When it comes to the lives of modern football coaches, Lone Star State legend Bum Phillips probably said it best: “There’s two kinds of coaches, them that’s fired and them that’s gonna be fired.”
That statement never has been more true, with salaries at an all-time high and the sport’s turnover rate ballooning along with them. This last offseason marked an especially busy turn on the SEC coaching carousel, as the conference saw three new head coaches hired from its ranks (Kirby Smart, Will Muschamp, Barry Odom) and a staggering number of assistants jumping from one school to the other.
The SEC-to-SEC jumps include but were not limited to:
- Alabama hiring Jeremy Pruitt from Georgia and Derrick Ansley from Kentucky
- Georgia hiring Mel Tucker from Alabama and Sam Pittman from Arkansas
- Auburn hiring Kevin Steele from LSU
- LSU hiring Dameyune Craig from Auburn
- South Carolina hiring three former Auburn assistants, Georgia’s wide receivers coach, Missouri’s tight ends coach and Florida alumnus Mike Peterson (Will Muschamp, mercenary for hire)
There’s one hire you won’t see on this list, and that’s Georgia adding Arkansas’ Dan Enos as offensive coordinator. Kirby Smart had expressed interest in Enos, whose offense had the SEC’s second-best scoring average last season, but the Bulldogs coach could not even get Enos to the interview table.
“First, he wanted to talk to my offensive coordinator and try to take Dan Enos, and I said, ‘I appreciate it, but there’s a thing called the SEC clause. You can’t have him,'” Hogs coach Bret Bielema said at SEC Media Days. “Kind of stuck my tongue out, wiggled my nose and felt good about it.”
The “SEC clause” Bielema refers to is a portion of Enos’ contract that prevents him from leaving Arkansas to become a coordinator for another SEC school. That stipulation resulted in Smart hiring Pittsburgh’s Jim Chaney as coordinator and luring Pittman, one of the country’s top offensive line coaches, away from the Razorbacks.
Pittman’s contract did not include a non-compete restriction.
“I’ve had a lot of (staff) transition,” Bielema said. “One of the main reasons I left my last job (Wisconsin) was because we didn’t pay them very well. We lost a lot of coaches, especially to the NFL. Now I can’t argue the way we’re paying them. Certain guys just want certain things.
“Coach Pittman and I are best friends. A man I love dearly. Shared a lot of great memories with him. I didn’t put an SEC clause on him because of our relationship. He wanted to chase the dream at Georgia, and I give him all the credit in the world to do it. He left us.”
Pittman was one of many to opt for a change of scenery. But the manner in which his situation unfolded (compared to Enos’) does prompt a question.
Given the SEC’s high rate of coaching turnover, will non-compete clauses become more commonplace in its coaching contracts?
The answer may be trending toward yes, at least as far as Arkansas’ head man is concerned.
“I think they will,” Bielema said. “Now whether the coaches will sign it is another whole deal. The reason I didn’t do it my first year as a head coach is I thought a little bit too much about it as an assistant coach… (Arkansas athletic director) Jeff Long proposed it to me. It was something that I didn’t enforce my first year. But then I start losing these coaches to the SEC and I get it.
“The way we handle the language and verbiage is if I’m a DBs coach, I can still go be a coordinator somewhere. But if you’re a coordinator you can’t go somewhere else to become a coordinator. You can only go to become a head coach. I think it has a lot of validity to it because there is a lot of things that you learn that can be very valuable in the next program over, especially within your league. When Kirby called me, I don’t think he had any idea there was a clause on Dan Enos. I really like the job Dan is doing, too, so to be able to keep him in-house was good.”
According to a 2014 survey conducted by Marquette adjunct law professor Martin Greenberg, only Bielema and Arizona’s Todd Graham had non-compete clauses out of the 45 head football coaching contracts examined. Far more contracts featured “trade secrets” non-disclosure agreements (i.e. private information) and a large majority included liquidated damages provisions, also known as contract buyouts.
“There’s a de facto built-in non-compete to some degree in most coaches’ contracts,” said Jack Reale, an Atlanta attorney who has represented a number of football players and coaches in contract negotiations. “And it’s the coach’s buyout if he wants to leave. In many coaching contracts there will be a liquidated figure, a specific figure that will be identified as what the coach will have to pay, or what the entity hiring the coach will have to pay if he chooses to break the contract and leave.”
The reason SEC schools utilize contractual devices like non-competes and buyouts is simple: protection.
In several states, head football coaches are the highest-paid public employees. They are the faces and leaders of programs that generate millions in revenue on a yearly basis, making them tremendously valuable to the school and state, and they are paid accordingly. Nick Saban makes more than $7 million. Kevin Sumlin makes $5 million. Seven other SEC coaches will make more than $4 million in 2016.
Jumping from school to school is a core part of any coach’s career path. But no school wants to lose a good coach without receiving at least some compensation. (Likewise, no coach wants to be fired and lose all the money left on his contract.)
A major asset with intimate knowledge of a program and its recruiting efforts joining a direct competitor is a tough blow for any school to absorb.
“(A non-compete clause) would only seem to make sense from the university’s point of view,” Reale said. “Now in a negotiation, that would obviously be one point of many to be negotiated and taken into consideration when the final compensation figure is ultimately arrived for the coach.”
Philosophically, however, not all programs and coaches are comfortable with the idea of heavily restricting their assistants’ career moves.
Like Bielema, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops has endured turnover on his staff, and there were numerous coaching changes for his program after it went 5-7 last fall. Ansley, who had just been promoted to co-defensive coordinator, was pulled away by Nick Saban to coach the Crimson Tide’s defensive backs. Special teams coordinator Andy Buh was then hired away by Maryland.
However, Stoops explained why he has not put non-compete clauses on his assistants.
“I think certainly with the cost of doing business these days I understand why some people do,” Stoops said at SEC Media Days. “To each their own and whatever’s best for them and their program.
“We want people that want to be at Kentucky. So I want to make sure, and as I said in the main room, the only constant in life is change. So you have to deal with it. And I want people to be at Kentucky because they want to be there.”
So as of now, non-compete clauses remain much rarer options than buyouts, which Reale says are on the rise among assistant coaches.
“You’re starting to see some schools that are including these same liquidated damages provisions that you see in a head coach’s contract in assistant coaches’ contracts as well, to try to bind those assistant coaches so that if they’re good coaches and good recruiters, they don’t leave,” Reale said. “Or at least if they leave, it’s going to cost the new school, the new employer sometimes a very considerable six-figure number to hire a new assistant coach.”
But as the stakes only rise higher in big-money college football, at what point does the crazy coaching carousel start spinning a little more slowly?
Greenberg, quoted in The News Tribune, sees room for change on the horizon.
“With jumping (between schools) becoming a way of doing business, I’m surprised we haven’t seen more anti-competition clauses,” Greenberg said.