More than 50 former Iowa football players have spoken out in the past month about verbal and racial abuse they experienced during their times with the Hawkeyes. Their statements shined an unwelcome spotlight on the Big Ten program and led to the departure of the nation’s highest-paid strength coach.
It’s not just in Iowa City. There’s a new wave of player activism that’s spurred culture change across college sports. But the Iowa saga also shows how the prevalence of coach-friendly buyout clauses, coupled with a fear to fire employees without pay, makes it harder—or more expensive—to clean house when things go wrong.
“On many campuses the head football coach has more sway, leverage, control, respect and power than any other person associated with the university including the AD, president, chancellor and regent,” said Steve Patterson, former athletic director at Texas and Arizona State. “He’s nearly always the highest paid public employee in the state. Since he has that power, none of those who have to work with him after he’s hired or extended want to be on his bad side or be criticized by the various constituent groups who support the coach.”
The accusations by former Iowa players centered mainly on Hawkeyes assistants, including longtime strength coach Chris Doyle. Former players, most of them black, spoke about being bullied, discriminated against or being told by Doyle that they’d be sent “back to the ghetto” for making mistakes. (Doyle denied the accusations).
Many immediately called for Doyle and longtime head coach Kirk Ferentz to be fired. Doyle was placed on administrative leave and is no longer employed, while Ferentz, the school’s winningest coach, admitted that he’d let his players down. The school is investigating the accusations.
Though it remains unclear how much Ferentz knew of Doyle’s alleged abuses, firing the head coach without cause would have been extraordinarily expensive for the school. Ferentz has one of the most coach-friendly buyouts in college football, and, according to Sportico’s reading of the contract, would be paid more than $22 million if he were let go at the end of June.
To put that figure in perspective, there are three FBS schools that claim smaller annual budgets for their entire athletic department. And that’s before taking into account the budget cuts coming across the nation because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Iowa recently announced that Ferentz would take a one-year 15% pay cut as part of the department’s budget reductions.
Ferentz isn’t alone. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn would be owed more than $20 million if he’s fired by the end of the year, according to his contract; Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher would be paid more than $50 million. Last year USA Today reported that 33 coaches would receive an eight-figure buyout if they were fired in December.
Don’t expect that to change at schools like Iowa or Auburn. Heightened competition for coaching talent among professional and college programs has made buyouts a market requirement. As budgets get pinched due to COVID-19, that’s likely to further widen the gap between the five richest conferences and everyone else, according to Bill Carr, president of CarrSports Consulting.
“Of course, that distinction is true today,” said Carr, who has run the athletics departments at Houston and Florida. “But I believe it will increase dramatically in the ‘new normal.’”
Doyle, whose $800,000 salary was often propped up as an example of excessive pay, wasn’t fired for cause, a move that would have let the school off the hook for what owed it him. Instead, the two sides negotiated a separation package worth $1.11 million, or 15 months’ salary, for him to leave and agree not to sue. One of the first lines of the settlement, which the school released, read: “This is not a resignation in lieu of termination.”
“We know we have issues, and we have begun taking steps to improve and move forward,” Iowa AD Gary Barta said after Doyle’s departure. “Clearly there is a lot of work to be done.”
Many believe that Doyle, or even Ferentz, could have been fired “for cause,” and therefore not be entitled to any severance. Ferentz’s contract, for example, outlines “deliberate and serious violations” of Iowa’s written duties as grounds for dismissal, as well as violations of the University and Regents’ policies regarding dishonesty and moral depravity.
While this may seem like it applies to someone overseeing a program where students suffered verbal abuse and racial harassment, it’s extremely rare to see morality clauses exercised in big-time college sports. For one, it can be hard to enforce legally—Kansas just settled a prolonged contract dispute with former football coach David Beaty, in which the school agreed to pay $2.55 million of his $3 million buyout. Many administrators also feel that once you fire a coach for cause, it is hard to recruit elite candidates to your program because it looks like a betrayal of trust.
What schools may need now is a more radical approach.
“One possible tactic could be for athletic departments to outsource the negotiation of coaches’ contracts,” Patterson said. “Perhaps if an independent person negotiated the contracts on behalf of the school it would somewhat lessen that leverage the coach has.”