I’m pretty confident Jimbo Fisher is the world’s richest Jimbo. By the time you make big money you’re probably going by James or Jim. The Forbes billionaire list has no Jimbos, but it does have one Jimmy (Haslam, owner of the Cleveland Browns) and one Jimmy John (the sandwich guy). Jimbo is one of the five active college football coaches with a national championship victory, the other four are Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, Mack Brown, and as of January, Kirby Smart. (Yes, college football also has very rich men named “Dabo,” “Mack,” and “Kirby.”)
When Texas A&M hired Fisher away from Florida State in 2017, it was a seismic move in the sport: championship coaches almost never switch schools without retiring (like Brown did) or giving the NFL a shot first (like Saban). Fisher was surely enticed by A&M’s access to Texas’s rich recruiting grounds, the Aggies’ intensely passionate fan base and its … how do I say this … unique traditions. But he wouldn’t have come without a massive $75 million contract funded by A&M boosters whose pockets run as deep as the oil wells of West Texas. After the Aggies finished just one spot out of the College Football Playoff in 2020, he got a 10-year, $95 million extension which runs through 2031. He wasn’t the first coach making money in the $9 million per year range, but one detail in the contract caught the eyes of many people: There was no buyout reduction. If the school ever wants to fire Jimbo, it will have to pay him the whole damn salary. There is also no offset clause: If Jimbo gets fired and lands another job, he’ll collect his A&M salary and his new salary.
You know how newspapers are accusing people of “quiet quitting?” That might be what’s going on with Jimbo, the $100 million man who won’t lose a penny if he sucks at his job. After entering the season ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll, the Aggies lost to Appalachian State at home and later suffered the school’s first six-game losing streak since 1972. Fisher is supposed to be a quarterback expert, but his team ranks 104th in yards per attempt and 108th in points per game. He could have reduced the pressure by beating Alabama early last month, but the Crimson Tide successfully defended A&M’s potential game-winning touchdown because a cornerback saw Jimbo yelling out the name of the receiver who would be the target on the final play. The Aggies are 4-7 and 9.5-point underdogs in their season finale against LSU. In their final home game of the season, the Home of the 12th Man had about 12 men in it:
Update. Crowd after halftime isn’t even sparse. #aggies pic.twitter.com/IZSjLrkdIM— Kristie Rieken (@kristieAP) November 19, 2022
“He’s easily done the worst coaching job of anyone in college football this year,” Paul Finebaum said of Fisher recently on The ESPN College Football Podcast. A&M was bonkers enough to create a scenario in which it would need to pay $86 million to fire its coach. Are the Aggies bonkers enough to actually do it?
That $86 million would set a buyout record, but they wouldn’t be the first team to pay big cash to fire a coach this year. Auburn paid $21.5 million to fire Gus Malzahn last year, but his replacement, Bryan Harsin, quickly made an even worse mess of the situation, so Auburn had to pay $15.6 million to fire Harsin in October. When Nebraska fired Scott Frost in September, it paid him $16 million—a number that would’ve dropped to around $8 million if it’d waited until October 1. Former LSU head coach Ed Orgeron growl-cackled while telling a tale about his firing—when the school’s athletic director told him he would get $17.1 million in his buyout, he asked, “What time do you want me to leave and what door do you want me to go out?”
Coach O on his time and exit from LSU . He was at the Little Rock Touchdown Club today. pic.twitter.com/n87SmTnXqW— Steve Sullivan (@sully7777) September 6, 2022
The increasingly large payouts to fired coaches have not stopped schools from giving increasingly large contracts to their current coaches. College coaching salaries jumped 15 percent year over year in 2022, according to USA Today, the largest increase ever. Some of the extensions given to coaches have been baffling. Michigan State gave Mel Tucker a $95 million extension last November after just two seasons leading the Spartans. Like Jimbo’s deal, that contract is also fully guaranteed, which doesn’t look as great now that the Spartans are 5-6 this season. Kentucky’s Mark Stoops just got an extension that will pay him $8.6 million per year through 2031. Missouri recently gave Eli Drinkwitz an extension even though the team has a losing record under Drinkwitz. Who were these schools bidding against? Was someone offering to hire Mark Stoops away for $9 million? If someone did hire Drinkwitz away from MIssouri, would it even be a bad thing? Why are schools giving bigger and bigger salaries to coaches when they can see how much it costs when things go bad?
College football is a sport in flux. We don’t know which teams will end up in which conferences, what changes will be made to the sport’s amateurism rules, and whether the NCAA will be around in 10 years. But few questions have funnier answers than this: What is the most a college will pay a man not to coach football?
College football coaching salaries have been “out of control” for about 120 years. When Richard Johnson at Banner Society put together a rundown of the history of coaching salaries, he found the first complaints came in 1905, with an author arguing that Bill Reid’s $7,000 salary at Harvard was a sign that “one of the worst things in the frenzied football competition is the hiring of graduate coaches … at ever-increasing salaries.” Decades before hiring Jimbo, A&M set a record back in 1972 when it agreed to pay Jackie Sherrill $1.7 million … over six years. “Where is it going to stop?” CBS News asked in 1998 about head-coaching salaries as high as $900,000 per year. Now, strength coaches can make that much.
College football programs have more money to hire (and fire) their coaches because they have more money. The Big Ten’s new media contract will pay the league more than $1 billion per year. Each of its 16 members is projected to receive somewhere between $80 million and $100 million in annual payouts—and that’s just off the media deal, not factoring in game-day revenue, licensing, and all the other ways college athletic programs make money. It also doesn’t include payouts from the College Football Playoff, which currently pays each Power 5 conference about $74 million every year, a number that should increase dramatically if and when the playoff triples in size in 2026.
Of course, college sports is not alone here. In the past 15 years, the NFL’s media deals have jumped from $2 billion per year to $3 billion per year to $9 billion per year. That has also led to big-time coaching salaries. Multiple NFL coaches make more than $10 million per year. Fired NFL coaches can get big money too: Matt Rhule may have coached at Temple and Baylor, but it was the Carolina Panthers who agreed to pay him $40 million to go away. (Unlike Fisher’s contract, that deal will be offset if he gets a new head-coaching job in the future, which seems likely.)
But there’s no moral panic about ballooning NFL coaching salaries. There are a few obvious differences. First and foremost, pro football teams are pro football teams, so it makes sense when they pay coaches to coach football, while universities are higher learning institutions. If you explain to a foreigner that American schools pay $10 million a year to football coaches, they will look at you like you just said schools pay $10 million to football coaches. A lot of those universities are public, too, so they’re legally required to disclose employee salaries, while NFL teams are not. That’s why USA Today has a big database of college football coaching salaries, but if you Google “highest NFL coach salaries,” you’ll get SEO articles claiming the NFL’s highest-paid coach is Sean McVay, referencing an annual salary range of “$15-18 million”—a figure which can be traced back to an anonymous source in a post by ProFootballTalk “with knowledge of the market for head-coaching salaries.” If a college coach makes big money, people will learn the exact dollar amount; if an NFL coach makes big money, nobody will know unless the people who made the deal want people to know.
A college coach’s job also has a bigger scope than an NFL coach’s job. A pro coach primarily has to focus on X’s and O’s, while the GM figures out which players make the roster and the owner pays the salaries. A college coach is an all-in-one coach/GM/fundraiser, who must be well-versed in scheme, effective at convincing teenagers to play for his team, and good at glad-handing boosters who can fund his program. The recruiting aspect is arguably the most important part, which explains why some legendary recruiters take NFL jobs and flounder when they have roughly the same amount of talent as everybody else.
While NFL teams are still NFL teams whether they win or lose, a winning college program can raise the profile of an entire institution. From prospective students to alumni donors, people simply want to be around a school where 100,000 people gather every Saturday to make memories cheering on a winning team. The year before Saban was hired at Alabama, two-thirds of its students were Alabama natives. Now 63 percent of its incoming students are from out-of-state. (And no, it probably isn’t because Alabama has gotten way better at academics—the school has actually dropped in the U.S. News & World Report rankings from 2006 to now.) That’s a demographic shift worth hundreds of millions of dollars per year; at $10 million, Saban is a bargain.
But while the salaries of NFL coaches remain secret, the salaries of NFL players are highly publicized. Because of the league’s salary cap structure, any halfway knowledgeable fan knows which players have big salaries and which don’t; which players are untradeable and which QBs are on their rookie contracts. In college, of course, players are not allowed to receive salaries. As of 2021, college athletes are allowed to receive money to appear in ads and endorse products—widely referred to as “name, image, and likeness,” or NIL, deals—but the schools can’t pay the players directly. NFL coaches make far less than star QBs, which makes sense—we’ve seen Aaron Rodgers win a Super Bowl when coached by Mike McCarthy. In college, coaches are the most valuable people in the program because they’re the ones responsible for recruiting star players.
This brings us back to Jimbo Fisher. This offseason, Jimbo went out and got Texas A&M a recruiting class ranked as the best in college football history—a record-setting eight five-star recruits according to the 247 Sports composite ranking, including two players ranked no. 1 at their position. Recruiting rankings go back only about 20 years, but they’re pretty accurate: Seven of the 10 best recruiting classes on record have gone on to win or play for a national championship, and A&M’s was better. This irked Saban, whose Alabama class ranked second. “A&M bought every player,” he alleged, claiming that incoming recruits’ NIL deals are just flimsy workarounds to give them de facto salaries. Fisher was irate, insisting his program had followed NCAA rules and state laws. “It’s despicable that someone can say something about someone, and more importantly 17-year-old kids, taking shots at 17-year-old kids and their families,” Fisher said. “Go dig into his past. You can find out anything you want to find out or what he does or how he does it.”
It’s a strange dichotomy. Fisher makes $9 million per year. The same boosters who pay Fisher’s massive salary also have a collective which pools donor funds and provides opportunities for players to sign NIL deals—and Fisher starts to act insulted when people act like the money that recruited him to A&M is used to recruit players to A&M. “The people who are only focused on NIL, I don’t want them,” Fisher told The Athletic in an article which reported A&M’s class has signed NIL deals worth several million dollars. Perhaps Fisher is so offended by the allegation of bought recruits because it calls his value as a coach into question. Historically, the coaches make money because they’re good at recruiting. But if recruits can be signed with the booster money … what exactly does Jimbo do again? I’ve watched A&M’s offense this year; it sure as hell isn’t “coaching.”
Under the current system, there’s a logic to these massive coaching buyouts. Money gets coaches, coaches get players; players get wins; wins can bring life to an entire university. The cost of having a losing football program is higher than the number you write on the check to make a bad coach go away—even if that number is $86 million. But the only world in which it makes sense to pay someone $86 million to not coach football is a world in which you can’t pay a player to actually play.