Colleges Hang On as Coaching Carousel Spins

Paul Steinbach Headshot

Photo of Bruce PearlPhoto of Bruce PearlIt happened, quite literally, overnight. On a Thursday evening in March, Bruce Pearl was pep-talking his 12th-seeded University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers through an improbable Sweet Sixteen meeting with Illinois, the top seed in the 2005 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. Within hours of his team's hard-fought, 77-63 loss to the Illini, Pearl would be chatting up his own coaching credentials to officials at the University of Tennessee.

"We're in Chicago playing one day, and the next morning at 8 o'clock I had a call from Tennessee's athletic director wanting to talk to Bruce," says UWM director of athletics Bud Haidet. "It happened pretty fast, and things just got faster from there."

Within days, Pearl -- four years into his tenure in Milwaukee and contracted to coach at least another five -- was greeting the Knoxville press as the Volunteers' sixth head coach in the past 16 seasons.

Coaching carousel? We're talking about a ride that's a little more pulse-quickening than that.

Consider that when Tennessee takes the floor for the 2005-06 season, it will essentially be paying three head coaches for the services of one. In addition to Pearl's reported $800,000 annual salary, Tennessee will, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, cut checks to both Buzz Peterson, who was terminated after four seasons, and Jerry Green, who merely lasted the previous three. Tennessee will also shell out the $192,000 necessary to free Pearl from his UWM pact. And if that weren't enough, another $25,000 is earmarked for Champ Search, the Los Angeles-based firm headed by former NCAA president Cedric Dempsey that helped cull Pearl from a list of worthy candidates. "More than likely, we'll actually have to borrow funds against that buyout going forward," UT athletic director Mike Hamilton told the Times Free Press, which adds that, all told, the athletic department will commit more than $2.6 million to its men's basketball head coaching position this season.

At the University of Virginia, meanwhile, the number is closer to $4.7 million. A year ago, DePaul coach Dave Leitao signed on for six more years with the Blue Demons, who had just earned their first 20-win season in four years and an NCAA tournament berth. That feat alone piqued interest in Leitao among officials at St. John's and Auburn. Then, after another 20-win season in 2004-05, Leitao announced in April that he was leaving DePaul for Virginia. "Leitao's extended flirtation illustrates that the six-year contract extension he signed with DePaul last summer binds him no more than a dinner reservation," wrote David Haugh in the Chicago Tribune. "It also underscores how tenuous the line between loyalty and ambition can be in the suddenly lucrative world of college athletics."

College basketball analyst Dick Vitale, too, reacted quickly and negatively to the Leitao defection. Speaking on ESPN Radio, Vitale characterized as "not fair" a system that rewards coaches under contract for leaving their schools while penalizing their orphaned players, who are forced by NCAA rules to sit out a season should they choose to transfer.

"This situation seems to look like a double standard because people tend to compare apples to oranges," says Wally Renfro, senior advisor to NCAA president Myles Brand. "Coaches are professionals, and they approach their job that way. And it is a job. For student-athletes, it's not. Participation is not a job; it's part of what they do as a college student."

Currently, student-athletes competing in the vast majority of NCAA-recognized sports are allowed one transfer opportunity without having to wait through a year of residency at their new school before resuming competition. The three sports that sideline transferring student-athletes for an entire season are the revenue producers: football, men's basketball and men's ice hockey. According to Renfro, baseball coaches are currently debating a year-of-residency requirement for their sport, since it might help prevent players from transferring from one school to another to play virtually year-round for the college coach who happens to skipper their summer-league team.

That the transfer requirement may give pause to student-athletes before making such an important transition, or that it may allow them time to acclimate to their new surroundings, are certainly worthy concepts. But the rule exists in large part to limit proselytizing of players on the part of rival schools, according to Renfro. Without the rule, he argues, "What you might end up with is sort of an annual collegiate version of free agency. You might end up with an open market that really doesn't fit with the collegiate model in terms of the student-athlete."

"Open market" is certainly the operative phrase in terms of today's Division I coaching trade, and to the highest bidders go the spoils. According to the St. Petersburg Times, the University of Florida agreed to pay the University of Utah $250,000 to buy out the six years remaining on the contract of head football coach Urban Meyer, tabbed incorrectly by many pundits as the heir-apparent to the Notre Dame throne.

Records obtained in May by the Times reveal that Meyer will receive a base salary of $225,000 to coach the Gators this fall. He also is expected to receive $300,000 for appearing on TV and radio, $200,000 for in-person appearances, $500,000 from apparel deals, $100,000 in investments, a $500,000 signing bonus and a $60,000 expense account. Meyer is also afforded the use of two insured cars and 12 season tickets. If Florida wins the national championship, he earns an extra $250,000. If he's fired, he gets $1 million for each year remaining on his contract.

Only Meyer's base salary is covered by state funds, according to the Times, while most of the coach's remaining compensation is covered by the private University Athletic Association.

Contracts loaded with perks typically make for sound contract-writing policy from an institutional standpoint, says Dick Laskowski, former athletic director at St. John's and more recently the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he now teaches in the college of business. Those perks can take the form of first-class flights, vacation allowances, country club memberships, interest-free loans, even the tailored suits worn during the taping of television shows. "Coaches want guaranteed salary and security," Laskowski says. "The institution wants to keep the number of years and the amount of guaranteed money to a minimum, if it can, so that all it has to do if it fires a coach is pay the base salary. All these other little goodies in there add up to a great amount of money, but usually schools are not paying for those when they let a coach go."

At Florida, contractual measures also were taken to curb Meyer's wanderlust. "Longevity incentives" range from $250,000 to $600,000 for most years of the seven-year deal, and each year Meyer is allowed to negotiate jobs with other colleges or professional teams only between the final day of the regular season and Jan. 2.

Such measures give schools at least some hiring security, according to Laskowski. "I think the tide has turned a little bit now, because of what ADs are building into their coaches' contracts," he says. "They are limiting the number of schools that a coach can speak to, they are charging schools for the right to even speak to the coach, and then they have a school, if the coach decides to go to that school, buy out at least a substantial portion of the existing contract. ADs are paying coaches a lot of money, so now they want to take back some of those things that they negotiated away years ago." But it's not just athletic directors and coaches coming to the negotiating table these days. "I personally think the exponential rise in salaries recently is due to the involvement of agents," says Jamie Pollard, deputy athletic director at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Five years ago, there were agents, but now there are people representing both professional coaches and college coaches. And that has really raised the bar to a whole new level. On the football side, you're even starting to see coordinators and assistant coaches coming to the table with agents. That's when you start to ask, 'OK, how far down the pecking order are we going to go?'"

It was an agent who talked to UW-Milwaukee's Haidet about then-Division III coach Bo Ryan's dream job -- 90 miles to the west in Madison -- when Ryan was interviewing for the UWM men's basketball position in 1999. Haidet agreed verbally that Ryan could make a clean break for the Badgers should that job become available (which it did two years into Ryan's UWM contract), with nary a buyout necessary. "That was one of the stipulations to signing Bo, and I probably wouldn't have been able to hire him without it," Haidet says. "There really is no precedence. It all depends on the situation, what agreements you make when you hire someone and then what your contracts look like based on those agreements."

UWM structures its men's and women's basketball contracts as five-year deals, renewable annually based on satisfactory performance evaluations. "Coaches aren't going to sign for much less than that anymore, and you can't blame them," Haidet says. "They're coming into the program thinking it's probably going to take three or four years to get their own recruits in here and get things going." Haidet, who came to UWM in 1988, has no complaints about the five-year rollover. Laskowski, however, offers this caveat: "The problem with a rollover is the way it's sometimes perceived by the media. You give a coach a five-year rollover, and after the first and second years you roll him over, and then after the third year you don't. The press immediately assumes you're becoming unhappy with him, and that may not be the case. As an athletic director, if I knew I wasn't going to be around for the end of that coach's contract, I wouldn't want to saddle the incoming AD with a contract that he might not want to live with. He might want to bring in his own people."

Northeastern University's Dave O'Brien, for one, inherited a head coach who would test the athletic director's resolve. Not long after O'Brien came to Boston from Temple University in 2002, Northeastern sought and received an injunction through the Massachusetts Superior Court, which found that football coach Don Brown "willfully and intentionally breached his contract" with the school (see "Off the Job," Nov. 2004, p. 22).

Within two weeks of verbally agreeing to a new five-year contract that would provide salary increases to Brown and his assistants, in addition to other program enhancements, Brown, who still had three years remaining on his existing contract, decided to leave Northeastern for the University of Massachusetts. (Per the widely accepted professional courtesy, UMass had asked O'Brien for permission to speak to Brown, and was flatly denied based on terms in Brown's contract. Yet, Brown and UMass forged ahead with their negotiations anyway.)

"Unfortunately for Northeastern, its student-athletes and its football program, Brown's word was no good and his promises were lies," wrote Judge Thomas Connolly in his ruling released in March 2004. "There also appears to be no question that UMass actively induced the breach when it had been told of the restrictions on Brown's talking to other potential football employers and of his existing long-term contract with Northeastern."

By then, Brown and UMass had agreed to their own terms. "Once Don accepted the UMass offer and they held a press conference, all without our consent, he was gone," O'Brien says. "And so the trust that is so important between a coach and his team, and frankly between an employer and the employee, had been violated. The reality is that once Don Brown decided to breach the contract, we did not want him back."

For its trouble, Northeastern received from UMass a public apology (released in June 2004) and a $150,000 settlement. In addition, UMass suspended Brown for the first three games of the 2004 season. "We were never in it for the money. Nor were we in it to destroy Don Brown's career or to create a blemish on UMass's reputation," O'Brien says. "We simply felt we needed to stand up for a very important principle."

O'Brien adds that he emphasized Northeastern's stance in at least three separate phone conversations with UMass. "I said we're not trying to be proprietary over Don Brown. We're doing this because we bargained for the contractual right to do it. He gave it to us in return for the number of years we gave him and the compensation we gave him. We felt it was wrong for him to pursue an arguably lateral move professionally given what we had just done for him."

Alas, not even Northeastern's legal action could prevent Brown from making his move. "The process by which coaches are hired has changed," says the NCAA's Renfro. "It has changed, frankly, to resemble the market characteristics of the professional sports leagues. It isn't a great fit, but it's a fact of life."

And it's a fact that the NCAA, which Renfro admits has no business telling member schools how to conduct their hires or construct their contracts, is essentially powerless to change. Says Andy Fellingham, president of Garden City, N.Y.-based Intercollegiate Athletic Consulting, "Myles Brand has said he's afraid colleges are moving more toward the professional model and away from the educational model. That is obviously true with coaches, but if the NCAA attempts to control that, it could get into trouble in terms of restraint of trade."

Is there any end in sight, then, to the transient nature of coaches or the inflation of coaching salaries? "I don't see a day coming in the near future when the big programs are going to ignore the market and say, 'We're just going to get a Division III football coach and pay him $200,000,'" says Wisconsin's Pollard. "Until the customer stops paying for it, it truly is just a question of business economics."

Fellingham, meanwhile, feels a crash is imminent. "I think eventually, a couple of these athletic associations, the separately incorporated 501(c)3s, are going to go bankrupt, because they can't keep up the numbers," he says. "That should be a real wakeup call for a number of people."

Even contracts packed with every clause and contingency imaginable could never be called "ironclad" in today's open coaching market. If a school wants a coach badly enough, it can usually put together a compensation package that the coach simply can't refuse. And there's little the school holding his current contract can -- or may wish -- to do about it. "There's nothing worse than having a disgruntled coach sitting at the end of your bench," says Fellingham. "That scenario isn't going to get school spirit up. It isn't going to make your team better. It isn't going to make your fundraising efforts any better to have a guy get up and constantly tell people that you won't spend the money. Is it better to let him out of his contract? Probably."

As is the case with Florida and its contract with Urban Meyer, all a school can hope to do is slow the defection process. Contract buyouts typically are paid not by the departing coach, but by the school that just lured the coach. Still, the higher the number, the more difficult the negotiations between coach and suitor, according to O'Brien. "As we look at contracts, I think one of the best ways that you can try to deter a coach from leaving is to make sure the liquidated damages amount is set sufficiently high," he says.

The buyout clause, in some cases, may be at the center of widespread misunderstanding regarding a coach's departure. It may look to the public like a coach has reneged on his or her contract -- and in the process earned the label of "traitor" -- when that may not be the legal reality. "The buyout clause is meant to say that if the employee doesn't fulfill the contract, we agree up front that a certain sum of money will make the institution whole," O'Brien says. "The fact that coaches sign five-year employment agreements and leave after one or two years, but pay the requisite buyout, doesn't automatically say that they have violated their contracts. Legally, they can leave if they follow the rules that guide their departure in the contract. But, after committing to an institution for a certain period of time, is it ethical to leave? I guess you could argue yes or no, depending on your position."

UWM's Haidet adds misunderstandings about buyouts can exist even among coaches. "Coaches sometimes don't understand why you have damage clauses in there," he says. "There's a cost to the institution to perform another search. There could be a cost in the loss of ticket sales. You may lose players, and then you have to recruit new ones. Departing coaches have to pay the piper for that."

While it witnessed gains in enrollment, alumni giving and merchandise sales as a result of its tournament run, UWM indeed lost two men's basketball recruits in the wake of Pearl's exit. National letters of intent state clearly that a player is committing to an institution, not to a head coach, but it is up to athletics administrators at the school in question whether to hold players to that commitment. (If released from his letter of intent, a recruit is free to sign and play immediately with another school.) "I wouldn't have to release any of them," says Haidet. "But, again, why would you want to keep somebody who doesn't want to be here?"

On the prospect of existing players transferring without pause, the NCAA's Renfro warns: "The havoc that can be wreaked is significant. I'm not going to sit here and suggest that part of that havoc isn't on the programs themselves, but you have to also acknowledge that part of it would be on the education of student-athletes."

"They might go to a school that doesn't have their major, and so they have to change that," adds Haidet, who likewise takes a hard line against relaxing transfer rules. "Players sign an agreement. We have an obligation to them for their scholarship, and they are getting that scholarship regardless of who the coach is. If half the team leaves when you hire a new coach, is that fair to the new coach?" If UWM is perceived as a stepping-stone for coaches, it doesn't bother Haidet one bit. "You want your coaches to be successful, and the way I look at it, if they are successful at our level, they're going to have opportunities. So it is a double-edged sword. But I'd rather have them be successful and have opportunities than be unsuccessful. It's not all bad that people want your coach. It means he's done a good job."

Months before the first 2005 Midnight Madness practices were to be staged by basketball programs nationwide came a sign that the UWM men's basketball program -- built during the brief stays of Bo Ryan and Bruce Pearl -- is now bigger than any one man. As first-year head coach Rob Jeter escorted the Panthers into the chancellor's inauguration this April, a packed house of faculty and staff rose to their feet and applauded.

"It was really heartwarming," Haidet says. "There's a time and a place for everybody, and I think we've been able to hit on people being here at the right time. Now Rob Jeter has his opportunity to enhance things even more. It's difficult for an athletic director, but that's my job -- to find good coaches and retain them as long as I can. If they go, you bid them goodbye, you find another coach and you continue to build the program."

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