The annual Randy Edsall Watch is underway in Connecticut with reports that Coach Edsall has discussed the University of Miami’s coaching vacancy with the University’s Athletic Director. These reports remind me of the following article that I wrote about the state of collegiate coaching contracts.
The reports of Notre Dame’s interest in UConn Head Football Coach Randy Edsall serve as reminder of the tenuous nature of contractual relationships in collegiate athletics. As the National Football Post’s Robert Boland wrote, “college contracts are made to be broken.” Connecticut Sports Law has also documented the system of virtual free agency in the post Coaching Contracts and Buyout Clauses.
According to the Hartford Courant, Edsall signed a new, 5-year contract with UConn which took effect on January 1, 2008 and runs through December 31, 2012. Significantly, the contract contains a buyout clause, which decreases each year of the contract. If Edsall leaves UConn Country before the end of this year, he’ll owe the school $1,250,000; if he departs during 2010, he’ll only owe $500,000.
Should Edsall decide to leave UConn, it is unlikely that UConn would, or could, stop him. The buyout clause isn’t exorbitant, especially with Notre Dame’s resources. But as Boland writes, even buyout clauses don’t discourage virtual free agency in coaching (although “stay bonuses” may help). After all, Rich Rodriquez left West Virginia for Michigan despite a $4 million buyout clause and the lack of an agreement from Michigan that the school would assume the buyout. Specific performance is almost never sought and never desired. Legally, specific performance is difficult to achieve, and may set precedent that comes back to haunt the school. Practically, schools don’t want the face of their football program to be someone who clearly doesn’t want to be there. Nevertheless, there is precedent for holding a coach to his contract in the professional coaching ranks. Rob Romano, wrote as follows:
…in 1979, the New England Patriots obtained injunctive relief against the University of Colorado and Coach Chuck Fairbanks. This occurred when Coach Fairbanks breached his contract with the Patriots to take the head coaching position with the University of Colorado. To prevent Coach Fairbanks from leaving, the Patriot organization obtained a court order prohibiting the University of Colorado from entering into a coaching contract with Coach Fairbanks. New England Patriots Football Club Inc. v. University of Colorado, 592 F.2d 1196 (1979).
See Rob’s article Coaches: Be Careful When Breaking A Contract.
There have been recent signs of schools attempting to enforce coaching contracts. Marist University filed suit against both its former basketball coach, Matt Brady, and James Madison University, after Brady left Marist in the midst of his contract. The fact that Marist sued James Madison University, for interfering with their contractual relationship with Brady, is interesting. Conceivably, most schools would have grounds for such an action if their coach were to leave while under contract. Consider what Rich Karcher of the Sports Law Blog had to say on this issue in the context of another Notre Dame coaching candidate, Brian Kelly:
…Tell it like it is. Notre Dame is soliciting Kelly to breach his contract with Cincinnati. Here you have a university that has made a substantial investment in a coach based upon his express contractual commitment to stay for a period of years in order to develop a successful program, and a coach who is going to speak to another school about leaving at a time his players are preparing for the biggest game of their lives in a few weeks.
Karcher, in his new law review article, discusses how “head coaches today meet the ‘unique skill’ element for a negative injunction to prevent the coach from working for a competitor school.”
Whether Randy Edsall remains at UConn or heads to South Bend, the issue of college coaching contracts will remain a hot topic. In Edsall’s case, he has been at UConn for over a decade and has a reasonable buyout clause. He’s presided over the transformation of UConn football. His leaving would certainly disappoint those residing in UConn Country, as his leadership and coaching ability has never been on display more than this year. But Edsall’s departure is unlikely to spark the outrage , or litigation, that many other college coaches have caused, after making a long-term committment only to break it soon after.
Nevertheless, the potential situation with Edsall brings into focus the free agency system in college coaching. A collegiate student-athlete player can’t leave his or her school for a better opportunity. A professional coach can’t leave unless his contract expired, has been terminated, or compensation has been awarded (either through a mutual settlement or the Commissioner’s office). But a college coach is essentially a free agent. Every year.