© 2023 WYPR
20th Anniversary Background
WYPR 88.1 FM Baltimore WYPF 88.1 FM Frederick WYPO 106.9 FM Ocean City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Football Firings Cost Colleges, Taxpayers Millions

MGoBlog via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I want to start 2021 with a confession: I play the lottery.

Now, this isn’t an everyday thing. I don’t jeopardize my retirement or anyone’s college fund and I only play when the jackpots are especially large. But, like a lot of folks, I want to get rich fast.

Of course, I’m going about it all wrong. If I really want to make big bucks in a hurry  for doing nothing, these days I need to become an unemployed big time college football coach. 

All over the American plain, major universities are shoveling out dollar figures to men with whom they have terminated employment before the ends of their respective contracts. 

Just since the first of December, five schools, Illinois, Auburn, South Carolina, Arizona and Texas cut loose their coaches, thus triggering buyout clauses in their respective contracts.

At Illinois and Arizona, Lovie Smith and Kevin Sumlin, rarities as African American coaches, were fired. Sumlin’s dismissal came after the Wildcats were humiliated 70-7 by their in-state rivals, Arizona State, the capper to an 0-5 season, Sumlin’s third in Tucson.

Smith, who formerly coached in the NFL in Chicago and Tampa Bay, leading the Bears to a Super Bowl, posted a record of 17-39 at Illinois, an admittedly paltry mark.

Meanwhile, two schools in the powerful Southeastern Conference bid adieu to their coaches.

At Auburn, Coach Gus Malzahn was dismissed after amassing a 68-34 record in eight seasons, a 67 percent success rate. South Carolina’s Will Muschamp was let go in November after going 28-30 in five seasons in Columbia. 

Perhaps the biggest surprise departure came at Texas, where now former coach Tom Herman was shown the door last week after four seasons in Austin.

Herman won 32 of 50 games, good for a winning percentage of 64. The Longhorns went 7-3 this year and won their bowl game. The school’s athletic director, Chris Del Conte, said three weeks ago that Herman was the coach. 

But that was December. This is January and the new flavor of the moment, Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, is available and ready to coach. So, the eyes of Texas will be upon him and not Tom Herman.

Here’s where the money comes in. The five schools will pay the five fired coaches a combined $60 million in buyouts. Malzahn alone is slated to receive $21 million, having signed an extension three years ago. 

The upheavals come at a time when college athletic departments all over the country are pleading poverty in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Indeed, Herman will receive $15 million from Texas a mere four months after 35 people were laid off in the athletic department. Thirty-five unfilled positions will remain open, while some workers will be furloughed and 300 will take a temporary pay cut to make ends meet.

In fairness, fat cat boosters at each of the schools will absorb big chunks of the buyouts, but all five of the schools are public institutions, meaning taxpayers in those states will bear some of the burden as well.  

And this pattern is in play all over college football, where buyouts in some places pay more than $50 million. Kind of brings new meaning to that old lottery phrase, you gotta play to win. 


And that’s how I see it for this week.

Get in touch

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @SportsAtLarge

Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.