Skip to main content
Publish date:

Bill Simmons examines dead money given to college coaches. We analyze.

As any longtime reader of Bill Simmons knows, the man they once called The Sports Guy doesn't do college football. In fact, he once wrote that someone like himself, a Holy Cross graduate, rooting for a big-time college football program would be akin to sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner with a family that was not his own. It's just not his thing, and that's fine. Some of us get college football, and others settle for lesser forms of sporting entertainment.

Given his lack of familiarity with the sport, my eyebrows raised when I saw Simmons's new weekly HBO show Any Given Wednesday devoted a segment to dead money doled out to fired college football coaches. This isn't water cooler talk about who's going to win the Heisman or who's getting snubbed from the College Football Playoff, this was serious, inside baseball-type stuff from a guy who doesn't even follow the sport.

Beyond the comedy of Simmons pretending to know who Ryan Cubit is, I thought he raised some points worth discussing. Take a look.

First of all, there's a perception issue everyone in college sports needs to acknowledge. For as long as the work force takes home zero in salary while the likes of Les Miles gets paid close to $13 million to sit on his keister, there's going to be a scab upon which the mainstream media to pick. That's just a fact.

Of course, the issue here is never that simple, which is something I would never expect Simmons to realize: There are two types of buyouts: the good ones and the bad ones.

An example of a bad buyout -- the only example needed, really -- is Charlie Weis's deal at Notre Dame. That was a horrible contract at the time that warrants nor deserves any defending. The Irish handed Weis a 10-year extension with no offset after just seven games in South Bend -- and the game that led to the extension was a Notre Dame loss. No one was calling to hire Charlie Weis is November of 2005, and certainly not anyone that required Notre Dame to answer with a 10-year deal that, and this is crucial, required no offset.

And this leads us to a good example of a coaching contract, one that inspired the Simmons piece in the first place: Les Miles. While it's true that the letter of the law says Miles is due $12.9 million, if it's up to Miles, LSU will never pay him another penny again after this year. The Hat wants to coach again, and if he does the money LSU owes is reduced by the salary he takes from his new employer. If a suitable option to coach doesn't present itself, should Miles accept work at ESPN or in any other capacity, whatever compensation he earns will be subtracted, dollar for dollar, from what LSU owes him.

And this leads us to our third bullet Simmons doesn't touch: the market. College football doesn't exist in a vacuum, and any scenario that calls for colleges placing an artificial cap on coaches' contracts automatically sees the game's best and brightest leaving for the NFL. Simmons's 4-year term limit idea might sound reasonable to some in a YouTube clip but it would be detrimental to the universities & players in reality.

Beyond that, though, there's a reason university presidents, boards of directors and athletics directors pay what they do for coaches because when a hire hits, it hits big.

Here's former Michigan State athletics director Merritt Norvell: "For a place like Michigan State, the head football coach and the football team is the biggest element that a university has in terms of maintaining relationships with its constituents, whether they are in East Lansing or Hong Kong. If you’re an alum thinking about giving money, if what you hear about the football team is positive, you’ll write a check."

Here's outgoing Alabama chancellor Dr. Robert Witt in 2013: "Nick Saban’s the best financial investment this university has ever made. We have made an investment that’s been returned many fold." Alabama's campus has completely transformed since Saban's 2007 arrival, with more than 60 new buildings puncturing the Tuscaloosa sky. The New York Timesexplains the Saban impact here:

Alabama’s football pre-eminence on television and in the postseason, along with an aggressive plan to extend the university reach beyond the state, has helped attract a more academically-minded student body in the past decade from all over the country and served as the catalyst for more than $1.7 billion in fund-raising, according to those who have engineered the explosive growth.

In the last decade, enrollment has increased by more than 55 percent, to a record 37,100 students this fall, and more than half of the students now are from out of state, another seismic shift. The acceptance rate in the last decade fell to 54 percent, from 72 percent. This year, 2,261 freshmen are enrolled in its Honors College, two and half times the number 10 years ago. Its 174 National Merit and National Achievement finalists rank Alabama among the top five public universities.

“Just like Nick Saban has recruited five-star athletes, the university is going after the best and brightest students,” said Calvin Brown, Alabama’s director of alumni affairs. “We understand that there are young people out there who first view us, or any other institution, through the window of athletics.”

Obviously, there are many more Alabamas and universities that want to become the next Alabama than there are Nick Sabans. Thus, the push-pull of supply-and-demand economics that leads to underperforming coaches getting paid millions to go away.

While it's a fact that paying adults millions to not work while the kids are compensated in tuition, housing, books, training, food, gear and other forms of currency that put relatively little actual currency in their pockets will always be a bad look for college sports, it's also a fact that college presidents will view football coaches as the fastest and most cost-efficient way to jump start their entire university's image.

I wouldn't expect The Sports Guy to recognize that dynamic, but I salute him for trying.