Holgorsen’s contract not out of the ordinary
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — There are plenty of reasons Dana Holgorsen is still West Virginia's football coach despite what can only be described as a miserable last 20 games.
Yes, the Mountaineers won just six of those and, with only one notable exception, they were nothing to crow about. Five of those six wins came against an FCS school (William & Mary), a should-be-FCS school (Georgia State), a 2012 Kansas team that had lost 20 straight games to FBS teams, a 2012 Iowa State team on its way to a 6-7 record and this year's win over 4-8 Texas Christian.
The sixth win, over soon-to-be 10-2 Oklahoma State remains one of the great mysteries of college football, if not life itself.
Still, Holgorsen has had just two years to recruit and three years to coach. There is a compelling argument to be made for allowing any coach time to recruit his own brand of players and see what he can do with them — a case made perhaps even stronger in this instance because of West Virginia's move to the Big 12.
Argue all you like about the relative strengths of the league WVU left (the now-defunct Big East) and the one it entered, but this isn't debatable: The Big 12 is a far different style and requires a different type of player.
Of course, critics will argue that there really is only one reason Holgorsen isn't out there entertaining offers to become someone's offensive coordinator right now. It's his contract. It's the one that he signed roughly seven months after his first team went 10-3 and hung 70 on Clemson in a BCS bowl and everyone was giddy with anticipation of what could be next.
The nuts and bolts of the contract are actually pretty average — if, of course, you consider a guaranteed $16.9 million over six years (and average of just over $2.8 million per) to be average. Whether you like that or not, it actually is, at least at the upper tier of college football.
According the USA Today's annual coaching salary database, Holgorsen ranks No. 24 of the 119 FBS coaches whose salaries are available, but consider that his approximate $2.6 million in pay this year was also No. 24 of the 62 schools in the five power conferences (much closer to the middle than 24th of 119) and just sixth among the 10 Big 12 coaches (actually in the bottom half).
Holgorsen's salary, though, isn't why it would be hard to have fired him at this point. Well, actually it is, but only in terms of the larger issue with his contract that has a lot of people upset. The fact is, Holgorsen would be owed almost every penny of that remaining salary (minus $75,000 retention bonuses owed him the next four years) because there is no buyout on the school's end.
There is a buyout on Holgorsen's side. He can escape the contract any time he wants by paying a flat $2 million. That figure never changes, whether he were to leave today or in the last year of his contract. But if the school fires him, it owes him everything he's contracted to receive. And here's the math right now: $11.3 million in salary through 2017, plus a $300,000 bonus owed him on March 1 of next year.
That's actually called a retention payment in his contract and even though he wouldn't have been retained, the language specifically states that he will collect it unless he terminates the contract or the university fires him for cause.
Sorry, losing games isn't considered cause.
We bring all this up today, though, not so much to pinpoint the obvious one-sidedness of Holgorsen's contract, but to explain something that those who live in the vacuum of WVU sports might miss: This is not an unusual college football coaching contract.
In some ways it almost seems standard, as if all coaches were signing uniform pacts where only the dollar amounts change. And, like it or not, those dollar amounts where Holgorsen are concerned, as we've already illustrated, are not out of the ordinary for a program attempting to compete at this level.
As for requiring full payment to a fired coach as opposed to the coach buying out his contract (a bill now-frequently footed by his new school)? Well, that's pretty standard, too. Have we forgotten already that when Rich Rodriguez finally agreed to pay his $4 million buyout to WVU that Michigan paid $2.5 million of that? Now schools routinely pay the full amount and are even creatively attempting to write the payments off without taxes by calling them business expenses.
What grates on some WVU fans these days, of course, is the pay-in-full part of firing a coach, which they see as the only reason Holgorsen wasn't fired and thus blame trained-attorney Oliver Luck for writing a horrid contract. But it's only horrid in the sense that all coaches' contracts are that way. It's the way it's done these days.
As Jere Longman wrote in the New York Times, "For an especially lucrative occupation, one might consider becoming a fired college football coach.'' And that was a full year ago, and it has only gotten worse.
Consider some of my personal favorites:
n When Tennessee fired Derek Dooley last year, it was on the hook initially for $5 million to Dooley, $4 million to his assistants and $1.4 million to Cincinnati for grabbing Butch Jones as Dooley's replacement. Although some of that obligation disappeared, the school also then signed Jones for $18.2 million over six years and was in such a financial hole it could no longer afford to pay $18 million in contributions it was scheduled to give to its own academic side.
n You think Holgorsen is the only coach still on the job in part because of finances? Nebraska didn't get rid of Bo Pelini in part because it would owe him $8 million plus buyouts for his assistants and the school has already paid or is on the hook for $5.8 million in buyouts to its last two coaches, Frank Solich and Bill Callahan.
n Auburn fired Gene Chizik last year and it worked out pretty well on the field, obviously. In the budget? Not so much. Chizik and his staff got or are getting $11.09 million, including $208,334 checks to Chizik every month for 36 months.
n If Kansas were to give up on Charlie Weis after winning four games in two years, it would owe him his full $2.5 million salary for the rest of his contract. Not bad considering Weis no doubt has a few bucks still lying around from his unfinished Notre Dame contract three jobs ago.
n And then there's Kirk Ferentz at Iowa. If he's fired he doesn't get his full salary, just 75 percent of it. Like Holgorsen, Ferentz's current contract was signed in the aftermath of an Orange Bowl win after the 2009 season and is a whopper — 10 years at an average of nearly $4 million, making him the ninth-highest-paid coach in the country (Chew on that for a minute: $4 mil is No. 9). If he were fired — as many wanted after he, too, went 4-8 in 2012 — Iowa would have to pay him 75 percent, or $3 million a year, through 2020.
The point here, I suppose, is that if you wish to view Holgorsen's contract as an albatross around the figurative neck of WVU, feel free because it is. But don't view it as a unique anomaly, something into which a bunch of backwoods hillbillies were snookered.
It's not. It's simply the lay of the land.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1