Brady Hoke couldn’t seem to catch a break. Four times in four years in four different states, his employer had told him to pack up and leave.
►In December 2014, he was fired as head football coach at Michigan, where his employment contract still guaranteed him $3 million in combined monthly payments through December 2016.
►Then he got fired after one season as defensive coordinator at Oregon, which owed him about $600,000 for the final two years left on that contract.
►Next came Tennessee, where he got fired with the rest of the staff and was owed about $580,000 in guaranteed pay.
►And then last December, the NFL’s Carolina Panthers fired him as an assistant coach, pushing him back to the last coaching stop he left voluntarily — San Diego State, a school he led to a bowl game as head coach in 2010 but where he now ranks as the seventh-highest paid assistant this season at $164,500.
“Your supervisor will be Rocky Long, Head Coach, Football,” Hoke’s new employment contract stated in March – a reminder that he is now subordinate to the same coach he once supervised at the same school nine years ago. “Rocky will meet with you to outline performance expectations and goals within the first month of your appointment.”
Such is the cycle of life sometimes in this volatile profession, particularly for assistant coaches who often take the fall for, or with, the head coaches who supervise them. But the financial safety net that comes with these career crashes has gotten drastically stronger for assistant coaches in recent years, putting schools on the hook for increasingly more expensive terminations, according to data from USA TODAY Sports’ annual review of assistant coaches’ compensation.
With more money coursing through the system than ever – and with compensation for their players capped by NCAA rules – head coaches aren’t the only ones who have gained increased leverage in contract negotiations. Assistant coaches have, too, and are now getting bigger-than-ever paychecks with longer contract terms and more guaranteed money – financial security that was much rarer for them just 10 to 15 years ago, when many were just at-will employees who could be fired at any time but owed almost nothing.
In 2015, there were at least 29 assistant coaches making at least $700,000. In 2017, there were 46. And now there are 72, led again by Louisiana State defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who makes $2.5 million annually. Aranda, 43, is guaranteed this level of pay until the end of his contract in 2021 even if he were fired for poor results on the field before then.
“Fifteen years ago for sure, with the majority of assistant coaches, it was a handshake deal,” said sports attorney Bob Lattinville, who assists USA TODAY Sports with its annual coaching pay review and is a member of the firm Spencer Fane LLP. “Now that handshake has given way to 20-page employment agreements.”
The fallout has been on full display again this month during firing season.
‘Living the buyout life’ at Ole Miss
Mississippi made a big investment late last year when it hired two former head coaches as assistant coaches under Matt Luke. The Rebels brought in former Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre as defensive coordinator, making him the nation’s eighth highest-paid public-school assistant at $1.5 million annually, tied with three others. They also hired former Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez as offensive coordinator at $900,000.
Both already had learned that getting fired wasn’t a bad way to make a living in this market. Colorado had agreed to pay $7.2 million to MacIntyre to buy out the three years left on his contract after firing him last year. Likewise, Arizona paid $6.3 million to buy out Rodriguez’s contract after his firing in early 2018.
Upon his introduction at Ole Miss in January, Rodriguez even jokingly said that Luke was getting a reputation for hiring “coaches living the buyout life.”
And now that buyout life might continue after only one season for them as Luke’s assistants. Ole Miss fired Luke this month after he posted a 15-21 record in three years, putting the jobs of his assistants in limbo.
Though Luke’s buyout terms aren’t public because most of his pay comes through a private non-profit, his assistants are paid by the university. Ole Miss owes Rodriguez $900,000 annually through Jan. 31, 2022, even if he’s not retained by Lane Kiffin, who was introduced as the new head coach at Ole Miss on Monday. Ole Miss also owes MacIntyre $1.5 million per year through Jan. 31, 2022.
“We’ll interview the guys that are here and potentially keep some of them, too,” Kiffin said Monday about his assistant coaches.
If Kiffin retains MacIntyre, it could save the university from paying three current or former Rebel defensive coordinators at the same time: any new defensive coordinator, MacIntyre and Wesley McGriff, who was fired last year. After his firing, McGriff was owed more than $2.3 million by Ole Miss in payments through Jan. 31, 2021, minus any pay he received from subsequent employment, according to his contract. He is scheduled to make $325,000 this season as an assistant at Auburn.
Such golden parachutes are products of a cyclical paradox of sorts. With coaches getting paid increasingly more money, schools have shown a quick trigger finger at times to cut their financial losses when those coaches don’t win enough games as quickly as expected. That in turn has led to demands from coaches and their agents for better contract security, which increases the cost of firing them.
And then the market takes over, with schools continually upping the ante to keep up with the competition.
“A head coach used to be able to count on four or five years in a new job – a chance to have at least a full recruiting class cycle through,” attorneys Russ Campbell and Patrick Strong said in a statement to USA TODAY Sports. Their firm, Balch Sports, negotiates coaches’ contracts and serves clientele that has included Aranda and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, the nation’s highest paid public-school head coach this year ($9.3 million).
The relative stability back then created more “market certainty” by comparison, they said. “Now, head coaches are being fired less than two years into a new job and being pressured to make staff changes even sooner. Assistant coaches aren’t going to move their wife and kids, changing their schools, friends, neighborhood, house, etc., unless there is financial certainty.”
Such security sometimes even helps them make soft landings in lesser roles they wouldn’t have considered, or didn’t exist, just a few years earlier.
The case of Bob Diaco
In 2012, Bob Diaco was flying high as the 39-year-old defensive coordinator of Notre Dame, earning $672,824, according to a school tax filing. After finishing the regular season 12-0, he won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach, boosting his stock as a head coaching candidate. Connecticut hired him as head coach a year later but fired him three years after that, in late 2016, when he had rung up a cumulative record of 11-26.
To buy out the remainder of his contract, UConn paid him about $3.4 million.
He then got hired as defensive coordinator at Nebraska in 2017 but got sacked in another staff-wide firing after a 4-8 season.
This time, he was owed more than $1 million for the final 14 months on his contract, which contained a key stipulation about how much Nebraska would actually end up paying him for it. The contract stated he had a “duty to mitigate” what Nebraska still owed him by seeking a new job and then using the pay from his new job to offset the $1 million owed.
This “duty to mitigate” is common in coaching contracts, subject to negotiation before those contracts are signed. According to this duty, if a fired coach is owed $1 million for the final year on his contract and then finds a new employer that same year that pays him $750,000, the firing school will only owe the $250,000 difference instead of the full amount. The goal is to help the firing school decrease its buyout cost, while still making the fired coach financially whole for the full $1 million.
But it doesn’t always work so well for schools, simply because recently fired coaches aren’t in high demand for jobs that pay nearly as much.
Diaco ended up getting a job last year that paid him just $48,000 annually at Oklahoma as an off-the-field, non-coaching analyst – a relatively low-paying position that was largely unheard of 10 years ago but since has spread nationally, partly to help meet a certain market demand.
Part of that demand comes from fired coaches “who have large amounts of money (owed) on their contracts and are looking for a landing spot” to meet their duty to mitigate, said Dennis Cordell, founder of Coaches Inc., a firm that represents pro and college coaches in contract matters. “I would say that’s a big factor.”
Similar analyst positions have proliferated over the last decade, most notably at Alabama, which started with three of these support staff jobs in 2010. Alabama now is paying 12 analysts an average of about $50,000 each, in addition to an assistant coaching staff that is limited to 10 per school by NCAA rules.
At Oklahoma, Diaco’s pay as an analyst barely offset what Nebraska owed him, compelling Nebraska to pay him virtually all of the $1 million-plus he was owed.
In the end, Diaco’s hiring and firing turned into a bust for Nebraska, but not one that will really dent its bank account. As a member of the Big Ten Conference, Nebraska recently received about $54 million in annual league revenue sharing alone – money that largely comes from television and media deals that drastically boosted athletics department revenues over the last decade.
Diaco, 46, since moved on to Louisiana Tech, part of the lower-revenue rung of major college football. He’s an at-will employee there and makes $185,000 as the highest-paid assistant for the Bulldogs (9-3).
The case of Hoke
Hoke and other coaches featured in this story either declined comment or didn’t respond to requests for comment from USA TODAY Sports.
From their standpoint, downward career turns aren’t fun topics to discuss. But from the standpoint of the schools who hire them when their stock is low, fired coaches can look like bargains on the discount coaching rack. In Hoke’s case, he coached the defensive linemen for an Aztecs team (9-3) that ranks fourth nationally in fewest points allowed per game (12.8).
In a final accounting, Hoke’s most recent college employers also didn’t need to pay him much in severance because he kept finding jobs to mitigate and offset what those employers still owed him, as required by his contracts.
After his firing from Michigan, he took a season off from coaching in 2015 and didn’t join Oregon until 2016, keeping Michigan on the hook for much of the $3 million it owed him through the end of that year, according to his contract. But after his firing at Oregon, the Ducks only paid him a severance of $43,985, with pay from his subsequent employment offsetting the rest of what was owed to him from his Oregon contract.
Likewise, at Tennessee, he offset the money owed to him after his firing there by getting a job with the Panthers, whose contract terms with him aren’t publicly available. Tennessee ended up paying Hoke only $73,414 in severance, according to the university.
Hoke’s tumultuous run still shows he had the benefit of guarantees that made him whole financially for his remaining contract terms even if the firing schools didn’t end up stuck with the bill.
“Without the salary guarantees to coaches, a two-year deal is not a two-year deal,” Campbell and Strong said.
Cordell remembers the American Football Coaches Association pushing for assistant coaching contracts that at least guaranteed pay from June to June instead of on an at-will basis.
That way, “if a coach did get fired at the end of the season, he would be able to get paid for another six months or so,” Cordell said. With at-will assistant coaches, Cordell said a firing meant “Boom, you’re out, and your paycheck stops in 15 days.”
In some places, this change is even more recent. In 2015, Texas Tech said it had all but one assistant working on an at-will basis. This year under new head coach Matt Wells, three of his assistants have three-year deals and the rest of his staff is covered for at least two seasons.
Agents who represent coaches in contract negotiations “now have the upper hand in this system,” said former Maryland Congressman Tom McMillen, now president of the LEAD1 Association, which represents athletics directors in major college football.
He said that’s because schools are under more financial pressure to make splashy hires that reignite the passion of their fan bases after parting ways with their previous staffs.
Not so long ago, Cordell said assistant coaches rarely even had agents to negotiate their contracts. Now many of them do and are using them to get increasingly lucrative and complex contracts from schools that find it necessary to compete for top talent.
“The way the college world works, whether it’s facilities or coaching contracts, (it’s about) what everyone else has done,” Cordell said. “Everybody else needs to catch up to stay in the race.”
Contributing: Blake Toppmeyer, Knoxville News Sentinel