When pondering Jimbo Fisher's Texas A&M football future, ignore the buyout | Opinion
Ignore the buyout.
That’s one principle I’ve learned when considering a coach’s job security.
Whatever you might think is too much severance to stomach, it’s probably not in big-time college athletics, where money grows on ESPN’s tree and in the pockets of boosters.
Whatever you might think is knee-jerk spending, it’s probably not for an industry that pumps money into lazy rivers, slides, barbershops, bowling alleys, nap pods and weight rooms that would make NFL franchises blush.
It’s easy to spend money that isn’t your own.
So, do I consider Jimbo Fisher’s $88 million buyout cost-prohibitive for Texas A&M? I do not, especially if the losses mount for a coach whose overall record is identical to that of his predecessor, Kevin Sumlin, through 53 games.
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Remember the rule for considering a coach’s job security: Ignore the buyout, because the folks doing the firing usually do.
Texas A&M fired Sumlin after six consecutive winning seasons, and impatience in college football has grown since then. Fisher’s unranked Aggies are a disappointing 3-2 in his fifth season.
Any lingering thought of buyouts offering job security should have been removed when Auburn paid more than $21 million to fire Gus Malzahn after his eighth consecutive winning season. That firing came after a pandemic season that we once believed would cause athletic departments to be more fiscally conservative.
How naïve we were.
Athletics directors essentially have three job duties: hire coaches, fire coaches and play the pauper while passing the hat.
They tell tales of their dated facilities and their struggle to keep up with the Joneses’ Taj Mahals as they fundraise. Oh, and don’t get them started on the financial toll of name, image and likeness deals. The NIL marketplace threatens to send the college athletics model straight to the poorhouse, they say.
The hat passes, the TV deals are struck, and money pours in like it’s a tent revival.
And when your lucrative business model is built on the backs of unsalaried athletes, and when no owner is there to pocket the profits – or stomach the losses – like a professional franchise, you spend money like a drunk in a casino.
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Cue Texas A&M, a revenue behemoth that’s been straddling the line between aggressiveness and recklessness throughout its dealings with Fisher.
The Aggies made history with their 10-year, $75 million deal to pluck Fisher from Florida State in 2017 after firing Sumlin, who went 7-5 in his final season.
I can't fault A&M for its salary offer to hire a sitting Power Five coach whose 2013 Seminoles won a national championship, but the recklessness became apparent when reading beyond the contract’s length and salary.
Fisher’s contract was guaranteed, meaning A&M would have to pay his full salary through the term's end if it fired him. It marked the richest guaranteed contract in college sports history.
Fisher’s contract also included no duty to mitigate the buyout with future employment – many schools include mitigation clauses to defray financial damages – meaning he’ll pocket the full buyout he’s owed, if he’s fired.
Meanwhile, the contract featured zero penalty on Fisher’s end if he were to leave for another job – a contract peculiarity that practically encouraged Fisher to entertain other jobs as leverage against A&M.
In short, the contract offered few protections for A&M in a deal tilted almost entirely toward Fisher.
Then, wooed by Fisher’s 9-1 record in the 2020 pandemic season, enticed by recruiting momentum and perhaps worried other suitors may come calling, A&M did what many universities do when super agent Jimmy Sexton extends his hand.
The Aggies bowed to their master, reupped Fisher for a fresh 10-year deal that increased his salary to $9 million this year, with built-in raises, and more than doubled his buyout.
One of the few protections for A&M: only 25% of his buyout would be due within the first 60 days of a firing, with the rest paid over the course of his deal.
Thirteen months after A&M announced that extension, the shine is off Fisher. He peacocked throughout the offseason and made incendiary comments toward the sport’s greatest coach, Alabama’s Nick Saban, but his team has been unmasked as a fraud.
Now, Saban is positioned to land an uppercut into Fisher’s pearly whites when No. 1 Alabama hosts the Aggies on Saturday (7 p.m. CT, CBS).
A&M’s offense – a unit for which Fisher calls plays – looks passé and ranks as the SEC’s worst. The Aggies’ quarterback woes continue. Fisher has not signed and developed an elite quarterback since Jameis Winston at Florida State. And Fisher’s decision to ignore the transfer portal has been exposed. A&M could have benefited from some proven veterans to plug deficiencies.
Aggies fans want Fisher to change his ways and at least delegate play-calling duties.
Why should he?
Officially, Fisher is A&M’s coach, but his contract structure made him the Galactic Overlord of College Station, Texas, a man who answers to no one.
A&M has little ability to hold Fisher’s feet to the fire and compel him to evolve.
Fisher is free to run his program however he wants, thanks to a contract that will pay him just as much to sit on a beach as it would to do his job.
A&M’s recruiting momentum has slowed, and the Aggies' on-field product once again failed to live up to the hype.
Unless the course reverses – and there’s no reason to think it will – A&M eventually will have to decide whether to be pinned in by a reckless contract or cut a check to the floundering coach it made an overlord.
When pondering what the Aggies will do, remember: Ignore the buyout.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.