How rising college football head-coaching salaries will force the NFL to adapt or get left behind


One of the biggest NFL stories of the past few months doesn’t directly involve the league at all. The latest escalation in the endless cycle of college football coaching changes has done more than take a possible pro coach off the NFL’s radar for years to come. The deals being handed out to the most desirable coaches in college football are likely going to force the NFL to adapt or get left behind. The old belief that an NFL head-coaching job is the pinnacle of the coaching profession might no longer be the case, and what happens next could have a serious effect on how teams build their organizations and plan their futures.

Let’s start with the facts. First, Lincoln Riley signed a still-undisclosed contract to leave Oklahoma for USC. Next, Brian Kelly left Notre Dame for LSU, signing a 10-year, $95-million deal with additional incentives bringing the maximum value of the deal north of nine figures. Finally, Mario Cristobal decided to move on from Oregon and head to Miami on a deal worth at least $8 million per year.

Throw in the 10-year, $95 million contract former Jaguars assistant Mel Tucker signed with Michigan State, and the 10-year, $85 million extension James Franklin inked at Penn State in November, and you have a shifting landscape at the top of the college football market. Sure, it was one thing if Nick Saban or Dabo Swinney had contracts in that range, but we’ve seen five huge contracts handed out in a matter of months to coaches who haven’t won national titles. Deals in this range are now the going rate for splashy hires at the college level.

Shortly after Riley left for USC, ESPN’s Adam Schefter tweeted that Oklahoma had targeted Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury as a possible replacement. The Sooners ended up hiring Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, but think about what that implies. Oklahoma felt like it had a reasonable chance at hiring the coach of the NFL team with the best record in the league (9-2 at the time) and a viable shot at making it to the Super Bowl. When was the last time that was the case?

Twenty years ago, there wouldn’t have been any realistic chance of the coach of a great team leaving for a college job. Now, under the landscape of these new deals, a very good college opening might be enough to keep an NFL owner awake at night.

Let’s compare how a top-tier college opportunity might measure up to the range of NFL coaching jobs in a few key categories, and how the recent college contract boom could change the pro ranks:

Salary: Will mammoth deals even the field?

While we know what college coaches are getting paid at public universities and salary reports often leak for coaches at private institutions, NFL coaching salaries aren’t made widely available. Individual reports pop up here and there — and asking enough people around the league reveals a reasonable consensus for what different tiers of coaches are making — but just about every pro coaching salary should be taken with some margin of error.

The low end of those salaries appears to be in the range of $4 million to $5 million per season. Obviously, that’s going to come for coaches with limited track records of success or leverage. The middle tier of NFL coaches is right in line with the average annual salary for new deals being handed out to Cristobal and Kelly, with salaries coming in between $8 million and $10 million per season.

The one thing everyone generally agrees on is that Bill Belichick is the highest-paid coach in football, which shouldn’t be a surprise. While a third tier of coaches is believed to be in the $10 million to $15 million range, the Patriots’ longtime boss’ rumored compensation comes in north of $15 million and as high as $25 million per year. Deals might also include incentives and payment for other roles within the organization, but we can get a general idea of what’s happening. For the best NFL coaches, the most desirable college coaches are beginning to catch up. For the rest of the league’s coaches, college jobs are willing to pay as much or even more than an NFL gig.

As a result, it seems likely that NFL salaries will rise in the years to come, perhaps dramatically. Back in 2012, I noted that the trade value of coaches such as Belichick and Jon Gruden implied that they were worth about as much as franchise quarterbacks. At the time, I suggested that San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh was worth $15 million per year, and that was in an NFL grossing about $9.5 billion per year. If the NFL grosses $15 billion per year after its new TV deals kick in and the league grows more comfortable with gambling companies, that number for a good coach would be closer to $24 million per season.

For the league’s best coaches, though, I suspect that number is low. Given that coach compensation isn’t part of the salary cap and they don’t get injured or age at the same rate as players, you could make a strong case that Belichick is worth something closer to $40 million per season. The Rams’ Sean McVay wouldn’t be far behind. Good coaches have been underpaid for decades; teams might be forced to pay something closer to market value to keep their coaches from leaving for meaningful raises at the college level.

Other colleges can’t pay as much as USC did for Riley or LSU did for Kelly, but these moves are likely to raise the cost of coaching across the board. Those college programs are going to have a better case for going after NFL coordinators and even positional coaches. Teams are going to need to start paying their head coach’s staffs accordingly. Take one prominent situation in Dallas. Reports last year suggested that Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore is making just under $2 million per season.

At the time, Moore was popularly linked to the head-coaching job at Boise State, where Andy Avalos ended up taking a five-year deal for $7.75 million for an average of $1.6 million per season. It’s entirely possible that Moore wanted to stay with the Cowboys, but would his decision have been different if Boise State was offering, say, $4 million per year? And while team owner Jerry Jones might be willing to pay that much to keep his offensive coordinator, other owners might not be so comfortable paying a salary they would have more commonly associated with head coaches in years past.

Length: Why guarantees matter so much

When it comes to the length of those deals, though, NFL contracts don’t compare. The vast majority of NFL head-coaching deals come in between four and six years, with Belichick again as a possible outlier. Coaches sign extensions on those deals to avoid getting into lame-duck years, but those typically just restore or maintain the length of the initial deals. NFL teams generally don’t get into the business of having their coach under contract a decade down the line. The only exception we know of is the 10-year deal Gruden got from the Raiders, which was dissolved after Gruden resigned in October.

Colleges, on the other hand, have no such qualms about making these sort of commitments to coaches. You might remember Notre Dame handing then-Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis a six-year contract in 2004 before giving him a 10-year deal halfway through his first season. Weis’ deal might have been more of an outlier at the time, but we’ve seen multiple coaches get deals in the eight- to 10-year range at the college level over the past few months. We just don’t see that in the NFL.

Now, admittedly, these contracts aren’t the same. College agreements aren’t as iron-clad as pro deals, as we’ve seen from this recent set of moves. Kelly was under contract until 2024 when he left for LSU. Cristobal signed a six-year, $27.3-million extension with Oregon in December 2020 to stay on until 2025. When new schools were willing to pay a buyout, those coaches left for new jobs.

NFL head coaches aren’t allowed to leave for other teams. Moves from one job to another have happened in the past, like when Belichick left the Jets for the Patriots and the Bucs traded with the Raiders to acquire Gruden, but those deals required significant compensation, mediation and the approval of all parties involved. If the Bears decided that they wanted to hire McVay next offseason and McVay wanted to leave, the Rams would be able to block the move and prevent their coach from leaving town.

The other difference is that NFL coaching contracts are generally fully guaranteed, meaning that teams are on the hook for paying the remainder of their coach’s contract in full if they fire the coach for performance reasons. Teams can usually collect an offset if they fire a coach who goes on to work somewhere else over the remaining years of his deal, but unless the coach is immediately hired at a similar salary elsewhere, teams end up paying their coach millions of dollars to either work for somebody else or not work at all.

College deals haven’t always had the same sort of guarantees. When Weis signed his 10-year extension in 2005, his contract called for him to receive between $30 million and $40 million. He was fired in 2009 with six-plus years left on his deal and ended up receiving just under $19 million from the school over that time frame. Other coaches have predetermined buyouts in their contracts, which often reduce as the coach goes through his deal and amount to less than the full value of the contract.

Kelly’s new deal with LSU, though, comes close to a full freight guarantee. If he wins a national title and then gets fired, the university would owe him 100% of the remaining money on his deal. Even if he gets fired without winning a national title, the school would owe him 90% of what’s left on his deal, which could amount to tens of millions of dollars. Tucker’s deal at Michigan State, meanwhile, is guaranteed in full unless he’s fired for cause, which wouldn’t include subpar performance on the field.

Naturally, with the leverage afforded them by their success, college coaches wanted the leverage of fully guaranteed deals. Now, despite the supersized length of their contracts, the most desirable coaches in college football are getting fully or almost fully guaranteed pacts. NFL coaches are going to follow up in kind by wanting longer deals to match their college brethren. If college coaches can get eight-year deals that are fully guaranteed, NFL teams are going to need to match those terms or run the risk of losing those coaches to colleges.

If NFL coaches start getting those sort of commitments up front, it would change the way teams approach their team-building and rebuilding cycles. With an eight-year window, organizations would likely be willing to give their coaches more time to rebuild their roster in their image than they have on four-to-six year contracts. We would likely see less parity, with more teams either hitting the peak of their contention window or bottoming out to rebuild. Tanking would become a more plausible strategy. Owners could still fire their coaches, but it’s a lot easier to let go of a coach who has two years and $14 million left on his deal than one who has five years and $50 million remaining.

Control: Every coach wants more power, right?

If the money and contract length are relatively equal, the other factors determining whether a coach prefers a college or NFL job probably depend on the individual and the opportunity available. Some coaches prefer to work with professionals. Others might prefer being able to mold amateur players and work with a larger roster. One city or one roster might be more intriguing to a coach than another. Some coaches might love recruiting. Others might hate the idea. All of those factors figure into any decision a coach will make about to work.

One major differentiator, though, will be the matter of power. Here, again, a college job might be more exciting than an NFL opportunity. College coaches on long-term deals should have time to build a program in their image. Serving as de facto personnel people, coaches use the recruiting process to focus on the exact players (or sort of players) they want to add to their roster. Coaches at lower-level schools might be kept away from top-tier talent in a way that subpar NFL teams are not by the draft, but the best coaches in the business are pretty confident in their abilities.

On the other hand, while it was once more common for coaches to have personnel control at the NFL level, most are typically ceding the duty of “shopping for the groceries” to a general manager. Only a handful of NFL coaches have some level of personnel control, including Belichick, Seattle’s Pete Carroll, San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan, Carolina’s Matt Rhule and Jacksonville’s Urban Meyer. Letting someone else pick the players on the roster isn’t a problem if you love your general manager and your personnel department — and it’s much easier to have them do the work than go on the recruiting trail yourself — but how many coaches would rather have their success or failure ride on their own personnel decisions?

We just saw two coaches linked to NFL jobs prefer college opportunities. Kelly came up as a possible candidate for the Eagles in 2013, only to admit later that he had no interest in taking an NFL job unless it came with full control of the organization. Riley was on the shortlist for virtually every opening that has popped up over the past few years and likely would have been able to walk into any of the jobs that are going to come available this offseason. Both coaches chose to stay at the college level, albeit while leaving for different institutions.

What happens next will be fascinating. Kingsbury isn’t going to Oklahoma, but with a year left on his deal, could the Cardinals coach return to the college ranks? Would Rhule be tempted to follow that same path after two frustrating seasons as a pro? When NFL openings pop up this winter, would a coach like Iowa State’s Matt Campbell or Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell decide to stay, knowing that they can make as much (if not more) as a college coach than they would in the NFL? And how will the NFL react if it can’t get some of the best coaches in college football to eventually make the leap to the professional game?

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