This weekend the Southeastern Conference will begin its attempt at a ten-game 2020 schedule. With a reduction in total games and no non-conference schedule to bolster win totals, this season — if it completes — will hand several programs a sobering win-loss total.
And this being the SEC, at least one head coach is on the hot seat entering the year. Last year three of the four schools that made a head coaching change — Mississippi State, Arkansas and Ole Miss — fired coaches after only two seasons after hiring them (the Rebels’ Matt Luke was an interim head coach in 2017). That the league chews through coaching personnel is treated as a meme, but it’s brutal financial reality.
Nick Saban is untouchable at present and Ed Orgeron just won a national title. At the other end of the spectrum, Vanderbilt has been steadfast in its support of Derek Mason (and is also navigating internal structural changes, so it’s unlikely a move is made for football reasons this season). Of the 11 other head coaches, four are in their first year, Georgia’s Kirby Smart is still two years removed from coaching in a national championship, Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt is still on the early side of a proposed rebuild, Kentucky’s Mark Stoops has one of the safest, cushiest gigs in the industry and Florida’s Dan Mullen is coming off of an Orange Bowl win and Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher has a buyout that has to feel a lot dumber than usual this year if you’re an Aggie.
That leaves two coaches: Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, who… which… let’s just pause on that until Auburn fans let us know how insane they’re going to be this year.
The other is Will Muschamp, South Carolina head coach. Let’s examine some numbers and come to an agreement about responsible spending, shall we?
1. Muschamp is 26-25 at South Carolina after four seasons. While in-state rival Clemson has captured two national titles in that timespan, the Gamecocks have failed to win the SEC East or win double-digits in a single season. A lackluster 7-6 2018 season gave way to a 4-8 dud last season, setting a very clean table for a 2020 hot seat, at least pre-pandemic.
2. According to local reports, Muschamp voluntarily reduced his buyout after the ‘19 season (and before the pandemic) by freezing his salary at $4.4 million annually through 2024 in an effort to raise assistant salaries. By freezing his annual pay, Muschamp’s buyout dipped from $15.3 million to $13.3 million if he were to be terminated after the 2020 season.
3. This month athletic director Ray Tanner told the South Carolina Board of Trustees the athletic department could fall as far as $58 million short in revenue of a projected $127 million 2020-’21 budget. As recently as June, Tanner said the athletic department could end up with a surplus of $11.4 million, but that was back when schools like South Carolina were projecting revenue potential like at-capacity stadiums in 2020.
4. Tanner, Muschamp and basketball coaches Dawn Staley and Frank Martin have all agreed to take pay cuts in 2020 to save the school $1.2 million. In addition, Tanner told local media that 50 athletic department employees would be “affected by” a university-wide furlough, and that “18 or 19” open positions in the department would not be filled for the time being.
This kind of once-in-a-lifetime financial lightning damage is all over the Power 5: Arkansas is taking out a loan of $19.1 million. Wisconsin is openly soliciting its fans for financial help. There is no hiding from the financial wallop COVID-19, even among Tiffany brands like Alabama.
Which all goes to say: Surely, surely, we won’t see the South Carolinas of the world pull a trigger on a hire-fire maneuver in this economy. Surely. Not only would the Gamecocks be on the hook for Muschamp’s buyout, but the cost of hiring a new head coach to replace him.
The details on how long a school can take to pay buyouts has become a new kind of legal theater, but even if Muschamp’s reps agree to a five-year window for the $13 million, that’s still a tremendous amount of dead money in the middle of an economic crisis. $13 million over five years to your old coach plus the price of a new one — let’s say about $4 million a year, which doesn’t include staff — would be $6.6 annually until 2025. And that figure doesn’t take into account the raise you’d want to budget for if Muschamp’s successor achieves the kind of Georgia ($6.4 million a year for Smart) and Clemson ($9.3 million a year for Dabo Swinney) results South Carolina believes it can achieve.
And look: It’s not like these moves ever make sense. Arkansas, a public university in one of the poorest states in the nation, is paying new head coach Sam Pittman $3 million a year on top of $1.715 million a year to Chad Morris, the head coach they fired in 2019, on top of an ongoing lawsuit filed against the school by former head coach Bret Bielema over a $12 million buyout.
That’s an insane amount of money for the 33 wins in seven years Bielema and Morris yielded, but at least Arkansas could (theoretically) sell out stadiums over a 12-game schedule to finance that stupidity. At last the NCAA Tournament was actually played to help generate revenue. At least a crippling, uncertain pandemic wasn’t robbing college athletics of its fiscal present but also clouding its immediate future.
So if, under normal circumstances, we can agree coach-swapping on college football’s largest stages is at least laughable for its largesse but more often fiscally immoral for its garish totals, it just can’t happen in 2020. If South Carolina, a team with noticeable football deficiencies before COVID-19, limps to a two or four or five win season, surely there won’t be a splashy spend to “fix” the program. Surely that wouldn’t happen in Columbia or anyone else in the SEC or Power 5 this year. Surely no one is readying a way to justify that kind of money spent. And surely no one is expecting us to swallow reasoning to that end.