Saban Deserves The Money, But It's Still About Ego In College Football

LSU v Alabama

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And just like that Alabama's Nick Saban was restored as the highest paid coach in college football. One month ago, Georgia rewarded Kirby Smart with a new deal after his Bulldogs won the national championship. Smart had been under a previous deal that paid him about $7M a season. That deal was signed in May of 2018 and doubled Smart's original deal. So Kirby Smart went from just over $3.5M five years ago to now making an average of $11.25M per season. His salary for 2022 will be $10.25M and increase over the years. His current deal is a 10-year $112.5M package.

Saban was under contract, with an extension reached last August, that paid him an average of $10.6M per season through 2028. Alabama certainly had a fine season losing in the title game to Georgia. There really is no reason Alabama had to change anything regarding Saban's deal. But this is college football. It's not about the market, it's about the ego.

First, Nick Saban deserves whatever he can get and gets a lot. His $10.6M per season is more than enough to live a comfortable life. Yes, Alabama benefits far beyond athletics with their investment in Saban. Many people have written about the enrollment explosion of out-of-state students since Saban's football dominance started. The program's success has increased the value of Alabama's brand, the school itself and has had a huge economic impact on the entire state.

But don't think this is not about ego as well. And it's not just Saban, it is the business of college football. Saban and Smart's final year of the current deal is nothing more than a note on a sheet or paper. Neither coach will reach the conclusion of their current deal before their school gives them a new deal or fancy extension. It's how the college game works.

Georgia rewarded Smart for winning the national title and just happened to raise his pay just above what Nick Saban was making. That lasted one month and Georgia knew what was coming. They knew Saban would eventually get a new deal worth more than the head Bulldog? How did they know?

Nick Saban has a clause in his contract where he and/or his representatives meet with the Alabama athletic director every February to look at "marketplace trends"(it truly says that in Saban's contract) and if Saban's total guaranteed compensation is less than average of the three-highest paid coaches in the SEC or five-highest paid coaches in the NCAA, Alabama would increase his compensation to the higher of the two averages.

Saban can thank the new Kirby Smart deal and contracts for LSU's Brian Kelly and Michigan State's Mel Tucker. Their contract totals didn't force Alabama to change Saban's previous deal, but the optics of Kirby Smart's new deal did. Alabama was not about to have Georgia pay their coach more. So the Tide took care of the look and Nick has a new deal that will average $11.7M per season verses Smart's $11.2M per season. Saban is set to receive $12.7M by 2029. Does anyone really believe Saban will go eight seasons without getting a new deal? His contract tells you if the market continues to rise, Nick is getting a raise.

But these days, major college athletic departments pay their coaches not just what the market calls for but because they want to keep up with their rivals. You can't have your rival pay their coach more than you are paying yours. Eli Drinkwitz was making $750,000 as the head coach at Appalachian State. Missouri hired him for the 2020 season and the school paid him $3.925M. Good for Eli to get whatever he can get. But would he have turned down the job if the school offered him $2M? Of course not, but the Tigers couldn't be viewed as being cheap. Bryan Harsin was making $1.85M at Boise State in 2020. Auburn hired him and gave him $5.25M Would he have turned it down if it was $3M? No. But Auburn knew the optics.

This happens all across college football. And it's not stopping any time soon.

As state employees, the contracts of college football coaches at public universities are public for all to see. That is why there is so much coverage of these things. Do you know who the highest paid coach is in the NFL? You might guess Bill Belichick and you would be wrong for 2022. The Rams are reportedly paying Super Bowl winning coach Sean McVay somewhere between $15-18M this season. Why the gap there? Because NFL head coaching salaries and their contracts are not available to the public and rarely reported.

McVay's deal is said to the highest followed by Belichick at $12.5M then Seattle's Pete Carroll at $11M. Niners coach Kyle Shanahan is thought to be fourth highest at $9.5M per season, which would put him behind Saban and Smart and even with Michigan State's Mel Tucker.

Maybe college coaches should be paid more despite coaching fewer games. College coaches might do more, especially when it comes to things away from the field. College coaches recruit 365 days a year, they fundraise, they are the face of a university in most cases. And winning is important in both college and pro football, but NFL teams know the guaranteed money whether they win or not where in college football if you don't win it means less donor money and these days less money to spend on talent acquisition.

Good for Saban and good for all coaches for getting what they can. Do they deserve it? Who knows. But in college football it's not just about the marketplace. It's about the ego and the optics. And here's betting that Saban's current deal will be tweaked in about....8-10 months....again.

Final note: In 1931, shortly before his death, Notre Dame gave Knute Rockne a new contract that paid $75,000 a season. His 1929 and 1930 teams went undefeated.

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