College Football's Coaching Bonus Bonanza
Reporter Steve Berkowitz on how USA TODAY Sports covers the booming business of campus coaching incentive payments
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If Louisiana State University football coach Ed Orgeron leads his team to a victory in Monday night’s College Football Playoff championship game, he will deliver the school its fourth national title—and first since 2007.
That tidy sum would come to Orgeron in the form of a contractual bonus. It would come in addition to the $1.275 in bonuses Orgeron already has earned for steering the top-ranked Tigers to a wildly-successful regular season and playoff semifinal win. And it would come separately from the $720,000 in combined bonuses his assistants could earn if LSU defeats Clemson University in the title game.
None of this is unusual.
For college football coaches, the extended winter holidays are a bonus bonanza. According to USA TODAY Sports, head coaches at Bowl Subdivision public schools earned nearly $9.5 million in bonuses for the 2019 season as of early December—a figure that doesn’t include subsequent playoff or bowl victory payouts, nor bonuses for assistant coaches, team staffers, and other athletic department employees.
Incentive-based compensation for campus coaches is nothing new: then-Georgia Tech University coach John Heisman (yes, that John Heisman) is believed to have signed the first contract containing a bonus provision back in 1904, a deal that added 30 percent of the school’s football ticket revenue to his annual base salary of $2,500.
As major college football has become a multibillion-dollar industry, however, bonuses have become bigger and more varied. Former Virginia Tech University coach Frank Beamer reportedly once had a clause in his contract that guaranteed an off-season cruise vacation for all coaches, wives, and staff after every successful Hokies season; after appearing in the playoff, Ohio State’s 10 assistant coaches qualified for nearly $2.5 million in combined bonuses.
If Clemson wins Monday night’s game, head coach Dabo Swinney will collect $250,000 on top of the $600,000 in bonuses he already has earned this season—all of which is separate from his sport-topping $9.26 million in school pay for the 2019 season.
To better understand the landscape of college football coaching bonuses, Hreal Sports spoke to USA Today Sports project reporter Steve Berkowitz, whose dogged reporting on the economics of campus sports not only underlies the publication’s annual surveys of major coach compensation, but also makes for enlightening Twitter reading during football and basketball seasons:
Steve Berkowitz @ByBerkowitzIowa coach Kirk Ferentz all but assured of $150,000 bonus he'll get if Hawkeyes' win over USC in Holiday Bowl puts them among top 20 in final rankings of Amway Coaches or AP media poll. Iowa entered game No. 19 in both. If Iowa cracks top 15 in either, bonus increases to $175,000
(The following conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity).
Hreal Sports: So when and why did you start tracking college football coach bonuses?
Steve Berkowitz: 2015 was the first football season for which we asked schools about the amount of bonus money their coaches got for the prior season—so all of the info that [we published] was based on the 2014 season. But I previously had been informally tracking this stuff, mostly so I wasn’t fully dependent on the schools’ calculation of it.
We previously had published annual surveys of [coach] compensation. Those always had a figure about the maximum amount of bonus money a coach could get. We started looking at bonuses more thoroughly because an athletic director who had been reading our compensation surveys wondered how much coaches were actually getting. I and my editors thought that was an interesting question!
How did this go from being an annual article and database to something that you update live on Twitter during the season?
I was a relatively late adapter to Twitter. I didn’t join until September of 2012. I started making contemporaneous mention of bonuses for football that fall and winter. Then one thing led to another. Over time, I’ve tried to become more systematic about it. It’s a little easier to do with the NCAA [basketball] tournament.
What is feedback from readers and within the college spots community to your live Twitter stuff?
I can only address that anecdotally within college sports. People in and around it, coaching and administration, seem to find it interesting. Although I have to say, people who aren’t interested or think it is inappropriate will probably not come up to you and say, “wow, I’m really not interested in what you’re doing!” [Laughs]. So the feedback is pretty one-sided.
In terms of Twitter reception, I think it has done reasonably well. I don’t have a the same Twitter following as people with much bigger college football profiles have. But within my Twitter scale, it has gotten good reception. Some of the more re-Tweeted things I’ve done that are not breaking news are from this.
How do you go about getting this info?
The basic thing is getting the contracts for all of the coaches. We do that through sending open records requests to all of the public schools in the FBS [Football Bowl Subdivision]. We started that in 2006 for head coaches, I think we skipped 2008, and then in 2009 added all of the assistant coaches. And this is the fourth year we’ve been doing it for the strength coaches, too. That part has grown—originally it the staffs were limited to nine assistants, then that added an assistant to get to 10, now we are up to 11 with the strength guys.
For everything you see us publish in the fall, I start asking for those contracts in June. Most schools’ fiscal years start July 1. So if you ask too early, there are instances where a coach will be entitled to a COLA [cost of living adjustment] increase—and that is not an amendment to the contract. So you won’t find out about that until it goes into effect with the new fiscal year. Then there are many schools that employ assistant coaches on annual contracts or on an at-will basis. If you ask to early, you end up having to go back and ask again. That’s nobody’s fault, it’s just that the schools respond to records requests in the timeframe they are made.
With head and assistant coaches, having the right base salary figure is really important for calculating the bonuses. If you have a coach who is eligible for eight bonuses and they are all driven off the base salary, that max possible bonus figure will get increasingly incorrect if you don’t have that base salary right.
It takes the the better part of 4-5 months of grinding to get it out. But once we’re able to manage all of the analysis and fact-checking with the schools for the head coaches, we publish. That’s in early or mid-October.
Of course, I’m doing other things in addition to this!
Are the schools resistant to your records requests? Do they kick the can or make it hard for you? It’s not always easy or quick to get information through public records requests, even if the law is on your side.
I wouldn’t say the schools are resistant. Some are better staffed to deal with these requests than others. And the other factor in this is the timing of when various agreements—the coaching contracts—are fully executed and ready for release by the open records office. Some schools are extremely efficient about getting contracts signed and released. Others less so.
You mentioned analysis and fact-checking. How does that work?
Analysis is just reading through the contracts and pulling out the information based on the methodology we’ve established for this.
The fact-checking part with the schools is something we do with head coaches. I send an email that basically says, here’s a thumbnail of our methods, and here are the numbers that we’ve put together for your coach. We then ask the schools to confirm those numbers or help us correct them as needed. And we say that if we don’t hear from you, we will operate as if these numbers are accurate.
It’s important to note that this is an entirely voluntary thing for the schools. It’s not like answering a public records request. And I would say about two-thirds of the schools respond to us saying that either “this is correct,” or, “this is a little bit off.” By and large, the schools are pretty helpful in responding one way or the other.
It sounds like, for the most part, schools are good with the way you calculate these numbers.
There are people who disagree with our methodology. We do our best to uniformly apply it.
What are the hardest things to analyze?
During our open records request, we do ask for a list of bonuses the coach received over a specified one-year window of time, the season in question. But there are some bonuses I don’t track and can’t track.
For example, some coaches have bonuses in their contracts that are connected to conduct or community service. There’s not a huge number of them, and the specific wording is variable. But they give bonuses for, say, nobody in the program—coaches or players—having any kind of personal conduct problem. In turn, that could be based on violating school rules.
Less than a handful coaches are eligible for bonuses based on how involved in the community they or their players are. That’s usually assessed by an athletic director or the school’s administration. The object of those is to incentivize the coach and program to interact with the university community.
It’s impossible for me to track those. It’s same with some bonuses that are based on the team’s GPA [Grade Point Average]. Absent seeking that through an open records request, I wouldn’t be able to get my arms around it.
You must be incredible at picking up a coaching contract and digesting in, like, five minutes!
I’m better than I used to be! But I’m not infallible. And these agreements are getting more complicated and creative—particularly with buyouts, which we also have started reporting on. Calculating those is really complex. And school approaches to those have gotten very creative in terms of how much of the contract they guarantee and the conditions in which those guarantees can be changed up or down depending on the team’s performance.
When you’re reading these contracts, there’s nothing but opportunities to make mistakes. Particularly when coaches’ contracts are announced by schools and people are reading through them quickly and putting stuff out on Twitter fast.
Is there a particular school—or schools—that you want to get contract and bonus information for but can’t?
Sure. The private schools as a whole. I would be interested to see what those look like. We always offer private schools the opportunity—every year, I sent invitations to the university media contracts to participate. Almost all of them respond, and they are very polite, but they say, “we are not going to do it.”
Included in that group are the military academies and a handful of public schools for whom the coaches derive the vast majority of their income from an agreement with a private foundation.
That part is really interesting. We’re up front about it in the footnoting to our reporting. For example, at [the University of] Mississippi and Mississippi State [University], the coaches have public state contracts with the universities, and separate agreements with booster groups that operate as private, albeit connected, nonprofit organizations. The nonprofits do not provide contracts. But the schools do provide a summary of those financial terms. They will tell us what the bonus and compensation structures look like. But we don’t know, for example, what the buyout arrangements are at those schools.
Let’s talk about the bonuses themselves. What are the most standard or commonplace bonuses, and what are the most unusual or unique ones that you’ve seen while reporting on this?
It’s pretty standard that coaches will get a bonus if the team plays in a bowl game. There are a couple where that is structured in a slightly different way. For instance, this past season, Indiana [University’s] coach didn’t get a bonus for participating in a bowl game per se, he got a bonus for each win during the season beginning with his sixth win. If you operate under the assumption that if you have six wins as a Power Five school, you will get into a bowl game, then that is effectively the same.
Some coaches have to win a bowl game or end the season with winning record to get a bonus connected to a bowl game.
There also are bonuses put into contracts that are clearly meant to be gettable. At Appalachian State University, there’s a $10,000 bonus for the coach if the team plays a guarantee game against a Power Five school at their stadium. They will play that game almost every year.
The most unusual bonuses are all over the place. There are some really creative approaches that schools take to providing incentives. Some schools take an approach where, relatively speaking, the coach’s basic annual compensation relative to the market is kind of low. But their bonus incentives, if they were to max them out, are high.
Arizona State, for instance, is like this. And that is the school’s approach to coaches, broadly. It’s not a situation where [current football coach] Herm Edwards is betting on himself. The school dealt with its previously coach, Todd Graham, the same way. It deals with [current men’s basketball coach] Bobby Hurley the same way.
Jeff Tedford at Fresno State University made over $1.2 million in bonuses in 2018-19. His salary was $1.6 million. Is that kind of ratio of salary to bonuses unusual?
You have situations where there are guys who have bonus maximums that are much greater than their annual compensation. There are not a lot of them. But off the top of my head, this year, Herm Edwards is like that. His basic pay for the 2019 season was $2.25 million. His maximum bonus availability was just under $4 million. Matt Luke’s pay from Mississippi was $3.1 million. His max possible bonus total was $3.05 million.
By the way, with Tedford, his possible bonus max that year was $2.765 million. So he did not come close to running the table.
So I have to ask about University of Connecticut coach Randy Edsall’s extremely unusual in-game bonuses. For example, he receives $2,000 every time his team scores first or is leading at halftime. He also gets a bonus every time his team leads a game in total offense, and other stuff like that. Does he stand out?
As far as in-game stuff goes, he’s unique. There are coaches who get bonuses for winning specific games. A bunch have bonuses for rivalry games. [The University of California, Berkeley] coach gets a bonus for beating Stanford [University]. He also can get a bonus for beating [the University of Southern California, the University of California, Los Angeles, or the University of Oregon] depending on how many games those teams win. And some coaches outside the Power Five get bonuses for winning games against Power Five teams.
There are 20-25 schools whose contracts we can’t see. So maybe they have similar game-to-game statistical achievement bonuses like Edsall. But I’m not aware of them.
Something I noticed in your reporting is that some bowl bonuses tied to specific bowl games. Why is that?
The commonsense analysis of this is that it is based on the prestige or the payout of the particular bowl game. For some of the coaches, it’s set up that if the bowl game has a payout of X dollars, than this is the bonus—above that threshold, you get a better bonus. For example, the way [University of Alabama coach] Nick Saban’s bonus is set up, it’s a function of “are you playing in a basic bowl game, or are you playing in a certain level of game?”
Who actually comes up with these bonuses? Schools or agents?
People are very circumspect about the nature of those conversations.
Are there any coaches who don’t have bonuses in their contracts?
I can only think off the top of my head of one coach at a prominent school who had no incentive clauses in his contact—back when Travis Ford was [the men’s basketball coach] at Oklahoma State [University] a few years ago.
It’s important to note that just because a coach doesn’t have a bonus in their contact, that doesn’t necessarily preclude an athletic director or university administration from giving them a bonus. That, by the way, is the case for a lot of assistant football coaches. Their contracts or employment letters have no prescribed bonus. But they can still receive them. When we publish the assistant coaches’ pay figures, we include in our methodology some language saying that they are not prescribed bonuses but they can be given at the athletic director’s or the head coach’s discretion.
In some cases, they create bonus pools. If you win, the assistant coaches will share a pool of money. We don’t publish a maximum figure with those pools because we don’t know how the money is divided.
Speaking of assistant coaches, LSU’s assistants are also going to be cashing in with some pretty nice bonuses this year. How do assistant coach bonuses compare now to what they looked like when you started?
Honestly, I don’t think it’s a lot different than it looks when we first stated looking at them. The amounts of money have grown a little bit, but it’s not becoming a lot more or noticeably more or less prevalent.
The schools that have prescribed bonuses, it’s roughly the same percentages for assistant coaches. At Ohio State [University], for instance, the bonuses for the assistant coaches have been based on a percentage of pay. The bonuses to those guys has been going up because Ohio State is paying its assistant coaches more money.
Do you have any idea if your stories have actually resulted in coaches getting more and bigger bonuses? Like, a coach read one of your stories, saw another coach’s bonus, and then marched into their athletic director’s office and demanded a bump?
[Laughs]. I don’t want to address that question!
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