James Franklin has been bandied about as a potential candidate for openings at USC and LSU after three Top 10 finishes during the past five seasons at Penn State. But the Nittany Lions weren’t ready to let their coach leave Happy Valley and locked him up Tuesday under a new 10-year deal worth $8.5 million a year, plus up to $1 million in annual incentives. Another contract bonus: 55 hours a year of private aircraft access.
Welcome to what is expected to be the most tumultuous college football coaching carousel to date.
On Sunday, Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin pulled the plug on the Dan Mullen era after four seasons, including three straight in which the Gators finished in the top 12, and a 34-15 overall record. It means three of the highest profile—and richest—college football programs in the country are seeking new coaches, with fellow Power Five programs Washington, TCU, Virginia Tech and Washington State having already fired their head coaches, too.
The merry-go-round is also spinning at Group of Five and independent schools, with UConn, UMass and Georgia Southern having filled openings before season’s end. Fourteen FBS coaching jobs have opened so far this season, and the recent record of 31 total changes in 2012 is in jeopardy. Look for a flurry of blockbuster contracts over the next few weeks, as coaches land new marquee jobs, or like Franklin, leverage the openings for extensions at their current programs.
Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney have set the bar on and off the field in recent years, accounting for five of the past six national championships and earning average annual salaries north of $9 million. Saban got a raise this summer in a deal worth $10.7 million a year. But a handful of coaches are expected to land massive extensions that will put them among the 25 highest-paid coaches in sports, pro or college.
Jimbo Fisher beat the rush with a deal inked just ahead of the season that pushed him into Saban/Swinney territory. Texas A&M ripped up the last seven years of his 10-year, $75 million deal and gave Fisher a new pact worth $95 million over a decade. Mel Tucker was hired by Michigan State in 2020 after one year as coach at Colorado. He was rumored to be on LSU’s shortlist, but he’s on the verge of signing a new 10-year, $95 million with MSU, according to the Detroit Free Press. Add in Franklin’s deal, and 10 years looks like the new number for coaches with any kind of track record.
Franklin switched representation to uber-agent Jimmy Sexton this summer. He signed an extension in February 2020 worth $7.4 million per year, but Penn State has now locked up the 49-year-old through 2031.
The buyouts in the Franklin contract illustrate how much power now resides with the coaches. If Penn State fires Franklin without cause, the school will owe him $8 million times the number of years left on the deal. It means Franklin would walk away with $72 million if he got a pink slip after the 2022 season and $64 million after 2023. But if Franklin wants to leave after 2022, it will cost him, or his next employer just $6 million. The figure drops to $2 million the following year.
“With this contract, we are signaling our sustained commitment to being one of the premiere programs in the history of college football,” said Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour in a statement announcing the deal. “Our goals and aspirations relating to football have never wavered, and our investments today and in the future of our program will allow us to compete at the highest level.”
Georgia’s Kirby Smart and Ohio State’s Ryan Day aren’t leaving their posts, but both are in the hunt for a national title and in line for raises. Smart has won the SEC East four of the past five years, and his team is the heavy favorite to win the national title this season. His $7 million-a-year deal runs through 2024 and made him the fifth-highest-paid coach in the SEC this season. But given his coaching peers who are pushing eight-figure annual salaries, Smart, another Sexton client, should see Georgia open its vault for him. The longtime Saban lieutenant, who took over the Bulldogs in 2016, regularly posts Top 3 recruiting classes, and only Texas generated more revenue from football than the Bulldogs’ $135 million two years ago.
Meanwhile, Day replaced Urban Meyer at Ohio State in 2019, and the school hasn’t missed a beat. His 0.914 winning percentage is tops among all active college coaches, and he has never lost a Big Ten game, heading into Saturday’s showdown with Michigan. OSU redid his deal before last season, which bumped his pay to $6.5 million this year and $7.6 million for 2022.
The college football arms race has made elite coaches hot commodities, able to command longer deals at ever-soaring rates. The football programs at Florida, LSU and Washington all generate more than $90 million annually and rank among the 15 richest (among public institutions).
Twenty-six public schools paid their football staff at least $10 million during 2019-20, according to Sportico’s newly launched interactive college sports financial database. Alabama was tops at $18.7 million.
The increased revenue has upped the ante on getting the right hire. The timetable has also been pushed up with the introduction of the early signing period in 2017. The National Signing Day, when high school seniors commit to schools, is still the first Wednesday of February, but with the early signing period, schools need to have their new coaching regimes in place beforehand to show stability, or else risk an exodus of talent.
USC is football royalty that finished in the top four every year from 2002 to 2008 under Pete Carroll, but the Trojans have failed to rank that high in all but one year since. Under Clay Helton, the school has fumbled a couple of times on the recruiting trail: ESPN ranked their recruiting class 54th in 2020. Helton, who posted a record of 46-24 at USC, was fired just two games into the 2021 season but landed a job at Georgia Southern earlier in November.
Power Five head coaches Matt Campbell (Iowa State), Dave Aranda (Baylor), Mario Cristobal (Oregon) and Lane Kiffin (Ole Miss) are hot names being floated as potential hires by those blue-blood programs on the hunt. But even if they have no intention of moving, each coach has the opportunity to leverage the openings for a better contract. Cristobal got a new deal less than 12 months ago and is now making $4.55 million a year, but he would likely be on Florida’s radar, with his deep ties to the state, back-to-back Pac-12 titles and a strong recruiting track record.
Timing could be everything in the case of Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell. He was a candidate for the Michigan State job that eventually went to Tucker in 2020, and Cincy gave him an extension last year that bumped his salary to $3.4 million annually. He’s now on the verge of history, with the Bearcats potentially becoming the first Group of Five school to make the College Football Playoff; FiveThirtyEight has the odds at 55%.
One athletic director well aware of Fickell’s attributes is USC’s Mike Bohn, who took over the Trojans in late 2019. Bohn was the AD who hired Fickell at Cincinnati.
With assistance from Eben Novy-Williams.