Mel Tucker entered the 2021 season with two seasons as a college football head coach on his resume and an overall record of just 7-12. Yet he led Michigan State—unranked to start the season—to eight straight wins, capped by a victory over rival Michigan.
Tucker’s timing was perfect. He was rumored to be on the shortlist for jobs at LSU and USC, which both fired coaches mid-season. The Spartans locked up Tucker with a 10-year, $95 million extension as part of an unprecedented round of moves and contract extensions that have continued, including new deals over the past two weeks for Mark Stoops, Lane Kiffin and Matt Rhule worth at least $9 million per year. There are now 14 college football coaches making at least $8 million on average annually, versus only three at the start of the 2021 season.
“Sports is like everything else, it’s a market-driven economy,” Glenn Sugiyama, head of the sports practice at executive search firm DHR Global, said in a phone interview during the 2021 coaching carousel. “As demand goes up, the market goes up.”
While college coaches cashed in, they still trail NFL bosses at the top of the compensation game. Six of the seven highest coaching salaries are in the world’s richest sports league, led by Bill Belichick with estimated annual earnings of $20 million per year, followed by Pete Carroll ($15 million) and Sean McVay ($14 million).
Sportico identified 29 coaches in U.S. sports leagues earning at least $8.5 million per year, based on conversations with industry insiders on the pro and college level. Incentive bonuses can push these tallies even higher. The NFL and college football both have 12, followed by the NBA with four and finished off with John Calipari, the lone college basketball entry. No one from MLB or NHL came close. We did not factor in the half-dozen or so global soccer managers earning eight figures per year, led by Diego Simeone (Atletico Madrid) and Pep Guardiola (Manchester City).
NFL team values have soared over the past 35 years from around $100 million on average to $4.14 billion in Sportico’s 2022 NFL Team Valuations. During that time coaching pay has jumped from less than $300,000 on average to more than $7 million. McVay and John Harbaugh both signed contract extensions in 2022 that pushed their pay into the top six. The raises mean that Doug Pederson ($8.5 million) and Mike McCarthy ($7 million-plus) are the lone active Super Bowl-winning coaches earning less than $12 million per year.
On the college side, the leverage has shifted to coaches. Ten-year deals are the new norm for coaches with any kind of track record. Their contracts are packed with incentives that push their total comp above our average values. Schools are typically on the hook for huge buyouts under these new deals, while the coaches can often leave with limited repercussions.
Take Brian Kelly. LSU hired the former Notre Dame coach under a deal that pays 90% of his base and supplemental compensation—$9.5 million a year—for all years remaining on his contract if he is fired without cause, and the figure hits 100% if he wins a national championship. Kelly, or his next school, would only need $2 million to get out of his contract after December 2022. The buyout goes to zero if Scott Woodward leaves his post as LSU AD. James Franklin’s new Penn State buyout is $8 million multiplied by the number of years left on his 10-year deal if fired without cause. If Franklin leaves after 2022, it will cost him just $6 million, and only $2 million starting the following year.
There has been significant turnover among the highest-paid coaches, with 11 new names making the cut versus last year. New contracts lifted coaches like Kirby Smart ($11.25 million), Lincoln Riley ($11 million) and Mike Vrabel ($9.5 million) onto the list, while three top earners—Frank Reich, Urban Meyer and Steve Nash—were fired. In October, Matt Rhule was also fired by the Carolina Panthers, but his average pay rose from $8.6 million to $9.25 million as Nebraska’s new head coach. Sean Payton and Bruce Arians both walked away from their high-paying NFL gigs in New Orleans and Tampa Bay, respectively.
Winning titles drives pay at the top of the table. The top 10 coaches have combined for 26 championships, not including Carroll’s title at USC. There are exceptions. In 2010, Josh McDaniels was fired in Denver after less than two full seasons, but he received a second chance after 10 seasons as Belichick’s offensive coordinator in New England. The Las Vegas Raiders gave him a deal with an annual salary of $10 million, tied for seventh highest in the NFL. The Silver and Black lost seven of their first 12 games under McDaniels, and his career winning percentage now sits at 0.400. The next worst regular season performance is for Pederson and Kyle Shanahan ($10 million), who both have a career .505 win percentage. Shanahan led the 49ers to the Super Bowl during the 2019 season.
The Highest-Paid Coaches in U.S. Sports
Bill Belichick (New England Patriots): $20 million (average annual salary)
The longtime Pats coach passed George Halas for second on the all-time wins list and now stands at 327, including playoffs, 20 behind Don Shula.
Pete Carroll (Seattle Seahawks): $15 million
Carroll has reached the pinnacle of both college and pro football but might be doing one of his best coaching jobs this season. DraftKings projected Seattle’s win total at 5.5 entering the season, but the club topped that mark in its ninth game.
Sean McVay (Los Angeles Rams): $14 million
At 36, McVay became the youngest Super Bowl-winning coach ever when the Rams beat the Cincinnati Bengals in February. He already held the record for youngest to appear when L.A. lost to the Pats three years earlier. The Rams tore up his contract for a second time and gave him a new five-year deal.
Gregg Popovich (San Antonio Spurs): $13 million
Only Belichick has been coaching longer than Pop, who has spent 27 years among coaches in the major U.S. sports leagues, and the duo has won a combined 11 titles. The 73-year-old is in the final year of his current contract, which is tops in the NBA.
Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh Steelers): $12.5 million
One of the most impressive streaks in coaching history is in jeopardy in 2022, as the Steelers are likely headed for a losing record for the first time in Tomlin’s 16 seasons at the helm. His current three-year extension runs through the 2024 season.
Andy Reid (Kansas City Chiefs): $12 million
The five names ahead of Reid have all seen their career win percentages drop over the past 12 months, but Reid’s team continues to roll behind MVP favorite Patrick Mahomes. In 2020, Reid signed a five-year extension with the Chiefs after leading the club to its first Super Bowl title in 50 years.
John Harbaugh (Baltimore Ravens): $12 million
Harbaugh got a raise in 2022 as part of a new three-year deal that bumped his annual pay from $9 million to $12 million per year. Last season’s 8-9 campaign was only his second losing record since he was hired in 2008. His brother, Jim, just missed the list; his new deal at Michigan is worth $8.34 million annually.
Nick Saban (Alabama): $11.8 million
It is a rare down season for Bama, with two losses in the first nine games knocking the Tide out of the playoff picture. Amid the flurry of new college football deals, Alabama adjusted Saban’s contract to put him back atop the sport. His compensation includes $100,000 annually directed to his foundation.
Dabo Swinney (Clemson): $11.5 million
Like Saban, Swinney got a bump in 2022 to reflect his stature in the game, with a new 10-year, $115 million deal, up from $9.3 million on average. There are only five active college football coaches with national championships, and Saban and Swinney are the only ones with multiple titles.
Kirby Smart (Georgia): $11.25 million
In January, Smart captured the Bulldogs' first national championship since the 1980 season, and he has them poised to repeat. Georgia rewarded Smart with a new 10-year deal, replacing the one set to end in 2024. The incentives include $1 million for another title and 50 hours a year of private jet usage.
Lincoln Riley (USC): $11 million
Riley was making $7.5 million a year in Oklahoma before USC lured him away with a 10-year deal. Riley coached a pair of Heisman Trophy winners, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, during his five seasons at OU. His current QB, Caleb Williams, is the overwhelming favorite to win the trophy this year.
Brian Kelly (LSU): $10 million
Kelly left South Bend for Baton Rouge and a nine-figure payday. His deal is littered with additional potential bonuses, including $500,000 for making a bowl game—a result that simply requires six wins and a .500 record. For context, LSU played in a bowl game for 20 straight years before last season.
Josh McDaniels (Las Vegas Raiders): $10 million
McDaniels has been a popular target because of his success running the Patriots offense, but his return to head coaching was bumpy; he accepted the Colts job in 2018 before changing his mind. His then-agent, Bob Lamonte, one of the biggest power brokers in the game, dropped McDaniels after the flip-flop.
Kyle Shanahan (San Francisco 49ers): $10 million
After the 49ers’ Super Bowl appearance in February 2020, the club ripped up the last three years of Shanahan’s deal for a new six-year agreement at $10 million annually. His father, Mike, won 170 regular season games and a pair of Super Bowls in 20 years coaching three franchises.
Ryan Day (Ohio State): $9.57 million
The Ohio State coach has the highest winning percentage in college football at 0.900 and only five losses in five seasons. Day got a new seven-year deal in 2022 worth $9.5 million on average, but $500,000 of retention bonuses from his previous pact carry over, pushing his average up another $70,000.
Jimbo Fisher (Texas A&M): $9.5 million
In 2021, the Aggies made Fisher the third $8 million-a-year coach, putting him on par with Saban and Swinney before a slew of new deals raised the bar. His 10-year, $95 million pact has been scrutinized this year as A&M finished 4-8. His current buyout is $86 million and drops roughly $9 million each year.
Mel Tucker (Michigan State): $9.5 million
Tucker’s contract at Colorado was worth $3 million annually, and after one season he got a raise to $5.5 million to take the Spartans job. He cashed in again before the end of his second year in East Lansing. Michigan State finished the 2022 season 5-7, Tucker's third losing record in four seasons as a coach.
Mike Vrabel (Tennessee Titans): $9.5 million
Vrabel was one of the NFL’s lowest-paid coaches when he was hired in 2018 under a five-year pact, but he is on track for his fifth winning season and fourth straight playoff appearance. The Titans rewarded him this offseason with a new deal reflective of his success.
Steve Kerr (Golden State Warriors): $9.5 million
Kerr has the highest winning percentage among active NBA coaches at 0.677 and has won four titles in his first eight years with Golden State. The Warriors are the NBA’s richest franchise, and their sideline boss is due a raise that will push him into Popovich range.
Matt Rhule (Nebraska): $9.25 million
Rhule was fired by the Panthers just 38 games into his seven-year, $60 million deal after losing more than 70% of the time. Despite the NFL flop, Rhule was a hot commidity on the college market and landed an eight-year, $74 million pact with Nebraska that will offset much of the remaining tab Carolina owed him.
Doc Rivers (Philadelphia 76ers): $9 million
The NBA’s 75-year anniversary project included selecting the 15 greatest coaches. Rivers was one of four active coaches to make the cut, along with Popovich, Kerr and Erik Spoelstra. They are also the four highest-paid coaches in the sport.
Lane Kiffin (Ole Miss): $9 million
Kiffin is the newest addition to the $9 million-a-year coaches club with Ole Miss giving him a raise after a reported flirtation with Auburn. The extension comes less than 12 months after the school bumped his average pay to $7.25 million per year.
Mark Stoops (Kentucky): $9 million
Ahead of the final game of the 2022 season, Kentucky locked up Stoops through 2031 under a deal with a $400,000 base and $8.6 million in other compensation. Stoops has revived a program that just secured its sixth winning record in seven years after years of struggles.
John Calipari (Kentucky): $8.6 million
The UK football coach earning more than the basketball coach would have been blasphemous at one point, but it speaks to the money in the game right now. As it is, coach Cal is the only college basketball coach in the top 25 earners. His 10-year deal is worth $86 million.
Doug Pederson (Jacksonville Jaguars): $8.5 million
Pederson was hired to right the Jaguars' ship after the disastrous 11-month tenure of Urban Meyer. The 54-year-old played 10 seasons in the NFL, mostly as a backup in Green Bay. He won a Super Bowl in his second season as the Philadelphia Eagles coach.
Erik Spoelstra (Miami Heat): $8.5 million
Spoelstra’s tenure with the Heat is the second longest in the NBA, behind only Popovich's with the Spurs. His annual compensation includes playoff bonuses, like many NBA coaches.
James Franklin (Penn State): $8.5 million
Like Tucker, Franklin was rumored to be on the short list of candidates for the USC and LSU openings. So Penn State locked up its coach under a 10-year, $85 million extension, with up to $1 million in additional annual incentives to ward off any suitors.
Ron Rivera (Washington Commanders): $8.5 million
Rivera was hired by Washington ahead of the 2020 season after nine years with Carolina. He is one of the most respected coaches in the league and has been forced to function as the team's public face and answer questions about the dysfunction around the franchise.
Sean McDermott (Buffalo Bills): $8.5 million
McDermott was hired in 2017 and is headed for a fifth playoff appearance in six seasons. The Bills gave him a contract extension in 2020 that runs through the 2025 season.