College coaching contracts mean very little

Bob Cohn
| Wednesday, May 5, 2010

When Bob Huggins left his job as Kansas State men's basketball coach after fulfilling one year of a five-year contract to take the same position at West Virginia in 2007, a lot of people were upset, including the school president.

Tim Weiser, the K-State athletic director at the time, offered some words of wisdom, if not consolation.

"I told him the reality of the profession is that we don't own these guys; we only rent them," Weiser said.

As demonstrated most recently by Robert Morris men's basketball coach Mike Rice, giving long-term deals to college football and basketball coaches has little to do with actually keeping them.

Rice is expected to accept the Rutgers head coaching job later this week, less than a month after signing a contract extension through 2016-17 at Robert Morris.

Fans, boosters and the occasional university president who feel personally betrayed often see it differently. But other than occasional exceptions like the messy football divorces between West Virginia and Rich Rodriguez and Tennessee and Lane Kiffin, coaches generally receive little or no resistance from their schools when they leave for higher-paying and supposedly more prestigious jobs.

Despite buyout clauses — often paid by the coach's new employer — contracts hold the flimsiest of ties. Except for the salary numbers, they might as well be written in invisible ink.

"It's just the norm," Connecticut sports lawyer Dan Fitzgerald said. "I call it virtual free agency. You have the contract, but the contract doesn't mean anything."

It works the other way around, too.

Coaches are routinely dumped before their contracts expire for the unpardonable sin of not winning enough. Even though they still get paid, it's usually tougher for the deposed coaches than the jilted school.

Weiser said his good friend, the retired coach Eddie Fogler, would frequently remind him of that.

"If you decide to fire me as coach," Weiser said, quoting Fogler, "your institution will find the next guy and be just fine. But it's hard for me to look like I'm not tainted or somehow damaged."

Yet the rationale is the same in both cases: Ya gotta do what ya gotta do.

This is especially true if a coach is young, has a family and, even better, works at the small college or mid-major level — like Rice, who now gets to play with the big kids.

Even while announcing Rice's extension, the Robert Morris president was endorsing him for a better job.

"If I'm coaching, I want to be in a scenario just like Mike," said ESPN analyst Dick Vitale, a former high school, college and NBA coach. "You get a long-term deal, and you're in good shape. Then comes a golden opportunity. You get to coach in the Big East. The school can't blame him for that."

Programs like Robert Morris that compete in the Northeast Conference and leagues of similar ilk are stepping stones, a generally accepted reality. School officials know that the more recognition and success a coach brings, the more likely they are to lose the coach.

Less tolerant are the bigger schools.

Huge buyout clauses — now called "liquidated damages" — sometimes make it prohibitive for a coach to leave. But that didn't stop Rodriguez, the football coach who liquidated himself to Michigan at the expense of $4 million.

West Virginia, shocked and stung by the move, promptly sued to collect. The lawsuit dragged both parties through the mud until they eventually settled, with Rodriguez paying $1.5 million and Michigan the rest.

West Virginia, of course, had no qualms about extricating Huggins from his long-term deal with Kansas State. It was really OK, the reasoning went, because Huggins is a native and a distinguished alum. This made the K-State folks feel only slightly better.

"It was a five-year contract, and I had every reason to believe Bob was gonna stay five years," said Weiser, now the deputy Big 12 commissioner. "I sincerely believed he was gonna do that."

Business, however, is business. Or, as Vitale put it: "It's the American way of life to better yourself."

Weiser said Huggins had a relatively modest six-figure buyout clause. He said he doesn't like the exorbitant ones because both parties lose out.

Said Weiser: "If you've got a coach that doesn't want to be at your university ... do you want to have a contract so restrictive it essentially forces an employee to be someplace he doesn't want to be?"

K-State has survived nicely without Huggins. His former assistant, Frank Martin, took over and led the Wildcats to the Elite Eight this season.

Still, it was a big blow at the time.

"Gee whiz, the fans got excited," Weiser said. "Then, the bottom fell out."

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