College Coaches' Million-Dollar Buyouts: Revealing the Unparalleled Power Shift in Sports' Lucrative Realm

Updated: 451 American Football

Discover the extraordinary world of college coaches' million-dollar buyouts, where the balance of power in sports takes a surprising turn. Explore how these lucrative agreements have reshaped the industry, granting coaches near-uncancellable contracts and reshaping the landscape of college sports.

College Coaches' Million-Dollar Buyouts: Revealing the Unparalleled Power Shift in Sports' Lucrative Realm
Michael Calabrese US Content Manager

Experienced sports journalist, College sports expert and broadcaster, hailing from Pennsylvania

Roughly half of all US employers utilize non-competes in their contracts, according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute in 2019. These companies want to exert a level of control over their employees, preventing them from “sharing confidential information or trade secrets.” But another major benefit for companies is that non-competes limit employee bargaining power and suppress wages. The New York Times estimated that non-competes “suppress American workers' income by roughly 3 percent to 4 percent, or $250 billion to $296 billion.” 

It’s rare for talent to turn the tables on employers, but in college football and college sports in general, that is precisely what has happened for coaches. In the past twenty years, more and more men’s college basketball and college football coaches have successfully negotiated multimillion-dollar buyouts in their contracts. Notre Dame’s Charlie Weis was paid “to go away,” after an unsuccessful tenure in South Bend, Indiana 15 years ago. He was paid just shy of $19 million between 2009, when he was fired, and 2017. While his buyout made waves in 2009, it’s considered buy-out pocket change for universities in 2023. 

So which coaches are virtually “unfireable” today due to their buy-out clauses? Let’s look at what coaches would make if they were fired today. 

Two quick notes: This assumes no one on our list is fired for cause. That could get a college or university off the hook, monetarily speaking. And the second note is that this list comprises coaches from public universities only. Their contracts are publicly available, while private institutions are under no obligation to share contractual information. USC’s Lincoln Riley may well have a buyout of over $90 million based on his current compensation that has been made public, but we do not have access to his buyout stipulation. 

1. Kirby Smart, Georgia, Head Football Coach ($103.1 million)

Bobak Ha'Eri, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

You can’t buy the kind of job security that Kirby Smart has right now in Athens, Georgia. Smart has led the Bulldogs to back-to-back national championships. As a reward, his ten-year $112.5 million deal is fully guaranteed through 2026. His deal drops from 100% guaranteed to 85% on Jan. 1st, 2027, and would be paid out at that level through the end of the contract. Luckily, the UGA athletic department won’t have to entertain the thought of firing their legendary head coach. The same can’t be said for other employers on this list with massive contracts hanging like albatrosses around their necks. 

2. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M, Head Football Coach ($86.7 million)

Ethridgem, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The Aggies take their football seriously, so it is no surprise that they pay their head football coach handsomely. Fisher’s most recent extension agreed to pay him $94.95 million over a ten-year period starting in 2022. It made sense when the Texas A&M Board of Regents voted to extend Fisher. He was coming off a 9-1 season with an Orange Bowl victory. But since then, Fisher and the Aggies are 13-11 with a losing record (6-10) in SEC play. Last fall’s 5-7 mark would have gotten a lot of coaches fired, but not Fisher. His massive buyout ($86m) prevented an ouster at the time. While it has come down by another nine million, it remains astronomical and would be the largest ever paid if A&M gave Fisher the boot following the season. 

3. Mel Tucker, Michigan State, Head Football Coach ($86.6 million)

Tucker’s contract is fully guaranteed, according to documentation obtained by Boardroom.TV. Tucker’s agent, Neil Cornrich, deserves a raise. Despite an 18–14 overall record, which includes two losing seasons in East Lansing, Tucker is entrenched as one of the sport's highest-paid coaches. He has a losing record in the Big Ten since taking over the Michigan State program, but if the school wants to move on from him, they’d have to pay his enormous buyout. Neil Cornrich 1, Michigan State 0. 

4. Brian Kelly, LSU, Head Football Coach ($78.6 Million)

Jeremy Meier, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Brian Kelly is one of the winningest college football coaches of all time. He’s won at every level, from Division II and the Group of Five to Notre Dame and LSU. He’s won 73.2% of his games and made multiple national championship appearances from his time at Grand Valley State. In year one at LSU, he dethroned Alabama in the SEC West and enters this season as a contender for the College Football Playoff. Despite this lofty buyout figure, LSU shouldn’t lose much sleep, given Kelly’s history as a head coach. 

5. James Franklin, Penn State, Head Football Coach ($72.6 Million)

NoahRiffe, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Franklin is the epitome of an excellent, but not great college football coach. He has won 11 games four times since 2016 in Happy Valley, complete with trips to the Rose (2x), Fiesta, and Cotton Bowls. He’s gone 3-1 in those New Year’s Six bowl games and brought waves of elite talent to State College. This season the Nittany Lions may be poised for their best season since 1994, when the program went undefeated and finished second in both the AP and Coaches Polls. Franklin has spurned other suitors in recent years, which means this marriage is solid.

6. Dabo Swinney, Clemson, Head Football Coach ($64 Million)

LambeauLeap80, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Dabo Swinney is one of three active college football coaches with multiple national championships at the FBS level (Saban, Smart). He’s earned his place among the highest-paid coaches in all sports, but what’s interesting about his new deal is that while the school would owe him $64 million if they were to fire him after this season, this contract goes both ways. If Swinney, an Alabama graduate, were to leave Clemson and take over for Nick Saban, he would have to pay Clemson $7.5 million. If he were to bolt for another job in 2023 outside of Alabama, he would owe Clemson $6 million. His new employer would likely cover that fee, but it remains a unique contract quirk. 

7. Ryan Day, Ohio State, Head Football Coach ($52.4 Million)

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Day and Ohio State were on top of the world two and a half years ago. They made the national championship game and had beaten arch-rival Michigan eight straight times. At the time, the buyout being discussed concerning Day was the possibility of him leaving for the NFL. His contract stipulates that if he left for another job he would have to pay Ohio State $5 million in 2023, $4.5 million in 2024, and $4 million in 2025. But after two consecutive losses to Michigan, there is smoke that Day could find himself on the hot seat if the Buckeyes were to lose to That Team Up North (TTUN) again in 2023. While unlikely at this price point, he no longer has unassailable job security.

8. Nick Saban, Alabama, Head Football Coach ($43.2 Million)

Barring any scandal that could get Saban fired for cause, there is no way the University of Alabama would buy out his contract. He’s the undisputed G.O.A.T. of college football coaching. He’s won 10 SEC conference titles, seven national titles, and 87.5% of his games in Tuscaloosa. His new deal pays him $11.7 million per season, making the coaching legend college football's highest-paid coach.

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College Football Coach Data

Coach School Total Pay Conf. School Pay Maximum Bonus Bonuses Paid (2021-22) Buyout End of 2022
Kirby Smart Georgia $10,253,600 SEC $10,253,600 $1,525,000 $850,000 $103,104,167
Jimbo Fisher Texas A&M $9,000,000* SEC $9,000,000 $1,500,000 $50,000 $86,700,000
Mel Tucker Michigan State $9,561,000 Big Ten $9,561,000 $1,550,000 $250,000 $86,687,500
Brian Kelly Louisiana State $9,810,000* SEC $9,810,000 $1,325,000 $78,622,917
James Franklin Penn State $8,500,000* Big Ten $8,500,000 $1,400,000 $200,000 $72,666,667
Dabo Swinney Clemson $10,539,775* ACC $10,508,575 $1,375,000 $150,000 $64,000,000
Ryan Day Ohio State $8,783,336* Big Ten $8,708,336 $800,000 $300,000 $52,416,666
Nick Saban Alabama $10,957,000* SEC $10,707,000 $1,100,000 $825,000 $43,200,000
Kirk Ferentz Iowa $7,000,000* Big Ten $7,000,000 $2,500,000 $1,025,000 $43,000,000
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College Basketball Coach Data

Coach School Total Pay School Pay Bonuses Paid (2021-22) 2023 Buyout
John Calipari Kentucky $8,533,483 $8,500,000 $50,000 $41,343,750
Steve Pikiell Rutgers $3,000,000 $3,000,000 $50,000 $30,750,000
Nate Oats Alabama $3,418,644* $3,418,644 $75,000 $29,812,500
Brad Underwood Illinois $4,600,550* $4,600,000 $303,750 $25,341,667
Rick Barnes Tennessee $5,450,000 $5,450,000 $1,100,000 $23,854,167
Kevin Willard Maryland $3,900,000* $3,900,000 $22,950,000
Mick Cronin UCLA $4,100,000 $4,100,000 $115,000 $20,000,000
Dana Altman Oregon $4,009,500* $4,000,000 $0 $19,595,290
Chris Holtmann Ohio St. $3,500,000* $3,500,000 $40,000 $18,597,500
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Methodology

All of the contractual data was obtained by our veteran researcher, Dan Tracey. Sources included press releases from Universities and Colleges, quotes made on the record by the coaches who signed said contracts, and third-party reporting from sources including Sports Illustrated, ESPN, 247Sports, and Boardroom.TV and South Carolina’s newspaper of record, The State. The article itself was written by Michael Calabrese, an editor at OLBG with over 15 years of sports journalism experience.  

Contributor Information

We are spoiled with our Expert team at OLBG with our Commercial Content manager Luke Bradshaw-Lee being a keen UK-based NFL fan attending London games and burning the midnight oil to catch all the weekend action, He is ably assisted with inside info from, Michael Calabrese [@EastBreese] ; an Action Network correspondent and College sports podcaster in the US with the deepest football knowledge we have ever come across. They combine to create the best American Football content on OLBG which assists our tipsters in making their NFL predictions in the tipping competition.

Michael Calabrese

Michael Calabrese

Us content manager

Michael Calabrese has covered college and professional sports in the US since 2007. He has been featured in print for publications including Fox Sports, The Action Network, Yardbarker, MSN, Saturday Down South, NumberFire, and JetMag.com. He also regularly appears on ESPN Radio, Fox Sports Radio, and VSIN
Luke Bradshaw Lee

Luke Bradshaw Lee

Commercial content manager

🏈 Luke is a more than keen follower of the NFL taking in as many games as he can over the weekend and always trying to attend the London NFL games each year. American football remains his main personal betting focus and he creates and contributes to our NFL Articles

The data in this article is maintained and updated regularly by Andy Powell and James Banting from our Tipster Competition team who settle and manage all the tips in that seection

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