the average halftime deficit in home games not exceed 10 points. This would speak to the team becoming more competitive and keeping butts in seats for second halves, helping with PR optics and stadium revenue.
  • To earn any extension past the fifth extension year, the coach would need to win three conference games and keep the average halftime deficit in conference home games to 10 points or less. If the school schedules its non-conference games correctly (as in: lightly), then winning three conference games should result in a bowl game. But because the coach can’t fully control the non-conference schedule, this helps protect him if the school schedules a difficult series, as Rutgers did recently with Washington.

After years of steady growth, he’s now basically got to make bowl games pretty regularly. The increase is gradual but reachable, both in the mind of the school and of the coach who believes he can get his team better if given the time.

Of course, length of contract would not be the only issue. The contract would need other clauses meant to help build a team.

“It would need to have look-in provisions to compare the school’s commitment to that of similar conference foes. In this case, a look-in every few years to compare Rutgers’ spending on head count, recruiting, private plane hours, assistant salary pool, etc. to that of Illinois, Maryland, Indiana, etc.” said an agent whose firm represents multiple Power 5 head coaches. “A step up in financial commitment once those initial goals are reached would be important.”

This concept would take some serious honesty and self-awareness on behalf of the school, which could play poorly with the fanbase and boosters.

Think about it. Whereas Kentucky rewards Stoops with an extra year each time he wins seven games (an accomplishment that includes making a bowl), a truly down-in-the-dumps school would be rewarding its coach for, in the early stages of this Rutgers-style contract, not even making a bowl.

“You don’t see extensions earned for losing seasons,” the agent said, acknowledging the rarity of this idea. “It would take a creative athletic director to come up with this and sell the vision to the administration and supporters.”

With this could also come ridicule. Think about headlines like “Rutgers didn’t make bowl, but gave coach extension anyway.” Think about how Randy Edsall’s bonuses-laden contract is weekly fodder for jokes as UConn flounders. (But our contract being based more around time and less around nickel-and-dime cash bonuses could make it less mockable.)

The school would also need a clause that could alter the terms if the conference realigned. In the case of Rutgers, for instance, if the Knights no longer have to play all the East heavyweights on an annual basis, but instead get to face more teams from the bottom of the West or a newly added team, then automatic extensions for winning only two conference games might make less sense.

“The guys who would take this job are pretty much those who are daring,” the agent said, “or who have nothing to lose.”

“So this could be a creative way to expand the pool to include those who place a high value on stability.”

“I like that,” said an assistant coach at a Power 5 school of the idea. “If I hit the initial goals we agree upon, I’ll be given the time to build the program up gradually.”

The agent agreed this would let the coach know the school is reasonable about what can be accomplished in the near and far term.

Both agreed that for something like this to work, the goals would have to be within the control of the coach and include program-investment incentives. Without those, the school could undercut the coach. An agent isn’t going to let his client take this sort of deal without a lot of protection.

It would also take a coach willing to bet on himself and break the mold. Someone who could see the goals and know that if he hits them, he’ll have the time to elevate the program. Perhaps even a young coach who grew up playing sports video games.

Meanwhile, here’s how a more normal coach hire goes down, and here’s how some coaches end up with such comically huge buyouts.