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The Insanity of Rewarding Coaches Who Fail

In the past three decades, college coaching salaries have skyrocketed. But what really concerns me is the colleges’ habit of paying failed coaches millions of dollars just to go away.

Plenty of pundits have raged about the soaring salaries of college coaches, and rightly so.

Over the past three decades, the average football coach’s salary increased tenfold to $2.5 million. That’s about 25 times more than the average college professor earns, whose salary has merely kept pace with inflation. Today the highest paid public employee in 39 states is either a basketball coach or a football coach.

That’s nutty enough, but I can make a rational argument that many coaches bring in far more than they take, and add real value to their universities. I can also fall back on the marketplace argument. If a school wants to pay their coach several million dollars a year, I can’t begrudge the coach for taking it. That’s how the marketplace works.

But what I cannot rationalize is why these schools continue to pay millions to coaches many years after they were fired. Schools created this upside-down market, which handsomely rewards abject failure, when they started including buy-out clauses in their coaches’ contacts. These force schools to pay exorbitant sums just to get rid of losing coaches.

Those bizarre buy-outs are supposed to come with a catch: if a winning coach leaves for another school before his contract runs out, he has to pay the school he’s leaving a big buy-out for breaking his contract. But it turns out the coach usually doesn’t pay anything, because the school he’s jumping to invariably pays his buyout for him.

This results in an even sillier scenario, where schools end up not only paying millions to their former coach, and millions to their new coach, they have to pay millions more to their new coach’s previous school, so he can leave to come to their school.

As one athletic director said, “I’m paying the old coach, I’m paying the school that’s not my school, and I’m paying the new coach. Wow, that’s an expensive change.”

Charlie Weis is the reigning king of coaching compensation craziness. When he became the head coach at Notre Dame in 2005, he often bragged his coaching genius would give Notre Dame a “decided schematic advantage” in every game he coached.

But it turned out Weis didn’t even bring a “decided schematic advantage” against second-tier teams like Navy, which beat Notre Dame for the first time in 44 tries under Weis’s watch, then did it again two years later.

After five years, Notre Dame sent Weis on his way with two million dollars a year in buy-out money. He remains one of the highest paid Notre Dame employees this year – and he hasn’t been an employee in almost a decade.

Incredibly, in 2012 the University of Kansas went out to prove it was every bit as stupid as Notre Dame, and gave Weis another gigantic contract. Well, surprise, surprise, Weis was even worse at Kansas. So bad, they fired him mid-way through his third season, and gave him millions to stop coaching.

The two schools combined paid Weis more than $40 million for more losses than wins. But what’s even crazier is this: Notre Dame and Kansas will pay Weis more than $24 million in buy-out money, because he stunk!

Paying a great coach big money to win games is one thing. Paying a horrible coach even more money to go away is quite another.

If an NFL team wants to pay three head coaches at once, like the Detroit Lions often do, go right ahead. But when Universities are wasting millions just to get incompetent coaches to leave, while their students are mortgaging their futures to pay tuition, that’s a criminal lack of responsibility.

This insanity has got to stop. And the schools can stop it whenever they like.

* * * * *

Please join the conversation, but remember: I run only those letters from those who are not profane or insane, and who include their full name.

I’ll be speaking about The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism, at the National Writers Series at the Traverse City Opera House, on Thursday, November 29, at 7 pm.

As of November 6, The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism, a National Bestseller, is now out in paperback. 

My latest book, “The Best of Bacon: Select Cuts,” is on its second printing.

Radio stuff: On Friday mornings, these commentaries run at 8:50 on Michigan Radio (91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit and Flint, and 104.1 Grand Rapids), and a few minutes later,  I join Sam Webb and Ira Weintraub LIVE from 9:05 to 9:25 on WTKA.com, 1050 AM.

I also join Michigan Radio’s great Cynthia Canty on her afternoon Stateside show every Monday for a few minutes, and occasionally on NPR’s Morning Edition, and the afternoon Here & Now show. Check ’em out!

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5 comments Leave a comment  

  • Suzanne R Kilpela November 16, 2018 at 10:15 am

    I cannot agree more John! This is a dereliction of duty by school administrators and their governing board members — especially if any of these schools are recipients of any taxpayer money. The taxpayer doesn’t get a choice; yes, donors do. A purely private run school, okay, maybe that’s fine – but would they if the public schools did? What is the purpose of higher education anyway? Don’t get me wrong, I was an athlete and you learn team and leadership skills for life. The problem becomes schools USING the athletic programs to fund education but we can see problems that are hidden from view (you know what I mean) and for these outrageous salaries and buyout agreements. This is where we are getting student athletes demanding salaries above and beyond their scholarship awards. The NCAA doesn’t necessarily set a good example, either, with their tournaments, bowl schemes and network deals.

  • john w minton jr November 16, 2018 at 11:29 am

    Because the university presidents are spending other peoples money and have no P&L concerns,
    who cares how much coaching costs. The simple solution, one year contracts like Woody Hayes insisted
    on. The market is then in balance. If university presidents are happy paying for mediocrity, I’m sure the coaches are happy to take the money.


  • Dan Streiff November 16, 2018 at 4:36 pm

    One could fault Presidents/or Athletic Directors but they don’t do these kinds of things without the approval of the respective governing Boards. And surprisingly at most public schools they are appointed and could easily be fired by usually Governors or other responsible parties. Just goes to show valuable those boxes are !!!!

  • David Thoits November 17, 2018 at 6:08 am

    completely agree with you john.

    it’s an out of control arms race, just like so much of what’s happening in higher education. and elsewhere….

  • Daniel Schuetz November 18, 2018 at 11:00 pm


    Love your blog!

    How many Ohio referees will Jim Delany hire for “The Game” this Saturday in Columbus?

    Charlie Weiss is a mess!

    Tough, tough, tough!

    Not fair to students and faculty!


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