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Analyzing the buyouts in Neal Brown’s new WVU contract

Contract buyouts in the collegiate sports world have gone through many changes over the years as the amounts of money paid to head coaches (and now a few assistants) have ascended well into the seven- and eight-figure range.

With so much money on the table, buyouts have become a topic of negotiation, as both employing schools and the coach employees have sought to protect themselves, or provide a safe landing pad, in case one side or the other decides to end the deal before its termination date.

We looked at most of the details of WVU head coach Neal Brown’s contract extension when it first came out, but delayed an examination of the buyout structures because there was a good deal to break down in the payment and bonus structures of the new deal, and also to provide some research time to figure out the landscape of buyouts in the current environment.

As is typical with many contracts at this level, there are two different structures in play with the buyouts in Brown’s latest extension.

First, if West Virginia decides to fire Brown for reasons other than violations of NCAA rules or inappropriate conduct, it will be on the hook for all or most of the remaining value of the contract, which runs through Dec, 31, 2026.

If he is let go before Dec, 31, 2024, WVU would owe him 100% of the remaining value of the contract, while a termination between Jan 1, 2025 and Dec. 31, 2026 would net Brown 85% of the total remaining contract amount.

For example, if Brown were let go following the 2023 season, he would still be due $12.7 million (the amount of his contract for 2024-26). Were he to be terminated on Jan. 10, 2025, he would receive $7,310,000 (85% of the remaining two years of the contract).

On the flip side, if Brown elects to leave on or before Dec. 31, 2024, he would owe WVU a liquidated damages payment equal to 25% of the remaining total salary figure.

A departure in the final two years of the contract (Jan. 1, 2025 – Dec. 31, 2026) would see him owing 12.5% of the total.

Again, for example, if he were to leave following the 2023 season, he would owe West Virginia $3.175 million, which is 25% of the remaining three years of the contract.

If the departure came on Jan. 10, 2025, he would owe $1.075 million to the school.

There’s also an interesting codicil to all of this. Brown’s buyout liability drops to 12.5% from now through the end of 2024 (from the base contract number of 25%) if both WVU President E. Gordon Gee and Director of Athletics Shane Lyons are not in their current positions at the time Brown elects to leave.

That’s another tick in Brown’s favor, as it would make it more viable for him to depart if both of the people who were instrumental in his hiring are no longer around.

As an aside, note that there are no buyouts due Brown if he is dismissed for cause, such as violations of the law or of NCAA rules.

That is a standard clause in every coach’s contract at WVU.

Why are the figures slanted in favor of Brown? The first reason is that it’s a seller’s market these days.

With coaches making more and more money, schools don’t have a great deal of leverage in trying to assign large buyouts, especially in later years of the deal.

Coaches confronted with large buyout clauses could balk at signing new deals and extensions.

Both sides, of course, want to have multi-year deals in place, so as to present the appearance of stability and counter any potential negative recruiting that often occurs when coaches are working with only one or two years left on their deals. That’s a motivation for both sides to get the deal done.

Finally, it’s quite unlikely that the terms of a deal covering a season five or six years from now will ever be in play.

By that time, a coach will either have been successful, necessitating another amendment (just as this Brown extension changed the parameters of the original contract and amendment signed in 2019 and 2020, respectively), let go, or has moved on to a bigger contract at another school (an eventuality that no fan wants to contemplate).

Either way, though, there will almost assuredly be a different contract in place for WVU’s head coach by the time, say, the 2025 season rolls around.

It’s also interesting to look at Brown’s previous buyout figures in his original contract from 2019.

His payout to West Virginia, were he to leave of his own accord, ranged from $4 million in the first year (2020) down to $1 million (2023-24), so this new deal actually offers West Virginia some more protection, admittedly with a higher salary being paid to him now.

Under the previous deal, had WVU chosen to terminate Brown without cause, it would have owed him 75% of his remaining contract ($12.9 million at the time).

The upshot of all of this is that while Brown’s buyouts are less were he to leave than if West Virginia were to dismiss him, the amounts that both sides would have to pay, especially in the early and middle stages of the contract, are significant.