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What buyout of Texas Longhorns’ Tom Herman tells us about college athletics

Even during a pandemic, which has resulted in lost revenue at college athletic departments from coast to coast, schools are still writing huge checks to sever relationships with coaches

Texas head coach Tom Herman during the second half of the Alamo Bowl football game against Colorado , Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020, in San Antonio.
Eric Gay, Associated Press

The next time you hear university athletic directors whining about the cost of athletics, the cries for athlete compensation and the losses incurred from a year of COVID-19, remember this: Texas is going to pay a total of about $24 million to head football coach Tom Herman ($15.4 million for the coach himself) and his staff to go away. That’s what it is costing the school to fire the coaches and buy out the remainder of the coaches’ contracts.

Texas immediately hired Herman’s replacement — Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, the former BYU quarterback great who resurrected his coaching career after he was fired as head coach at USC in 2015. Texas will pay him, what, $4-$6 million per year, also guaranteed?

Buyouts are the norm in big-time college sports. Earlier in 2020, South Carolina fired head coach Will Muschamp, costing the school a $15.5 million buyout (Muschamp also received a $6 million buyout six years earlier when Florida fired him). Auburn fired head coach Gus Malzahn, leaving the school on the hook for a buyout of $21.5 million. Arizona fired head coach Kevin Sumlin and will pay a $7.3 million buyout. Just two years ago Arizona fired Rich Rodriguez with a buyout worth $6.3 million.

In 2019, Arkansas’ firing of Chad Morris cost the school a $10 million buyout — two years after the school agreed to pay a reported $15 million buyout to his fired predecessor, Bret Bielema. That same year Florida State fired coach Willie Taggart, which meant a buyout of $18 million — but that wasn’t all. According to USA Today, Florida State was also paying a $3 million buyout to Oregon to hire him away from that school, as well as another $1.3 million that Oregon still owed South Florida when the Ducks hired him away from UCF in 2016. Did you follow all that?

The firing of Herman alone will cost $15 million to cover the remaining three years on his contract. As noted by Sports Illustrated, the firing comes just months after Texas laid off 35 athletic department employees and temporarily cut the pay of 300 employees.

Likewise, the costly firing of Sumlin came just a few weeks after Arizona announced that the school had incurred $45 million in lost revenue and had to cut jobs because of the pandemic.

Texas had had three straight losing seasons when it hired Herman, who then produced four winning seasons in four seasons (a 32-18 record). He is the third coach fired by the Longhorns in seven years. Following the 2013 season, they fired Mack Brown after 16 years as head coach. His won-loss record during the last five seasons, in order: 12-1, 13-1, 5-7, 8-5, 9-4, 8-5. During the last decade he was at Texas his teams won a national championship and a runner-up trophy. And they paid him $2.75 million to leave.

All of the above attests to the obscene wealth of college football programs. Texas is by far the wealthiest, with gross annual revenues of $156 million, one of six programs pulling in more than $100 million, and one of 20 programs above $70 million. There are at least 26 head coaches earning more than $4 million per year in actual school pay, according to USA Today, headed by Nick Saban’s $9 million.

The hypocrisy of college athletics has been famously shameless for decades. At the same time schools are offering huge guaranteed coaching contracts and paying millions of dollars in buyouts they are denying athletes access to a free market to secure whatever compensation they can, using student fees to “subsidize” athletic programs and cutting the minor sports.

It certainly should weaken the NCAA’s laissez-faire stance when it faces a new round of court battles. Last month the Supreme Court agreed to hear an antitrust case that challenges the NCAA rules that limit compensation to athletes.

Even at a time when universities have supposedly been forced to cut expenses because of the challenges of the pandemic, it’s been business as usual, raking in millions and spending millions, excessively and extravagantly.