Just before Halloween 2020, LSU athletics cried poor. At the top of its lungs.
The Tigers’ athletic department announced that it was on track to lose $80 million because of the COVID-19 pandemic and as a result was requiring staffers making more than $80,000 per year to take a 5% pay cut in 2021. That group included then-football coach Ed Orgeron.
Bonuses were shelved. At least eight employees were laid off.
Just after Thanksgiving 2021, LSU athletics handed Brian Kelly a 10-year contract worth around $100 million in total compensation — making Kelly, who bolted 11-1 Notre Dame to join the 6-6 Tigers this past week, the first football coach at a public university to crack the $100 million plateau.
So much for poverty. How else can you explain LSU’s about-face of 180 degrees and $180 million over a span of roughly 13 months?
“You can’t,” former Big 12 and Big Eight commissioner Chuck Neinas, a college athletics consultant based in Boulder, chuckled ruefully.
“You can’t. I mean, a year ago, we were putting people on the sideline, they reduced staff … it’s out of control.”
In the past two weeks, some of the biggest programs in college football have put COVID-19 austerity in their rear-view mirrors while sticking cold, hard cash on the dashboard.
Mel Tucker — remember him? — just parlayed a 10-2 season at Michigan State this fall into a 10-year contract extension worth $95 million, all of which is guaranteed unless Tucker, who coached the CU Buffs for 14 memorable months, is fired for cause.
Lincoln Riley left 10-2 Oklahoma for USC as part of a deal that’s rumored to be in the Kelly ballpark, although the Trojans, as a private institution, have neither released nor confirmed any details. The university is reportedly paying former football coach Clay Helton more than $10 million as part of his buyout, as well as the $4.5 million required to Oklahoma to terminate Riley’s contract with the Sooners prematurely.
“Obviously, the market is the market,” USC athletic director Mike Bohn told The Denver Post last week. “We all have a real understanding for what the market is. For us, it was about the right fit for our community, for our recruiting base, for our conference, for our part of the country — it was more about the incredible person and coach and what Lincoln Riley is about, more than anything.”
In the spring of 2020, Bohn took an undisclosed pay cut. The Boulder native, who ran CU’s athletic department a decade earlier, combined with Helton and men’s basketball coach Andy Enfield to give a million dollars back to the university to help defray revenue losses tied to the coronavirus pandemic.
When asked about what changed the Trojans’ landscape over 18 months, Bohn replied:
“I think this is a unique time because of last season, where we played an abbreviated season, and a lot of things were kind of in flux because of COVID. And I think that kind of backed up some of the moves (that justified) some earlier decisions similar to what we experienced here. But it’s a unique time, one that I really hope college football doesn’t have to experience ever again. Or, for that matter, the entire country.”
“Football is king”
Bohn isn’t the only one on the hook for navigating a large buyout with one hand while navigating a search with the other. LSU reportedly gave Orgeron $16.9 million to go away. Washington owes fired football coach Jimmy Lake $9.9 million. Florida’s buyout of former coach Dan Mullen was $12 million.
And CSU athletic director Joe Parker, whose budget is a fraction of his Power 5 peers, is slated to pay ex-Rams coach Steve Addazio, who was fired this past Thursday after posting a 4-12 record, $3 million through Dec. 31, 2024, pending future earnings. CSU became the 24th FBS program to change head football coaches over the past six months.
“It’s certainly a move by athletic directors to secure a place at the table in a world that they think is clearly going to be about ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’” former CU football coach and current analyst Rick Neuheisel told The Post.
“It worries me as to how many seats are going to be at the table because college football is better when it’s a national sport regionalized by great intrigue. The four-team playoff has been terrible for the sport, but it was the only way to get (university) presidents to agree to any playoff.”
The likely expansion of the College Football Playoff, and the enormous money tied to participating in the event, has athletic directors throwing money around as if COVID never happened. Television dollars are only expected to keep rising over the next decade for the “haves.”
Expect competition to get more cutthroat, too.
“The next couple of years, the next three or four years, for CU, I think, are critical,” current Buffs radio analyst and former CU coach Gary Barnett noted. “I think it’s critical for a lot of teams, not just CU.
“(The Buffs) are part of the (‘haves’) now, and I think they’ve got to figure out how to stay in that particular arena. Because down the road, to me, it just looks like there are going to be a lot less (‘haves’) than there are now.”
Another new wrinkle for 2021? The number of FBS coaches who were let go before the end of the season (12) doubled that of 2018 (six). Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, said that the renewed aggression by athletic directors has been fueled not just by a desire to remain in the CFP conversation, but because of the confluence of the early national signing period (which starts Dec. 15 this year), Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) legislation and the transfer portal.
“I’ve had one coach who called me who has a booster and says this booster is offering NIL to all those young prep prospects in high school,” Berry told The Post. “And this coach is frustrated, he’s not a part of the (booster’s) decision-making process.
“He said this booster is trying to buy the guys that he wants, and the football coach is suggesting that these are not guys who can play at this level, or in his system. And his athletic director has told him, ‘Don’t say anything,’ because they need his money. It reminds me of the ‘70s, when boosters were very active in college football programs, where maybe sometimes the best players weren’t playing because this booster was funding this player.”
The pandemic had a short-term effect on college football — just not the effect, or reforms, that some had projected in the spring of 2020. Instead of scaling back on spending, athletic directors at the highest levels of the sport saw what their budgets looked like when shrunk and responded by doubling down.
“What the pandemic did is it gave people more appreciation as to how valuable football is,” said Bryan Harlan, a Chicago-based agent who’s represented a number of collegiate and professional coaches and executives. “It turned out to where athletic directors said, ‘Oh my (gosh), football is everything. You never say no to football.’
“Because they saw what those empty stadiums did to their entire budget. The missing games, having no one in the stadium, they saw what it did to the whole university. And they said, ‘Hey, no matter what, football is king.’”
“We knew the money was there”
If you want to build an empire, best pony up.
When reporters questioned Parker as to how the Rams could afford to pay off Addazio so quickly after a 2020 season in which the program played only one home game, with no spectators, the administrator countered that his pandemic losses had already been contained and accounted for in the department’s 2020-21 budget.
Athletic departments crying poverty were disingenuous, said David Ridpath, an Ohio University professor, CSU alum and member of the Drake Group, an organization dedicated to college sports reform. “To be completely blunt, it was all (baloney)” said Ridpath. “We know the money was there (in 2020). You were pleading poverty on one hand, but you’re willing to spend money on the other. That hasn’t changed, pandemic or not.
“There’s always going to be that booster, although only some schools can actually (spend like) this. If someone’s willing to open up the checkbook, this will always happen, until we have some outside legal control.
“It is really sad that we have to go to Congress, of all places, to try and fix college sports. That it’s one of the few bi-partisan issues that they can agree on, that college sports and the NCAA need fixing. Because they are completely incapable of fixing themselves.”
While the dollar values are going through the roof, Neinas said, the principles haven’t changed over the last four decades. Like Harlan said, football is king. And some universities — and the academics who run them — missed football more than others.
If the convergence of events over the last week brought Berry back to the 1970s, it took Neinas back to the mid-1980s. To the resurgence of CU football under then-coach Bill McCartney and to McCartney’s apex, the 1990 national championship.
“Bill Marolt (the Buffs’ AD) and McCartney went to new university president Gordon Gee in 1985,” Neinas recalled, “and Gee said, ‘What do you need?’ and Gee went into a (university) discretionary fund, which became more money for recruiting, facilities infrastructure.
“When they celebrated the 1990 national title, I remember Marolt saying, ‘Our MVP is Gordon Gee.’”
Top coaches’ salaries for 2022
1. Lincoln Riley, USC — $10 million*
2. Nick Saban, Alabama — $9.75 million
2. Brian Kelly, LSU — $9.5 million
4. Mel Tucker, Michigan State — $9.5 million
5. David Shaw, Stanford — $8.92 million
* = estimated and unconfirmed by the university
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