Local News

Last month, the University of Kentucky decided to pay football coach Joker Phillips $2.5 million to stop doing his job. Phillips’ final Kentucky team won just two games and fans were unhappy, as demonstrated by the angry fans’ Tweets and empty seats in Commonwealth Stadium.

But the practice of paying highly paid coaches big bucks to go away has come under recent scrutiny. Phillips buyout is attracting only scant attention — Auburn and Tennessee owe significantly more money to their recently terminated football coaches. An interesting sidenote from the New York Times:

A study published last month in Social Science Quarterly may provide sobering news to Auburn, Tennessee and other universities that have fired their coaches. Using data from 1997 to 2010, the study compared the performance of major college teams that replaced their coach with teams with similar records that kept their coach.

The results, tracked over a five-year period following the coaching changes, might surprise many. The lowliest teams subsequently performed about the same as other struggling teams that did not replace their coach. Mediocre teams — those that won about half their games in the year before a coaching change — performed worse than similar teams that did not replace their coach.

In fairness, businesses and other organizations buyout employees all the time — mostly because they believe they’ll fare better financially in the long term, said Marc Edelman, a law professor for Barry University who specializes in sports matters.

When colleges fire coaches, administrators are usually working under an assumption that a new coach will win more games, Edelman told WFPL.org. This, in turn, will lead to more ticket sales, better TV deals and more notoriety for the university.

Coaches’ contracts tilt to the advantage of the employee over the employer, Edelman argues. There are just too few elite coaches and too many jobs. Coaches can demand not only big money but also buyout clauses that protect them financially should they be fired.

Schools could sue coaches who leave for bigger, better jobs before their contract expires, Edelman said. The schools don’t sue, however, because they’re just as likely to lure a coach out of some other schools’ contract with their next hire.

So it goes.

In the past five years, even before Phillips was fired, Kentucky colleges have paid millions to rid themselves of coaches that weren’t performing to the expectations of fans, boosters or administrators. Some examples:

  • Kentucky agreed in 2009 to pay $3.25 million to ex-men’s basketball coach Billy Gillispie.
  • The same year, Louisville agreed to pay $2.2 million to ex-football coach Steve Kragthorpe.
  • Western Kentucky agreed to pay $500,000 — again, in 2009 — to ex-football coach David Elson.
  • This year, WKU fired men’s basketball coach Ken McDonald and agreed to pay him $300,000.

Those figures may seem huge, but The New York Times notes that college athletics as an industry has plenty of money to throw around — though it’s not finite.

One closing thought, because it seems crazy to pay millions to fire someone who may — as the Times’ story also points out — come back the next year and perform well enough. Edelman said a university as a whole can suffer because of a high-profile team’s failures.

He points to the Flutie effect. In 2007, The Economist noted:

The popularity of a successful sports team acts as advertisement for the university. This encourages more students to apply to it; a phenomenon known as the “Flutie effect”. This is a reference to Boston College’s Doug Flutie, whose miraculous pass in a 1984 football game contributed to a dramatic victory over the University of Miami. This play led to a large increase in applicants to Boston College the following year.

Edelman uses a familiar example to illustrate.

“On a national level, if you asked people about the University of Kentucky, what is the first thing people think about?” he said.

“The response is going to be basketball.”

Though Kentucky’s football program doesn’t have the same name recognition, winning teams still matter. On Sunday, Mark Stoops will be formally introduced as Phillips’ successor. He may win big, he may not. He’ll certainly have a buyout clause in his contract, either way.