Jimbo Fisher is a successful college football coach. He spent many years as a coordinator before succeeding the legendary Bobby Bowdin at Florida State in 2010. Mr. Fisher coached Florida State to an undefeated national championship season in 2013, which came sandwiched between a 12-2 season capped by an Orange Bowl victory in 2012 and a 13-1 season ended by a loss in the national semifinals in 2014. Over eight seasons, Mr. Fisher’s Florida State teams put together an 83-23 record, finishing no worse than 9-4 in his first seven seasons.
After a disappointing 5-6 final 2017 season at Florida State, Mr. Fisher resigned and signed a 10-year, 75-million dollar contract to become the head coach of the Texas A&M Aggies. 10 years, 75 million is a hefty contract, even by the standards of big-time college football. Beyond the length and numbers, Mr. Fisher received some astoundingly favorable provisions. From the linked article:
If Fisher is fired without cause, A&M would owe Fisher the entirety of his remaining contract and must pay 25 percent of it within 60 days. He would also keep the full buyout if he takes a new job afterwards.
I want his agent. In short, Mr. Fisher was guaranteed the full amount of his contract in the event that he was fired without cause. But what are the chances of something like that happening!? There was another very favorable provision for the coach:
On the contrary, if Fisher were to resign from A&M before his contract expires, Fisher ‘will have no financial obligation to University arising from such termination, and University will have no financial obligation to Coach.’ This means Fisher would owe A&M nothing for leaving of his own will and vice versa.
In summary, if A&M fired Mr. Fisher without cause, it would owe him the full amount remaining on his contract. If Mr. Fisher decided to leave A&M, he would forego what was remaining on his contract with A&M but owe the school nothing. Remarkably, there is no reference to a no-compete clause restricting where Mr. Fisher could coach if he resigned from A&M before the end of his contract. Again – this man has an incredible agent.
(The contract did provide that were Mr. Fisher to be terminated for cause – specifically certain NCAA, conference, university or Title IX violations – he would not be owed the entirety of his contract.)
Mr. Fisher’s first four seasons at A&M were generally successful. The highlight came in the virus-truncated 2020 season when Mr. Fisher’s A&M team finished with a 9-1 record capped by an Orange Bowl victory, which led to a year-end ranking of fourth in the country. A&M finished with records of 9-4, 8-5, and 8-4 in the other three seasons out of his first four.
But let us focus on 2020.
After guiding A&M to a year-end fourth-place ranking in 2020, rumors began to swirl. Conference rival Louisiana State (“LSU”), had just bought out Coach Ed Orgeron, who had led the school’s football team to an undefeated national championship season in 2019, for the low price of $17 million (more on that in a bit), and word was out that LSU was preparing a big offer to lure Mr. Fisher from Texas A&M (pun intended). Mr. Fisher had in the past been the offensive coordinator at LSU. One account had LSU preparing an 8 year, $125 million offer for Mr. Fisher. Whether that was a formal or final offer we know not, but we do know that A&M took the threat seriously in light of the fact that it was only paying Mr. Fisher a meager $7.5 million annually and, pursuant to the terms of Mr. Fisher’s contract, he could take another job with no recourse for A&M. The Texas A&M Board of Regents acted swiftly, extending Mr. Fisher’s contract through 2031. Recall that prior to the extension, he was coaching pursuant to the10-year, 75 million dollar contract he had signed in 2017. As a result of the extension, Mr. Fisher was to be paid $95.6 million through 2031. Moreover, the contract was still fully guaranteed in the event of termination by A&M. See the following report by Ms. Alicia de Artola of Fansided from October 16, 2021:
By adding the extra four years on the coach’s contract, the Aggies would now owe Fisher $95.6 million if they fired him without cause this year.
But who needs to worry about a buyout? Ms. de Artola continued:
Of course, Texas A&M isn’t in danger of activating that buyout. Fisher just delivered the biggest win of his tenure in College Station and things are looking up for the program because of it, despite the two losses that came before.
More money. More years. Same lopsided terms in favor of Mr. Fisher.
(Aside: LSU landed on its feet, hiring Brian Kelly away from Notre Dame for 10 years, $100 million.)
Ms. de Artola wrote this article in the middle of A&M’s 2021 season. As she noted, A&M had just toppled then-top ranked and defending national champion Alabama to bounce back from consecutive losses on September 25 and October 2, leaving the team’s record at 4-2. As she noted, things were looking up.
Or were they?
A&M entered 2022 ranked number six in the country after putting together the top-ranked recruiting class (some argued it was the best-ever recruiting class). Of course, preseason rankings are fickle things, and A&M ultimately finished the season 5-7. 5-7 was not sufficient to earn A&M a spot in one of the near infinite number of bowl games, much less a national ranking. Despite its poor 2022, A&M entered 2023 with the number 23 ranking in the AP poll, but it soon dropped out of the ranking with a week two loss to Miami. On November 11, 2023, A&M defeated Mississippi State 51-10 to bring its record to 6-4 (3 of its 4 losses came against ranked conference opponents).
On November 12, 2023, Texas A&M fired Mr. Fisher without cause.
According to Texas A&M’s athletic director, Mr. Ross Bjork, “[O]ur program is stuck in neutral.” We can infer from the decision to fire Mr. Fisher that A&M determined that the solution for breaking out of neutral was a new coach. But recall how the contract extension they gave him just a couple of years ago works upon his termination. The Texas Tribune explained:
Texas A&M University fired head football coach Jimbo Fisher on Sunday, committing itself to spend more than $75 million to buy out his contract and announcing a national search for his replacement.
A&M insists it is trying to ensure the money comes from its donor funds (Texas Tribune):
Bjork said details of the contract buyout were being worked out but that what is owed to Fisher would be paid with donor dollars from the school’s 12th Man Foundation and athletic department funds.
I would recommend that the relevant authorities try to hold A&M, which is a state school, to that pledge. If all else fails, perhaps A&M can dip into its Qatar money.
Let us return to LSU.
On October 18, 2021, I wrote about Louisiana State paying its now-former Coach, Ed Orgeron, $17 million to go away. Mr. Orgeron had had even more success at Louisiana State than Mr. Fisher at A&M, coaching the Tigers to a dominant undefeated national championship season in 2019 before the team lost momentum in 2020 and 21. I wrote of the buyout of Mr. Orgeron:
To be sure, neither erratic coach hiring and firing decisions nor spending upwards of 20 million dollars to change football coaches is the worst thing that an American college has done to debase itself in recent years – colleges have afflicted and are afflicting worse on students. But that fact does not change the fact that remarkably expensive stunts such as LSU’s handling of its coaching situation call into question the order of priorities at offending institutions.
(Mr. Orgeron’s final game as coach of Louisiana State in 2021 was a 27-24 victory over Mr. Fisher’s Texas A&M.)
The views I expressed with respect to Mr. Orgeron’s buyout apply with even more force to the substantially more expensive buyout of Mr. Fisher. Even if A&M follows through on using football donor funds to pay for the buyout, this exercise is a clown show. A&M made Mr. Fisher one of the highest paid coaches in college football after one elite season in 2020 packed with perks that one would only give under the belief that Mr. Fisher was irreplaceable. All it took was one down season and a mediocre current season (which could, with a strong finish, end up being similar to Mr. Fisher’s non-2020 campaigns at A&M) to pay him $76.8 million to go away. On one hand, spending $76.8 million to ensure that Mr. Fisher does not coach your football team (A&M could have let Fisher go to LSU for free in 2021) raises questions about A&M’s priorities as a purported institution of higher education, but the farcical handling of Mr. Fisher’s employment raises questions about the competence of A&M administrators.
(I raise no questions about the competence of Mr. Fisher’s career-decision judgment or his excellent agent.)