Around 10 a.m. ET Sunday morning somewhere within Kyle Field, Texas A&M administrators fired coach Jimbo Fisher. The meeting was described as quick and cordial by athletic director Ross Bjork; defensive line coach Elijah Robinson will be the interim head coach. Robinson runs arguably the best position group on the team, and is an ace recruiter. He’ll keep things steady in the short term, and should have a shot to stay on the staff long term, if he wants to. If he does stick around, the hiring of his next boss has a chance to set off what an industry source called a chain reaction in the coaching market.
But before we talk about the who of A&M’s next head coach, or the Aggies’ floundering play relative to their recruiting rankings, or an offense that has never figured itself out, or the ever-present threat that Texas will leave them in the dust as they join the SEC, let’s talk about the dollars and cents of firing Jimbo Fisher.
The sticker shock on the buyout number involved with this move is immense: According to Fisher’s contract, he will be due about $76 million by 2031. That’s long term. Here’s some back-of-napkin math in line with the terms of Fisher’s contract about what this is going to cost the Aggies in the short term.
- 25% of his deal, or about $19.25 million, is due in a lump sum within 60 days of effective termination)
- Another roughly $7 million within 120 days of effective termination (assume today, that means March 11, 2024). This starts his annual clock through the rest of the deal, which lasts through ’31. There are no offsets in the deal if he takes another job.
- Assistant coaching staff buyout: roughly $8 million
- Buying out their new coach’s contract from his current school: anything more than about $6 million is considered a high number within the industry
- That new coach’s Year 1 salary is likely to be around $7 million (about 15th nationally, right between Florida State’s Mike Norvell and Florida’s Billy Napier)
- The new coach’s assistant salary pool will likely be $8 million
This ballpark takes you to $55 million all-in within the next few months. This is money, Bjork said, that will come from athletic department coffers and the independent 12th Man Foundation (A&M booster club) funds.
“There’s buckets that the 12th Man Foundation houses within their structure,” Bjork said. “Those are flexible funds that we had a conversation about and said those funds are to benefit athletics. They raise money for championship athletics, and our mission is championship athletics and opportunities. You sit down, you have those conversations. They have their discussions within their organization. That’s the one-time funds. The ongoing payments that are required in the contract, those will be athletic department funds. We grow revenue, we have new TV deals coming up, new sponsorship contracts coming up. We’re repurposing a lot of our revenue buckets so we have a lot of new revenue coming our way, too, but we also have to manage expenses.”
Let’s focus first on Fisher’s portion of the $55 million, about $26.25 million.
When asked whether he expects Fisher to be paid out in full, as the contract stipulates, Bjork said: “There are different parameters that are outlined in the contract, and those mechanics will be worked out as soon as we touch base with his representation.”
What’s worse? A Bobby Bonilla Day situation for the next seven years or a lump sum now that you take on the chin. The pockets are deep in Aggieland, and part of the reason this was done now is because the buyout doesn’t really drop all that much in the next few years (only around $9 million gets knocked off each year). It’s not likely A&M would run the spin up something to satisfy a for-cause termination play that UConn and Kansas have failed at recently, to different degrees.
But what about a lump sum agreement? That would be a big hit now for the school, but could be softened on the school’s end a bit by projected increases in SEC revenue once Texas and Oklahoma come in, as well as the increased College Football Playoff payouts. It would also help Fisher as well, who could receive a tax benefit by receiving his payout as a lump sum. Income becomes taxable in the first taxable year when there is no longer a substantial risk of forfeiture, according to the U.S. tax code (Texas has no state income tax). So his 2023 tax return may show income of $76 million-plus, even though he’ll receive substantially less in cash. A possible remedy here could be to strike a deal for less than the $76 million, and both sides walk away now. One industry source said that if they were advising Fisher, “I’d take 75 to 80 cents on the dollar and call it a day.” Two other industry sources picked around $50 million as a decent place to land for a lump sum.
“I’d say if he can quickly net $35 million or more that would be the landing spot. That’s a gross of roughly $50 million to settle.” It is a separate commentary on college athletics that anywhere from $50 to $60 million in a lump sum could be in any way constituted as some sort of bargain. There is no way to get around the fact that whichever way you swing it, it’s a lot of money.
Now let’s focus on that other $28.75 million of our rough A&M cost analysis, specifically how much a new coach will be getting paid. A&M isn’t in this spot because its per-year salary was market resetting; it’s because the total guarantee is. Bjork is signaling he might not like that to be the case this go-around. He may not have initially hired Fisher, but he did extend him in 2021.
“There’s a market for a lot different contract than what we had, and you can hire a great coach,” Bjork said. “We have to learn a lesson. Look, the dynamics around that decision in 2021, that’s an institutional decision, but I take responsibility. I knew what was coming in the marketplace later that fall. So I knew that it was the right decision at that time because that’s the information that we had. It didn’t work out. Clearly it didn’t work out. We’re gonna learn from that and make sure that we don’t make the same mistakes again.”
A problem he may face in the marketplace is the perception from agents and coaches that the money was there for the last guy in guaranteed form, so why isn’t it there for the next guy?
Which candidate A&M goes for could come down to whether, as one source put it, “They put their cowboy boots on for this one.” Early names to look out for, according to industry sources, include: Oregon’s Dan Lanning (his $20 million buyout owed to Oregon is its own whopping lump sum), Ole Miss’s Lane Kiffin, UTSA’s Jeff Traylor, Duke’s Mike Elko and Washington’s Kalen DeBoer.
Landing a candidate is one thing. What they pay him, and how they do it, will be the most intriguing subplot of this search process.