College Coaching Contracts Not Written on Stone Tablets

The topic of coaching contracts in college football has remained hot since the annual Connecticut ritual in which Randy Edsall is mentioned as a candidate for a number of other jobs, but ultimately stays at UConn.   Edsall’s candidacy nevertheless demonstrates that despite the existence of a contract, coaches are free agents every year, never restricted from taking advantage of a more lucrative offer.  (See my post Edsall to Notre Dame Talk Shows All Coaches are Free Agents).

Contracts are basically ‘prenups'”

Elliot Almond of the San Jose Mercury Press wrote an interesting piece on coaching contracts in light of Stanford Coach Jim Harbaugh’s contract extension.  Harbaugh is regarded as a hot commodity in college football and NFL circles.  At a press conference to announce the extension, Harbaugh wouldn’t even commit to coaching the Cardinal next season:

“Nobody has promised that,” said Harbaugh, 45. “I’m not going to write anything in blood on a stone tablet.”

In that article, Almond quotes Cal Athletic Director Sandy Barbour:

“Contracts are basically ‘prenups’ …”If either party decides they no longer want to be part of the relationship, what are the exit fees?”

It is not easy to reconcile this virtual free agency system with the principles of amateurism and the student-athletes that the NCAA is supposed to protect.  After all, when Notre Dame hired Brian Kelly away from Cincinnati, the undefeated Bearcats were left without a coach for the most important game of their careers, the Sugar Bowl against Florida.  Bearcats receiver Marty Gilyard summed it up best as he said that college football is more about money and big coaching contracts.  Can you disagree with him? 

According to Almond, one former Stanford AD agrees with Gilyard:

Ted Leland, a Stanford athletic director for 14 years, said coaching contracts are symptomatic of college sports’ move away from the high-minded values of amateurism. He described athletic conferences as entertainment cartels whose primary job has become negotiating lucrative TV contracts.

Leland, now an administrator at the University of the Pacific, said college presidents understand the liabilities of exorbitant coaching salaries, “but few believe the NCAA has any answers. Personally and professionally they feel impotent to change the trend.”

Only the Top Candidates  and Head Coaches are Free Agents

Russ Campbell, who represents Arkansas’ Bobby Petrino and Auburn’s Gene Chizik argues that most coaches do not enjoy the prerogative to ignore their contracts:

“The reality is the rank-and-file coaches do not have the upper hand,” Campbell wrote in an e-mail (to Almond). “As long as schools stay quick on the trigger to show coaches the door when they are cold, coaches will continue to look for better opportunities when they are hot.”

Jason Wolf at the Sports Lawyer and Sports Agent blog, goes one step further, examining the prospects of collegiate assistant coaches and a lawsuit against Minnesota basketball coach Tubby Smith, brought by a former assistant coach:

In one universe, we have head coaches who regularly break existing contracts to jump from one school to the next.  As Dan Fitzgerald wrote recently in his comprehensive roundup of the issue on the blog Connecticut Sports Law, college football effectively has a free agent system for head coaches, in which coaches can come and go as they please.

In the other world, we have assistant coaches, who have to make life-altering decisions based on the word of head coaches.

This issue will continue to be at the forefront of collegiate athletics unless the NCAA steps in or more schools are willing to follow the lead of Marist University, and enforce their contracts in the courts.


  1. “College Coaching Contracts Not Written on Stone Tablets –
    CONNECTICUT SPORTS LAW” was extremely pleasurable and informative!
    In the present day society that’s challenging to achieve.
    Regards, Kurtis


  1. […] signing a contract extension at Stanford, Jim Harbaugh wouldn’t so much as commit to being at the school the following season: “Nobody has promised that…I’m not going to write anything in blood on a stone […]

  2. […] is no buyout clause mentioned in the term sheet.  Instead there are three retention bonuses, payable to Meyer if he is […]

  3. […] first heard the analogy between coaching contracts and prenuptial agreements from Cal Athletic Director Sandy Barbou…, who was quoted in another article on this […]

  4. […] Ultimately, if you are a fan of a school with a coach that leaves in the middle of his contract, you have every right to be pissed off, but you can’t really fault him for complying with the terms of his contract.  UC Berkeley athletic director Sandy Barbour may have said it best: […]

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