Will any SEC coaches be fired in 2023? Why that's more complicated than some might realize
With how obvious it seemed that Bryan Harsin was going to be axed at some point following the failed coup 12 months ago, it almost felt like we didn’t have any SEC coach firings this past season.
Of course, Auburn still counted. We had only 1 SEC coach get the boot, though with the death of Mike Leach, we have 2 new head coaches in the conference.
That, by the conference’s standard of coaching turnover in the past decade-plus, was considered a light year. In 2018, we didn’t have a single coaching change in the SEC, which marked the 1st such occurrence since 2006. Change — by force, not by choice — always feels imminent in this conference.
So does that mean we’re in for some more of that in 2023? It’s complicated.
It’s complicated by the fact that 12 of the 14 SEC coaches are now making north of $6 million annually, with the 2 exceptions being Clark Lea heading into Year 3 at Vandy and Zach Arnett heading into Year 1 as the head coach at MSU:
An updated look at the SEC football coach salaries pic.twitter.com/9u3gIibzeg
— Saturday Down South (@SatDownSouth) January 24, 2023
Annual salaries are obviously not the same exact thing as a coach’s buyout, but there’s some overlap.
If you say “Jimbo Fisher is on the hot seat,” you’re probably forgetting that after the 2023 season, A&M would still owe him $76.8 million if he’s fired without cause. In case you need a reminder of those jaw-dropping figures as Fisher heads into Year 6, here’s what he’d be owed if fired without cause at the end of each season:
- 2023 — $76,800,000
- 2024 — $67,550,000
- 2025 — $58,200,000
- 2026 — $48,750,000
- 2027 — $39,200,000
- 2028 — $29,550,000
- 2029 — 19,800,000
- 2030 — $9,950,000
- 2031 — Nothing
I continue to say that it’s a waste of time to put Fisher on any sort of hot seat list. Let’s maybe wait until that contract is somehow renegotiated and/or his buyout is less than $50 million.
In addition to Fisher, Kirby Smart, Nick Saban and Brian Kelly aren’t getting fired. Do I need to explain that? I hope not.
While some on the outside might not understand it, context of the program is needed to understand why Lane Kiffin and Mark Stoops are now in the $9 million club after their recent raises, which means they’re also not going anywhere.
While I’ll never fully rule out the idea of Tennessee totally blowing things up, Danny White just rewarded Josh Heupel with a contract extension worth $9 million annually that runs through 2028. According to ESPN’s Chris Low, Heupel’s buyout terms are:
- Remainder of the contract if fired before Dec. 15, 2025
- After 2023: Approx. $45 million
- After 2024: $36 million
- Prior to Dec. 15, 2025: $27 million
- 75% of remaining contract if fired after Dec. 25, 2025
- After Dec. 2025: Approx. $20.3 million
- After Dec. 2026: $13.5 million
In other words, no, Heupel isn’t going anywhere, either.
Speaking of places that have been known to have atypical hirings and firings: Let’s also dismiss the idea that Hugh Freeze could get fired without cause after 1 year at Auburn. It was a 5-7 team in need of a major influx of talent. He’s not going anywhere unless he’s fired with cause.
That puts our “not going anywhere” SEC coaches at:
- Nick Saban
- Kirby Smart
- Brian Kelly
- Jimbo Fisher
- Mark Stoops
- Lane Kiffin
- Josh Heupel
- Hugh Freeze
That leaves us with Arnett, Lea, Sam Pittman, Eli Drinkwitz, Shane Beamer and Billy Napier as coaches who failed to crack the “not going anywhere” group.
Don’t get it twisted. I’m not saying that means those coaches are on the hot seat. They just deserve to have their contracts broken down a bit more in depth than the rest.
Let’s start with Beamer, because while I’d bet the farm on him getting a Year 4 at South Carolina, we should at least be mindful of his contract in case things somehow go south immediately.
Beamer just got a $4 million annual raise that’ll pay him an average of $6.5 million annually. As Low reported, the buyout terms with his new deal are just like his old deal. That is, he gets 65 percent of the remaining salary, which runs through 2027. So if Ray Tanner decided to fire Beamer after 2023, Beamer would be owed roughly $17 million.
This would have to be a Jeremy Pruitt-like Year 3 collapse for that to even become a conversation. And even that feels a bit far-fetched considering the former Tennessee coach was technically fired with cause, and the Vols haven’t had to pay that $12.6 million buyout (that’s an ongoing legal matter). How bad could things get for South Carolina and Beamer, who currently has an incredibly high approval rating after an 8-win season with wins against top-10 Tennessee and Clemson?
It’s the SEC, but $17 million to move on from Beamer doesn’t seem like a move South Carolina will make, especially since Tanner hired and extended him.
Speaking of guys who have been hired and extended by their current bosses, Pittman’s case is worth reexamining.
He got a new contract before the 2022 season from Hunter Yurachek, who has been in Pittman’s corner at every turn. That deal, even after Pittman switched to superagent Jimmy Sexton, looked smart for both sides even though it averaged $6.2 million (including the retention bonuses). It was loaded with performance-based incentives, and it even had the rare performance-based buyout. Pittman actually got an extra year added to the deal simply by virtue of winning 7 games, which also bumped his annual base pay from $5 million to $5.25 million.
Pittman’s deal now runs through 2027. His contract states that if he’s fired without cause, he’s owed 75 percent of his remaining salary. However, if Pittman’s record is below .500 when he’s fired, he’s owed only 50 percent of his remaining salary. He’s currently 19-17, meaning Pittman would have to be at least 3 games under .500 in 2023 for that potential buyout number to drop to 50 percent.
Hypothetically, let’s say Pittman were to go 4-8 and Yurachek elected to fire him at season’s end. Pittman would have $21 million remaining on the deal — that’s 4 years multiplied by his new $5.25 million in base pay — but because of the performance-based buyout, Yurachek would have to pay him only 50 percent of that, which is $10.5 million. If Yurachek wanted to fire Pittman after a 6-6 regular season to pay him 75 percent of that remaining $21 million, it would be $15.75 million.
In today’s market, that’s not that bad for a Power 5 buyout. If you don’t believe that, perhaps you haven’t seen Drinkwitz’s new contract. The deal, which runs through 2027 and pays between $6-7 million with annual $250,000 raises, states that Mizzou is on the hook for 75 percent of whatever is owed on the contract if Drinkwitz is fired without cause.
By my math, here’s how much the Mizzou coach would be owed if fired at the end of each season (terms via Power Mizzou):
- 2023: $19,875,000
- 2024: $15,187,500
- 2025: $10,312,500
To recap, Mizzou firing Drinkwitz at season’s end in 2023 would mean forking over roughly $20 million to a head coach who has yet to have a winning record. That’s why this is complicated. Mizzou athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois rewarded Drinkwitz with that extension even though she didn’t hire him. That was her predecessor, Jim Sterk.
Does that mean Drinkwitz is off the hot seat? Or will his contract all but guarantee that he returns in 2024? It certainly doesn’t make it as simple as “he needs to win 7 games to keep his job.” At the same time, paying a Gus Malzahn-like buyout roughly a year after agreeing to a new contract doesn’t seem likely, even in the event that Mizzou doesn’t take the next step.
That leaves us with Arnett, Lea and Napier. There’s nobody in the country in Arnett’s spot. He got promoted after Leach’s death in hopes of providing some stability and building on the program’s 9-win season. It’s a 4-year contract — that’s the maximum allowed for a state employee in Mississippi — worth $3 million annually. It’s got performance-based incentives, but in terms of the buyout, that’s pretty straightforward. If Arnett’s fired at the end of 2023, he’ll get the $9 million remaining on the deal.
Would that be wild? Not at all, though it would probably take a pretty epic collapse for that to happen. This isn’t just a situation where the interim coach dropped the tag and took over. Arnett got to hire his own staff. It’s hard to imagine MSU — the program with 1 winning record in SEC play in the 21st century — pulling the plug on that 1 year in and essentially signing up to have 3 coaches in as many seasons.
The financial details of Lea’s contract are a bit murkier because Vanderbilt is a private university, but after getting the program its 1st SEC victories of the 2020s, it feels like a matter of time before an extension is announced. Is Vandy really going to can a coach like Lea after 3 seasons on the job after he inherited a decimated roster? I highly doubt it, especially considering that not only is Lea a Vandy alum, but Candice Storey Lee also hired him. Plus, Lea exceeded pedestrian expectations by beating Florida and Kentucky, both of whom spent time in the top 15 of the AP Poll.
Speaking of Florida … Napier. Could Scott Stricklin pull the plug after Year 2?
Remember that Dan Mullen was fired months after he got his 1st and only extension. That was with 3 New Year’s 6 Bowl berths under his belt. The difference, of course, was that Mullen’s buyout stayed at $12 million when he got his raise. Napier’s deal was for 7 years and $51.8 million. A $7.1 million annual salary increases by $100,000 every year, meaning that $37.5 million will still be remaining on that deal after the 2023 season. Per GatorSports.com, Napier’s buyout would be 85 percent of whatever he’s owed.
Here’s approximately how much Napier’s buyout would be if he’s fired after each of these seasons:
- 2023: $31,875,000
- 2024: $25,670,000
- 2025: $19,380,000
The buyout doesn’t change if Napier gets another job, meaning Florida would be on the hook for 50 percent of the buyout in the first 30 days, with the rest coming in 12.5 percent annual installments over the next 4 years.
To answer the question, no, I don’t think that Florida would really be willing to commit $32 million to Napier to bolt next year. No, that’s not based on the NIL fumbling of the reported $13 million deal for Jaden Rashada, either. That’s based on paying the largest buyout in college football history 2 years into his contract.
What would prompt that? Losing the verbal pledge from 5-star 2024 quarterback DJ Lagway and crumbling to a 4-8 season? I suppose there’s greater than a 0 percent chance of that, but given how many resources Stricklin committed to Napier and his support staff, that’d be an awfully big check to cut beyond the $32 million.
That’s why all of this is messy. We can sit here and say that “Coach X needs to do this in 2023 or else … ” but my response would be, “Or else what? They pay north of $20 million to can him?”
It feels like SEC teams made such heavy investments in their head coaches knowing that the new TV contract will be incredibly lucrative once Oklahoma and Texas join. There’s also some urgency for each SEC team to have its ducks in a row as the new era of the expanded conference and the expanded Playoff approaches.
It makes sense. There has never been a better time to have your coach of the future.
Whether each SEC team has that, well, history suggests otherwise.