Those football coach salary pay cuts probably aren't what they look like.

A closer look at contracts shows that there's a good chance that 10% pay cut isn't actually 10%.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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Last week, USA TODAY released an update to their invaluable resource, the FBS football coach salary database. In one helpful chart, anybody can check and see how much a particular head coach makes, and perhaps just as useful, their buyout.

This year, USA TODAY added another feature. How much each coach had their pay reduced as a result of COVID-related budget cuts.

You may have heard of some coaches giving up big chunks of pay to help their cash-strapped athletic departments ride out a year of increasing expenses and significantly reduced revenues. But USA TODAY points out that upon closer inspection, those cuts often aren’t as significant as they appear.

Of the 104 head coaches for whom pay cut information was made available, more than 40% have either not taken a pay cut or not been asked to do so. Of the 59 coaches whose pay has been reduced, the average cut amounts to just under 9% of their total scheduled compensation package for the year — which, on average, is roughly $3 million for that group.

USA TODAY also points out that in some cases, like at Texas, the cuts aren’t even cuts at all, as the school plans to pay coaches back for any cuts they accept this year.

My own findings align with what USA TODAY is reporting. Back in September, I asked every public D1 school, from FBS, FCS, and programs without football, for all athletic department contracts that were adjusted as a result of COVID, from April to September. About a hundred schools have responded so far, and only 18 responded with adjusted contracts.

If everybody is facing such dire financial straits, why aren’t more schools altering contracts?

The simplest answer is probably, they can’t. Via the USA TODAY story:

Martin Greenberg, a Milwaukee-based sports attorney and adjunct professor at Marquette University, said it's simple: Legally speaking, at the majority of schools, they can't.

"I’m looking for a legal reason as to how to kill these contracts," Greenberg said. "And I can’t find one."

Contracts provide a layer of protection for coaches that most other university employees do not have, guaranteeing payment as long as they perform their duties. And Greenberg said the force majeure language in most of these deals, which could potentially give schools leeway to make changes in the event of unforeseeable circumstances such as a global pandemic, is not sophisticated enough to withstand a challenge in court.

Mr. Greenberg’s argument aligns with what other sports law experts have told me over the last few months. Most contracts are not written in a way that would allow a school to unilaterally alter the financial scope of the deal, or even formally furlough a coach. Schools like Utah and Boise State have been the exception.

There’s a good argument that a football or basketball coach has more job security in the face of financial challenges than nearly anybody else on campus. A coach can’t be replaced by an adjunct. Football programs are rarely dropped. Pay is typically not cut even if revenue declines, and if a coach is fired for poor performance, at the D1 level, they are almost always paid to go away. Even high ranking administrators don’t typically get those kinds of deals.

Some of these cuts are completely superficial.

As USA TODAY points out, many of the coaching salary cuts are just to the *base* salary. But many D-1 head coaches earn plenty of compensation outside their base salary. In addition to retention bonuses and performance incentives, some of their annual compensation may technically be categorized as: for media responsibilities, for apparel sponsorship, and more. So a coach taking a 10% cut is not taking anywhere close to a 10% cut on their actual total compensation.

For example, here’s what UNC did with Mack Brown’s contract, per USA TODAY:

In making those cuts, Cunningham asked his football coach, Brown, to take a 20% salary reduction, just like everyone else in the athletics department who makes $200,000 or more. But rather than seek 20% of his total compensation package — $3.5 million — Cunningham only applied the cut to Brown's base salary, which is $750,000. The resulting reduction was $112,500, a 3% cut of what Brown will make this year. 

At the G5 level, Toledo did something similar with head football coach Jason Candle. According to USA TODAY, Candle’s total compensation exceeds $1 million a year. But according to his contract, his base salary for 2020 is only $500,000 a season. According to the most recent amendment to his contract, signed June 1 and obtained by Extra Points, Toledo cut his base salary to $450,000 for the rest of the year.

The bulk of Candle’s earnings ($650,000) are defined in his contract as Marketing Compensation. So Candle isn’t actually taking a 10% pay cut; he’s taking closer to a 5% pay cut. That’s still a lot of money, but when the athletic department projects a revenue decline of $4-$6 million, it isn’t so much money.

Other cuts are so small that you have to wonder why anybody bothered to do alter the contract at all. At Louisiana, for example, head football coach Billy Napier’s contract was revised on July 1st to include two cuts. Napier will not be eligible for any Academic Achievement bonuses (up to $25,000 annually), and he will no longer get $80 a month for a cell phone allowance.

Not $8,000. Not $800. Eighty bucks.

But other schools are making more painful ones.

Take Ball State, for example. The school sent me a list of every athletic department employee taking a cut, which included 10% cuts from multiple head coaches, including the athletic director, head football coach, head men’s basketball coach, and head baseball coach.

But it also included cuts to multiple employees making under $50,000 (3.8% cut) and even under $40,000 (2%). Losing $40,000 never feels good, but when you’re making $400,000, that hurts less than losing $800 if you’re only making $38,000, even in a low-cost market like Muncie.

Youngstown State, an FCS program, told me the highest earners in the department, employees making over $255,999, took 15% cuts, with other staffers accepting smaller cuts. But other athletic department employees making under $60,000 also took pay cuts, as part of a union-negotiated furlough program.

Outside of the massive athletic departments in the P5, I think it’s worth reminding that many folks who work in college athletics aren’t getting rich. The assistant coaches of Olympic sports, the folks working in sports information offices, and the ones in game day and event management? They’re not making six figures. Hard times for athletic departments will mean occasional pay cuts or furloughs, but just because the head basketball coach can accept that without much personal pain, doesn’t mean everybody can.

My takeaway? Many of these contracts are too one-sided in favor of the coach.

Working on an FBS coaching staff is unquestionably a difficult job. The hours are long and the pressure can be all-consuming. Many coaches had to spend years as horribly paid GAs, or as staffers for tiny, far-flung colleges in order to secure an FBS position, and chances are, they’ll get fired at least once during their career. I do not seek to minimize any of this.

But I think the COVID crisis has made it even more clear that the current system disproportionately benefits football coaches.

Coaching salaries have skyrocketed over the last decade at a rate rivaled by few professions; an increase that has everything to do with the fact that athletic departments needed to spend increased revenues somewhere other than on the actual labor force, the athletes. A coach getting $4 million to finish in last place in the SEC is not a function of the free market, but a function of market restrictions.

Under this system, the coach enjoys the benefits of success, but is financially insulated from much of the risks of failure. If the team performs well, the coach gets a bonus. If the team sells a lot of tickets, some coaches even get a cut of that revenue. If the athletes on the team do well in school, the coach gets a bonus. The list goes on and on.

But if the coach fails, he typically gets a sizable buyout. Even today, amid the current athletic financial crisis, Tennessee fired an assistant football coach who could get a buyout of over $800,000.

And in times of department crisis, the school has little recourse to adjust the terms of the contract, unlike with other personnel that is more critical to the institution’s core functions. Things go well? Pay the coach. Things aren’t going well? Pay the coach.

Could this change in the future?

I’m honestly not sure. We took a closer look at how different kinds of contracts were changing thanks to COVID back in July, and while there were some examples of coaching contracts getting adjusted to give the university more financial flexibility, they weren’t the standard. Heck, game contracts were still getting signed, in the middle of a pandemic, that didn’t have pandemic-related cancelation clauses.

Real systemic change hinges on how much of an activist role Congress is willing to take when they consider NIL legislation. An antitrust exemption focused on regulating athletic department spending on coaches and administrators could let schools claw some of the power back, but there’s no guarantee that ends up passing. Short of a change in the law, it would depend on individual schools to craft new contracts that more dramatically limit coaching power. That feels unlikely. After all, nobody wants to be perceived as having a disadvantage in the coaching hiring market. Fans and boosters won’t put up with that.

For now, piecemeal, performative salary cuts from head coaches aren’t going to solve any substantial budget problems. Any D1 program truly serious about getting expenses under control would need to cut high-end salaries by more than 10% of total compensation, not just base salary.

Right now, there doesn’t appear to be an appetite for that fight, even among the smaller schools in D1.

If other coaches and administrators want to give some money back to the school, great. But once you look a little more closely under the hood, chances are, those cuts probably aren’t worth holding a parade over.

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