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Bacon: The way colleges handle bad coaches is criminally irresponsible

John U. Bacon

Plenty of pundits have raged about the soaring salaries of college coaches, and rightly so. 

Over the past three decades, the average football coach’s salary increased tenfold to $2.5 million. That’s about 25 times more than the average college professor earns, whose salary has merely kept pace with inflation. Today the highest paid public employee in 39 states is either a basketball coach or a football coach.

That’s nutty enough, but I can make a rational argument that many coaches bring in far more money than they take, and add value to their universities. I can also fall back on the marketplace argument. If a school wants to pay its coach several million dollars a year, I can’t begrudge the coach for taking it. That’s how the marketplace works.

But what I cannot rationalize is why these schools continue to pay millions of dollars to coaches many years after they were fired. Schools created this upside-down market, which handsomely rewards abject failure, when they started including buy-out clauses in their coaches’ contracts. These force schools to pay exorbitant sums just to get rid of losing coaches.  

Those bizarre buy-outs are supposed to come with a catch: if a winning coach leaves for another school before his contract runs out, he has to pay the school he’s leaving a big buy-out. But it turns out the coach usually doesn’t pay anything, because the school he’s going to invariably pays his buyout for him.

This results in an even sillier scenario, where schools end up not only paying millions to their former coach, and millions to their new coach, they have to pay millions more to their new coach’s previous school, so he can leave to come to their school.

As one athletic director said, "I'm paying the old coach, I'm paying the school that's not my school, and I'm paying the new coach. Wow, that's an expensive change."

Charlie Weis is the reigning king of coaching compensation craziness. When he became the head coach at Notre Dame in 2005, he often bragged his coaching genius would give Notre Dame a “decided schematic advantage” over their opponents in every game he coached.

But after five years, it turned out Weis didn’t even bring a “decided schematic advantage” against second-tier teams like Navy, which beat Notre Dame for the first time in 44 tries, then did it again two years later.

After five years, Notre Dame sent Weis on his way with two million dollars a year in buy-out money, making him one of the highest paid Notre Dame employees this year – and he hasn’t been an employee in almost a decade.

Incredibly, in 2012 the University of Kansas decided it was every bit as stupid as Notre Dame, and gave Weis another gigantic contract. Well, surprise surprise, Weis was even worse at Kansas. So bad, they fired him mid-way through his third season, and gave him millions to stop coaching. 

The two schools combined paid Weis more than $40 million for more losses than wins. But what’s even crazier is this: Notre Dame and Kansas will pay Weis more than $24 million in buy-out money, because he stunk!

Paying a great coach big money to win games is one thing. Paying a horrible coach even more money to go away is quite another.

If an NFL team wants to pay three head coaches at once, like the Detroit Lions often do, go right ahead. But when Universities are wasting millions just to get incompetent coaches to leave, while their students are mortgaging their futures to pay tuition, that’s a criminal lack of responsibility.

This insanity has got to stop. And the schools can stop it whenever they like.  

John U. Bacon is the author of ten books, six of them national bestsellers. His latest, Best of Bacon: Select Cuts, is out now. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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