College Coaching Contracts Meaningless?

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On New Year’s Day, bowl games dominate the airwaves. But some of the drama this year will be on the sidelines. At the Sugar Bowl, the University of Cincinnati Bearcats will play without coach Brian Kelly who recently took the head coaching job at Notre Dame. And Florida coach Urban Meyer says his coaching future is clouded by health problems. The comings and goings of college coaches raise the question about the effectiveness of college coaches’ contracts.

Some University of Cincinnati football fans are furious over the departure of head coach Brian Kelly. Kelly coached the Bearcats to a perfect 12-and-0 season and a spot in this year’s Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. And then he took the head coaching job at the University Of Notre Dame. Kelly’s contract allowed him to take the Notre Dame job in exchange for a monetary payment to the university. The so-called out clause is one of several contractual passages that deal with a coach’s departure. Most big-time college coaching contracts specify how an employer can terminate the coach and how the coach can leave university employment. Miami University athletic director Brad Bates says coaching contracts have become less restrictive over time: “I think that a lot of people are under the misperception that contracts are agreements by both parties of a certain tenure,” Bates says. “And I think that the way these agreements have evolved, they’re almost prenuptial agreements so that both parties are agreeing what the costs would be if one of the parties decided to depart or cancel the agreement.”

Case in point: Brian Kelly will pay Cincinnati $1 million to buy his way out of his contract. Other examples of expensive buyouts include Rich Rodriguez at the University of Michigan. Rodriguez coached seven seasons at West Virginia University. He built the program into a gridiron powerhouse. When the University of Michigan offered Rodriguez a contract two years ago he took it in spite of a $4 million buyout clause in his West Virginia pact. Ohio State’s top coaches aren’t held to quite such extraordinary sums. Football coach Jim Tressel’s contract would require him to pay what the contract calls liquidated damages in the amount of $1 million. Basketball coach Thad Matta would be required to pay $500,000 dollars if he decided to depart before the end of his contract.

Both Tressel’s and Matta’s contracts infer that a certain loyalty is due the University though they also state that the coaches have a right to terminate their employment if certain conditions are met. Ohio State President Gordon Gee acknowledges the tenuous nature of collegiate coaching contracts.

“These contractual arrangements are only as good as they’re made to be broken sometimes,” Gee says. Gee says it benefits the university to recruit dedicated candidates. “I think that what you do is you find very good coaches, get them in, make sure they know how much you value and appreciate them,” Gee says. “Make sure they get more engaged in the life of the institutions so that it’s not just about football or basketball, it’s about life in general. That’s one thing that I love about our coaches both Coach Tressel and Coach Matta, Coach Foster, I could go on down the line. These are folks who are great coaches but they bleed scarlet and gray. I think that notion of institutional loyalty starts with the institution being loyal to them and creating an environment for them to be successful.”

But a coach’s voluntary departure to a more desirable position raises another question. What about a coach’s loyalty to the team; the players that he or she recruited. The coach who takes a position elsewhere can start work immediately; some players who transfer to other institutions must sit out a year. Miami University athletic director Brad Bates says college athletes are put in an unfair situation. “And so when we’re trying to model behavior such as loyalty and commitment and yet the system doesn’t allow certain students in certain sports to immediately transfer and be eligible there’s an inconsistency there relative to coaches being able to move without any residential requirement,” Bates says.

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