College Football Buyouts for Potential Hot Seat Coaches

American football coach Jim Harbaugh wearing a black mask, sunglasses and a Michigan Wolverines football team cap
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On Dec. 28, 2014, two days prior to his introduction as Michigan head coach, Jim Harbaugh agreed to a seven-year contract with his alma mater. Six years later, Harbaugh has the same number of Big Ten Championships and wins over Ohio State as contract extensions.

“There are no turnarounds at Michigan. This is greatness,” Harbaugh declared at the press conference, which came one month after the Wolverines’ five-win season, their sixth season with eight or fewer wins in the last seven years. The former Wolverines’ quarterback was half right; seventeen years removed from their last national championship, the once-great program needed a turnaround. And he delivered immediately with a 10-win season, after which he was rewarded with a raise in the form of annual life insurance loans of $2 million. When combined with his annual salary of $500,000, annual “additional compensation” of $4.5 million, and future 10-percent raises after years three (after the 2017 season) and five of the deal (after the 2019 season), Harbaugh was scheduled to make $8.05 million in 2020.

In June, Harbaugh accepted a 10-percent pay cut as the athletics department grappled with a projected $26.1-million deficit, lowering his 2020 salary to a shade above $7 million. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the two sides were working on a contract extension, Harbaugh said in July. That was before Michigan lost three straight games en route to a 1-3 start, their worst five-game start since 1967. Athletics director Warde Manuel hasn’t publicly commented on Harbaugh’s future since the season began but the fifth-year AD has said repeatedly he wants his former Michigan teammate to remain in Ann Arbor until Harbaugh retires.

If Manuel’s opinion has changed, it wouldn’t be a eight-figure decision to fire Harbaugh after this season. While Harbaugh’s base salary and additional compensation is fully guaranteed, the $2-million insurance policy isn’t, leaving a $6.05-million buyout if fired after the season. (Harbaugh’s sixth year runs through Jan. 10, 2021, therefore any buyout amount would be prorated to his dismissal date.)

Harbaugh has one of the lowest known buyouts among potential hot seat coaches in college football. Here are more buyout breakdowns:

Tom Herman

Tom Herman signed a five-year, $29-million contract upon arriving at Texas in late 2016 and agreed to a two-year extension after a 10-win 2018 season, the Longhorns’ first 10-win season since 2009. The extension essentially reset the original contract, adding $13.25 in fully guaranteed money for 2022 and 2023.

If fired after a 2020 season in which Texas will fail to play in the Big 12 Championship for the third time in his four seasons, Herman is owed about $15 million.

Justin Fuente

Justin Fuente is better at signing contracts than competing for ACC Championships. In his first 25 months at Virginia Tech, Fuente signed three contracts, including an extension after his first season (2016) and second season (2017) as his name was floated as a potential candidate at LSU, Florida State, and elsewhere.

The post-2017 extension was a seven-year deal worth $30.5 million that runs from 2018-2024 and started an annual base salary of $4 million in 2018 and incrementally increased to $5 million by 2014. If fired after a 2020 season in which the Hokies won’t the Coastal Division again, Fuente is owed a buyout of $12.5 million. 

Clay Helton

For years, Clay Helton’s buyout details long evaded college football reporters as USC, a private institution, didn’t release contract information for their head coach. Shortly after last season, Helton’s fourth full season as head coach after coaching nine games as interim coach in 2015, multiple reports said Helton’s buyout would’ve been around $20 million if fired after last season.

USC didn’t fire Helton and new athletics director Mike Bohn has given no indication Helton is on shaky ground despite just 13 total wins from 2018-19.

Kevin Sumlin

College football fans have been Googling “Kevin Sumlin’s buyout” since his first game as Arizona head coach, an ugly loss to BYU. Two years later, everyone is still watching Sumlin’s buyout as the former Texas A&M coach plods through his third season in Tucson and enters their Week 13 game against UCLA as a heavy underdog in college football odds.

Sumlin signed a five-year, $14.5-million deal in January 2018 that came with an initial eight-figure buyout for the first two years. If fired after either the 2018 or 2019 seasons, Sumlin was due $10 million. Because he survived to 2020, the buyout is now $5 million if fired after this season. It drops to $3 million and $1 million after 2021 and 2022, respectively. 

Derek Mason

Like Clay Helton, Derek Mason’s buyout details are unknown because Vanderbilt hasn’t released contract details over Mason’s seven years in Nashville. After signing an extension in early 2019, Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde reported Mason’s annual salary is $3.4 million but the contract length and buyout remain unknown.

Steve Campbell

“It never crossed my mind,” South Alabama athletics director Joel Erdmann told AL.com last December when asked if he considered firing head coach Steve Campbell after a 2-10 season, Campbell’s second as head coach.

If a change is crossing Erdmann’s mind this season, it’ll cost him $348,000 if Campbell is fired by Dec. 1. Campbell is earning just over $617,000 in the third year of a four-year deal.

Butch Davis

Two years ago, Butch Davis was winning at FIU, something his three predecessors didn’t do. Now, he’s losing at FIU, something his three predecessors did a lot. And the former Miami (FL) and North Carolina head coach might be on the hot seat.

Just two years after delivering the Panthers’ first-ever nine-win season and 17 wins in two years, by far the most over a two-year period in program history, Davis is crawling through his fourth season after a disappointing six-win 2019. If fired after this season, Davis is owed $1.08 million.

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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor, a college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else. He has written for Sports Illustrated, HERO Sports, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter: @adoughty88 

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