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'Dead money' in college football is at an all time high

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

If you follow the money in college football these days, you will see coaches get scooped up from new universities while still under contract with another school. And the amount of money we're talking about is staggering. We're talking tens of millions of dollars.

To help us understand what is driving all of this is Liz Clarke, who's been covering this for The Washington Post and joins us now. Welcome.

LIZ CLARKE: Thank you for having me. And thanks for tackling this thorny topic.

CHANG: Oh, thank you for helping us. So, you know, for those of us who are not closely watching these contract buyouts for college coaches, just tell us about how much money are schools generally paying coaches to leave their current teams early?

CLARKE: So the amount colleges feel it's worth to pay someone to go away is escalating right in step with the escalation of revenues that are going into college football. And they're obscene, going straight up with no sign of ending. So some buyouts are worth 10 million, 11, even 15 million to pay a coach to go away and not coach.

CHANG: Well, let me ask you this. When did this shift - paying these huge sums of money for contract buyouts - when did that first start happening?

CLARKE: A lot of the data I may quote comes from the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. The Knight Commission sees an uptick or a starting point when the college football playoff system began and networks started pouring money into colleges for the right to broadcast this. So that would have been, I believe, around 2014.

And just this week, the College Football Playoff organization announced, at the start of the 2024 season, the playoff will go from four teams to 12. So they're going to triple the number...

CHANG: Oh, wow.

CLARKE: ...Of schools that can compete. And the estimates of what this will mean dollar-wise is that the money coming in for this playoff is going to quadruple to possibly 2 billion.

CHANG: Oh, my God. Insane. OK. Well, this Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics that you mentioned, I know that they found, for example, that over the first five weeks of this college football season, five Power Five coaches were fired with buyouts exceeding $55 million, right? Like, has the NCAA weighed in on this?

CLARKE: No. And just this week, the Knight Commission really, you know, wagged a finger at the NCAA for dragging its feet. The Knight Commission is saying, you have got to spend this money for the benefit of the students...

CHANG: Yeah.

CLARKE: ...For their health, to preserve their safety, for their education. Spend it on gender equity. Spend it on whatever it takes to stop doing away with Olympic sports.

CHANG: Aren't athletic directors at these schools, the ADs, responsible for holding coaches to the full term of their contracts? Like, why haven't we seen ADs make coaches live up to the contracts that they have signed?

CLARKE: Boy. In some cases, it's in the AD's interest to get rid of the coach, to torpedo the coach. The athletic director may think, I'm going to get canned if my football coach keeps losing here, so I...

CHANG: Right.

CLARKE: ...Need to run him off and bring in this hot prospect, the guy who's going to get it done. When they have a hot prospect, the ADs often offer a contract extension to lock that coach down.

CHANG: Well, if revenue is expected to just continue ballooning for these college football programs, what is the next step that you are specifically going to be watching for in all of this?

CLARKE: You know, as the money gets a bit more outrageous, you periodically hear calls that Congress should step in and set some limits and make some rules. There seems to be no appetite or traction for that. I'm not sure university presidents have the will to draw any lines. So it may just be that the Power Five conferences just kind of spin off into this new entity outside the NCAA and there's sort of a quasi-pro model and don't really worry too much if they're tethered to the education part of higher education.

CHANG: Liz Clarke of The Washington Post, thank you so much for bringing all this context to such a complicated situation.

CLARKE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Fuller
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.