Big Ten Football Coach Contracts, Ranked by Absurdity
Money isn't real. Unless you need to buy out Kirk Ferentz's contract.
A couple weeks ago, we ranked the most likely Big Ten coaches to be fired after this season on the podcast. When we started looking at the contracts, it became clear that a spate of offseason coaching changes is unlikely to happen.
Big Ten programs (read: boosters) have thrown around a lot of money in the last few years. Twelve of the league’s 14 head coaches have received at least one contract extension since 2019; the other two, Rutgers’ Greg Schiano and Illinois’ Bret Bielema, were hired during that period.
That means a number of coaches have prohibitively expensive buyouts for at least the next two or three offseasons. Which contracts look good and which have disaster potential? Let’s rank them from least to most absurd.
NR. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern (Terms Unknown)
Congratulations to Fitzgerald, who signed a ten-year extension heading into the 2021 season. Since Northwestern is a private school, they’re not required to release contract details, though the Columbus Dispatch reports Fitzgerald makes just under $6 million per year.
It’s apparent both sides want this arrangement to remain in place as long as possible. Fitzgerald has been on the coaching staff in some capacity since 2001. He’s the most successful coach in school history. Northwestern produces wealthy graduates. The salary and buyout don’t matter.
13. Bret Bielema, Illinois
Bielema agreed to a six-year, $26.7M deal with Illinois in December 2020. Based on USA Today’s (paywalled) salary database and this post, I believe his buyout is ~65% of the remaining money on his deal until that number gets down to $3M, where it remains for the duration of the contract.
Illinois isn’t going to fire Bielema without cause before giving him at least three years, and probably four. By the time these sides would part, it wouldn’t be financially painful.
12. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin
Given Chryst’s success in Madison, Wisconsin is getting a bargain paying him “only” $5.25M/year after agreeing to an extension last year that runs through 2027. Based on his 2019 extension, he’d make 85% of his remaining salary if fired, the highest mark this side of Kirk Ferentz.
That number is also misleading. If Chryst’s team fails to win seven games in a season, a year’s worth of compensation will be removed from the buyout equation. Wisconsin can only backslide so far before the cost of change becomes feasible.
11. Ryan Day, Ohio State
Is Day cheap? Absolutely not. His newly signed extension earns him $9.5M/year through 2028, a top-five mark in college football.
I can’t find full terms of the contract, so I don’t know the buyout for either side. Since Day is 34-4 (23-1 B1G) as OSU’s head coach and recruiting at a level even higher than predecessor Urban Meyer, that probably doesn’t matter. He’s a top-five coach getting paid like one.
10. PJ Fleck, Minnesota
Minnesota gave Fleck a new contract in November 2021 worth $35.7M over seven years. That’s a just reward for coaching the Gophers to top-two finishes in the Big Ten West in two of the last four seasons. Minnesota also protected themselves against Fleck leaving or using open jobs for leverage; his buyout is $10M through the end of 2022, then scales down from $7M to $5M to $4M over the following three years.
Compared to other figures in the league, Minnesota got a good deal by only owing Fleck 65% of his remaining base salary if they fire him. Unless the team revolts, Fleck is the best coach the Gophers are likely to find any time soon.
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9. Jeff Brohm, Purdue
Brohm signed an extension that runs through 2027 and is worth about $6.7M/year in April. While I can’t find how much it’d cost Purdue to fire Brohm, that’s an unlikely scenario — Brohm is a well-regarded coach who’s led the Boilermakers to two winning Big Ten records over the last four seasons, something they don’t take for granted in West Lafayette.
The worrisome figure from Purdue’s end is Brohm’s measly $1M buyout if he leaves for another job. He turned down his alma mater, Louisville, in 2018; he may find it difficult to do that twice. Still, Purdue has a coveted coach on a reasonable contract. Even if it required some concessions, that’s a big win for them.
Dammit, I said “concessions,” not “concussions.”
8. Greg Schiano, Rutgers
Schiano is still on his original contract from December 2019 and only makes $4M annually, so why is he ranked this high? Because Rutgers signed him for eight years and agreed to pay 76.875% of the remaining money on his deal if they fire him.
That makes it nearly impossible to get rid of Schiano for another few years. That’s a big bet on someone who went eight years between college head coaching gigs and came back to a jump in competition level. I’m not arguing they shouldn’t have taken that risk — this is Rutgers, after all — but there’s still a good chance they end up in an unhappy marriage because of the hefty guarantee.
7. Mike Locksley, Maryland
Locksley isn’t expensive even after receiving a significant raise this spring; his new contract is worth $21M over five years. Maryland would be on the hook for 65% of his remaining salary if they terminate the contract, while it’s quite expensive for Locksley to bolt for another school in the next two years — a $7M buyout in 2022 and $5M in 2023.
Locksley is pretty much free to leave thereafter, though, and if he wins seven or more games in 2022 and/or 2023, his contract is automatically extended up to two more years. Who are Maryland’s non-conference opponents this season, you ask? Buffalo, Charlotte, and SMU. In 2023? Towson, Charlotte again, and Virginia. I smell cupcakes.
Who the hell was Maryland negotiating against? Not including his 2015 interim tenure, Locksley was 5-12 (3-11 Big Ten) in College Park as a head coach before a 7-6 (3-6) breakthrough in 2021. Their wins in 2021 came against West Virginia, Howard, Illinois, Kent State, Indiana, Rutgers, and Virginia Tech (which had already fired their coach).
It’s going to be a couple years before that 65% buyout isn’t in the eight figures. A predictable return to the Big Ten basement after a season of beating fellow cellar-dwellers would cause some second-guessing at Maryland, especially given Locksley’s disastrous tenure in his only previous head coaching job.
6. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
After taking an incentive-laden pay cut following the ugly 2020 season, Harbaugh flipped his 2021 success — and NFL interest — into a five-year, $36.7M deal. Paying under $7.5M/year is a relative bargain for a playoff-caliber coach.
But while Michigan expressed the desire to end Harbaugh’s offseason dalliances with other jobs, the contract won’t be an obstacle for NFL teams. The buyout starts at $3M and gets down to $1.5M by year three. If negotiations speak louder than words, 2022 won’t be U-M’s last nervous offseason with Harbaugh.
5. Scott Frost, Nebraska
Frost would’ve ranked at least two spots higher if Nebraska hadn’t restructured his contract following the cursed 2021 Huskers season. His salary dropped from $5M to $4M for 2022, though it’ll return to the former number if he “achieves metrics mutually agreed to,” which I assume means “coaches well enough not to get fired.”
More importantly, Nebraska’s payout to Frost if they fire him was cut from $15M to $7.5M so long as they wait until October 2nd. After 2024, that drops to $2.5M. While that’d still be a painful separation if it happens in the next couple years, it could’ve been a lot worse.
4. Tom Allen, Indiana
When Allen agreed to a seven-year, $27.3M contract extension in 2019, Indiana’s future as a frisky mid-tier Big Ten team appeared secure. After the Hoosiers went 6-1 in the Big Ten during the COVID-impacted 2020 season, IU raised the value of that contract to $34.3M — fully guaranteed through 2024, then 50% thereafter. Allen can trigger automatic extra years to his contract by making bowl games, too.
Indiana’s 2021 season was an unmitigated disaster: a 2-10 (0-9 Big Ten) record preempted the firing of offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan. Allen’s extension didn’t last a year before it was revised to include a $200K pay cut from 2022-25, an acknowledgement that he didn’t perform well enough last season.
Maybe Allen can right the ship. I’m worried about any coach who thought it’d be a good idea to have their offense run by Sheridan after previously employing Mike DeBord, though.
3. James Franklin, Penn State
For what feels like the umpteenth time, Franklin parlayed “interest” from top programs with open jobs into a big payday. In November, days before Lincoln Riley left Oklahoma for USC, Penn State signed Franklin to a ten-year extension that’s functionally worth $75M plus incentives.
Of that $7.5M salary, a full $7M per season is guaranteed for the duration of the contract, making Franklin unfireable until the late 2020s at the earliest. Meanwhile, Franklin’s obligation to PSU should he go elsewhere drops from $8M through the end of 2022 to only $2M in 2024.
As with Michigan, Penn State made a big commitment to their coach without getting the same in return. This is where I note Franklin went 4-5 in the Big Ten in each of the last two seasons. Again: these athletic departments are negotiating against themselves.
2. Mel Tucker, Michigan State
Let me preface this by saying Tucker has done an excellent job so far in East Lansing, and also that billionaire booster Mat Ishbia is probably funding anything football-related.
With that out of the way: not only did Tucker’s ten-year, $95M extension during the 2021 season make him one of college football’s five highest-paid coaches, that contract is fully guaranteed by the school. If MSU fires him, they’d owe him every cent remaining on the contract. Tucker, meanwhile, can move to another school on the cheap — his buyout is already down to $2M and drops to $1M by 2024.
Does it make me a homer to say that’s an enormous risk to take on someone who’s 18-14 in three years as a head coach across two schools? Yes, MSU took a huge leap forward last season, but 11-2 — while still finishing third in the East division — needs to be closer to the floor than the ceiling for Tucker’s deal to be worth it.
Tucker’s high potential and relative youth (50 years old) keep him from taking the top spot. You probably know what’s coming next.
1. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
It couldn’t be anyone else. I understand why Iowa fans are exhausted by discussion of Ferentz’s contract; he’s unkillable as a cockroach, it’s not their money, so why should they worry about it?
And I really, truly get that perspective. At the same time, though, holy fucking shit:
In January, Iowa rewarded Ferentz with an extension worth $7M/year through 2029.
The buyout for the school is $6M/year.
In other words, if Iowa wanted to fire Ferentz today, they’d owe him FORTY-EIGHT MILLION DOLLARS.
Ferentz is a successful coach, yes. He also hasn’t won a Big Ten title since 2004, employs his son as a flagrantly inept offensive coordinator, and would’ve been fired with cause years ago at many other programs.
Ferentz’s agent, Neil Cornrich (NEIL CORNRICH), has been as opportunistic as Iowa athletic director Gary Barta has been incompetent. If the Hawkeyes stop fielding kick-ass defenses any time soon, they’ll be stuck with a miserable team for several years. Then again…
…he’ll probably be there in 2029, stoic as ever, watching the Hawkeyes improve to 9-3 with an 11-5 win over UCLA.