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Football Coaching Shake-up a Boon for College-Town Realtors

Regardless of whether Sun Tzu was the first to observe that opportunities arise from chaos, Sharon Bailey can testify to it from personal experience.

Bailey is a certified Realtor in Knoxville, Tenn., home of the Volunteers. Over much of the last decade, UT’s athletic department has functioned as a revolving door of high-paid employees—there have been six head football coaches since 2009, and four head men’s basketball coaches and five athletics directors since 2011.

While the constant churn has been a source of agitation for UT fans and alums—of which Bailey is both— it has been a boon for her bottom line.

“Sometimes we laugh and say we need a coach turnover in order to help with some of these big houses,” Bailey said in a recent telephone interview. “They typically do.”

With 28 FBS programs having already undergone gridiron regime change, this season is threatening to be the largest major college football coaching shake-up in history.

One financial tributary from the perpetual hirings and firings has flowed to a niche reservoir in the luxury real estate market—upscale homes located in or around American college towns. A reliable constituency of homebuyers seeking to purchase and unload high-end properties in places like Knoxville—or Clemson, S.C., or Pullman, Wash., or Gainesville, Fla.—are college football coaches earning above-market (or way-above-market) pay from the nearby land grant university.

As the job of a D-I head coach often involves playing host—whether it be to recruits, players or boosters—a stately home with ample seating (and maybe a pool or a theater) is de riguer. That’s been the case long before the current, COVID-induced wave of relocation swept the country.

To ply this trade is to be willing to move your family—often including school-age children—at a moment’s notice and amid the most frantic months of the recruiting calendar. Needless to say, coaches are ever eager to get settled, preferably with deed in hand. 

And it’s not just the head coaches who want to own nice houses, which is why Eric Roark, a former assistant at Tennessee and SMU, among other places, started a side business two years ago geared towards helping coordinators and position coaches relocate.

“There wasn’t really much transition last year,” said Roark, who charges a referral fee of 20% to 25% to the brokers. “I think they gave everybody a bit of a grace period. But now, the way college administrators are, they want to fire you after one year.”

Given the dynamic, it is also not unusual for a school’s athletic department or fundraising arm to have a preferred real estate agent on speed dial. Asked how she got her foot in the door, Bailey said only that she was “connected with some higher-ups” at UT.

Other times, a coaches’ professional representatives will direct them to a particular agent. And then, occasionally, it comes down to good, old-fashioned word of mouth.

In any case, it can be a career-defining feat for a college-town real estate agent to gain even a toehold in this offshoot market of the college sports industrial complex.

That’s the case with Grady Carter, a real estate agent with Keller Williams in Norman, Okla., whose earning potential has suddenly been catapulted by the University of Southern California’s successful effort in prying football coach Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma. (News of the hiring was accompanied by a viral but ultimately debunked Twitter rumor that USC had, as part of its compensation package, agreed to purchase Riley’s two Oklahoma homes.)

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Grady Carter, a Norman, Okla.-based real estate agent whose average home sale price has been shy of $300,000, is now listing Lincoln Riley’s two, multimillion-dollar enclaves. Courtesy of Grady Carter

Carter, a Norman native who attended rival Oklahoma State, had already been representing Riley in selling the home he first purchased after taking the OU job — a 7,500-square-foot “masterpiece,” which was bought in 2017 for $1.85 million. In August, Riley put the place up for sale at $2.1 million, where it continues to sit. Not long before USC came calling, the coach and his family had moved out of the house and into a new mansion close by. That property, Carter confirms, is now being privately listed for $5 million, a price that would make it among the most expensive home sales ever in Norman. Carter said that due to some recent threats made against the Riley family, the decision was made to keep the property off of public listings.

But on terms of sheer grandiosity, the home is said to be on par with the 11,000-square-foot estate built by longtime OU coach Bob Stoops, who is now filling in as OU’s interim head coach. Stoops’ property features its own lake.

The two Riley properties, which now consume most of Carter’s waking hours, represent a whole new world for the real estate agent, who says his average home sales price has been “just under” $300,000.

Then this past summer, Carter received a call from a blocked number and says he did what most are wary of doing: He answered it.

“I’m expecting a voice recording saying, ‘We have trying to reach you about your car’s extended warranty,’” Carter said. Instead, it was Riley, looking to hire a listing agent.

“I was trying to be cool about it, but it kind of caught me off guard,” Carter said. 

Carter says he has a cousin on his mom’s side who is close with the Riley family, and that he had previously worked with several OU women’s basketball coaches. He also has athletic department ties through his father, a former OU athlete and prominent local businessman, who died earlier this year.

For Bailey, her current UT winning streak commenced in 2012, when Tennessee fired head football coach Derek Dooley after consecutive losing seasons. Bailey ended up selling Dooley’s 19-acre Smoky Mountains estate, after he cut ties with a previous agent. She recalls Dooley asking, in an early conversation, whether or not his stigma as a former coach was hampering the home sale. Bailey said she assured him that nobody in town cared about him anymore, one way or the other.

The house was ultimately put up for auction at $2.9 million, but Bailey says Dooley “panicked” the night before and accepted an offer a half-million dollars less than asking.

Still, this was no big loss for Bailey, who diligently worked the line of succession.

When Tennessee hired Butch Jones to replace Dooley, Jones bought Bailey’s listing of an 11,400-square-foot home, which had been custom built by former major leaguer Joe Nathan, for $3.5 million. Then, when Jones was fired in 2017, Bailey was hired to sell the property again. It took some time, but she eventually found a willing buyer in UT’s current athletic director, Danny White, who purchased it in May for $3.35 million. (Zillow currently estimates its value at $4.6 million.)

Bailey says she also recently sold a home to current Vols football coach Josh Heupel, which is in the process of being renovated. In May, Heupel and his wife sold their home in Winter Park, Fla., through a real estate trust, for $2.4 million, according to county property records. 

Sure enough, Bailey’s bounty has not been limited to football coaches—the Vols basketball program has been equally solicitous of her expertise.

Bailey says she sold former head men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl two listings, one of which she sold again after Pearl’s scandalized departure from the school. Pearl’s successor, Donnie Tyndall, who lasted only one season before being hit with a 10-year NCAA show-cause penalty, also bought a Bailey listing— a five-bedroom, $1.7 million home. A year later, upon his firing, Tyndall hired Bailey to sell the home for him, eventually accepting an offer of $1.45 million.

Then there’s the Vols’ current hardwood general, Rick Barnes, who Bailey endearingly refers to as “my big basketball coach.”

Bailey says Barnes, who took the UT job in 2015 after being fired at Texas, was referred to her by Jones. Over the ensuing six years, according to Bailey, she represented Barnes in the purchase and sale of four different homes—thus entitling her to commissions on eight real estate transactions.

In one case, Bailey says, Barnes purchased a house that he planned to tear down, but then changed his mind and decided to flip it after his architect drew up plans. Barnes was about to renovate his third Knoxville-area home, a tidy abode close to UT’s campus, when Bailey says she pointed him to more spacious accommodations about 40 minutes away. He bought that one for the relatively modest price of $725,000, and continues to reside there today.

Barring Barnes’ next real estate itch, things have been relatively quiet of late at Tennessee, with no recent high-profile departures or NCAA investigations. 

Bailey insists she’s just fine with that, at least for now. Though a businesswoman, she said, “I am a fan and alum and local—and we want stability.”

But change in college sports always beckons: Consider just the ripple effect of USC’s hiring of Riley, which led to OU’s hiring of Clemson assistant Brent Venables.

Property records show Venables bought his home in 2015 from Chad Morris, who had been Clemson’s offensive coordinator. The 6,200-square-foot home is at the end of a bucolic cul-de-sac, just down the street from the 11,000-square-foot mansion built by Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney. As of Monday, Venables’ house had not been publicly listed for sale, and it is unclear what the coach plans to do with it.

One thing seems certain: Venables needs a new pad in Norman, and Grady Carter says he and a couple other area real-estate agents—including one who is the spouse of an athletic department employee—are already jockeying for position.

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After losing his job at Lamar in 2016, former college football coach Eric Roark became a realtor and now has a business helping college coaches relocate. Courtesy of Eric Roark

Meanwhile, Roark says that he finds himself spending a lot more time talking to coaches about transitioning out of the business and into real estate, as opposed to relocating for new coaching gigs. There’s long been an overlap between the two industries—Swinney, for example, famously leased commercial real estate before being hired onto Tommy Bowden’s staff at Clemson—and the current booming market has made it even more alluring.

Roark, who advertises his football pedigree as part of his full-time realty job, holds himself out as a model of what a great quality of life can be lived by a coach who steps off the merry-go-round of selling recruits on programs to start selling homebuyers on properties. 

He recalls the ultimate insult to the injury of losing his final collegiate job, as defensive ends coach for Lamar, following a 3-8 season.

In his mid-50s and jobless in Beaumont, Texas, Roark was forced to sell the home he just purchased, and move with his wife into a rental. “It was a low point of my life,” he said, but also the catalyst for a career change.

Last month, he sold a $5.2 million home in Colorado. Then a few weeks later, the Wall Street Journal profiled his most expensive listing—a four-bedroom home seated on 175 acres outside Durango, priced at $33.5 million.

“The thing about real estate is, you are your own boss,” Roark said. “You control your own destiny.”

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