College contract boom points to NFL coaching salary spike: 'Everyone is going to get paid a lot more'

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·NFL columnist
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When Michigan State agreed to a fully guaranteed $95 million deal with head football coach Mel Tucker last week, a longtime agent representing NFL coaches and players framed it in a context that would foreshadow the week to come.

“That [Tucker] deal is stunning,” he said. “USC and LSU might be $15 million [per season] now. Nick Saban is probably going to double his salary at Alabama.”

And the NFL?

“Everyone is going to get paid a lot more,” the agent said. “If competitive Power Five [conference] jobs are paying this, the top jobs could lure some NFL head coaches going the other way [back to college]. But it’s more impactful for the good young offensive coordinators like [the Dallas Cowboys’] Kellen Moore and [Indianapolis Colts’] Marcus Brady and [the Kansas City Chiefs’] Eric Bieniemy. … How many Mel Tuckers are coaching in the NFL as coordinators this year? 

“Matt Rhule’s contract [$8.5 million per season with the Carolina Panthers] was a huge deal for a college coach coming to the NFL. Now Michigan State is paying Mel Tucker almost $100 million with better guarantees than what Rhule got and Tucker hasn’t even been there for two years. It’s all out of whack when you compare the compensation between the two levels.”

That was all before this week, when Lincoln Riley left Oklahoma for USC in what's reportedly going to be a $110 million deal, and Brian Kelly ditched Notre Dame for LSU and a reported $100 million pact. Neither of those deals has been officially fleshed out, but the packages were big enough to invite a familiar sentiment on Tuesday from a second agent who has done contracts for both college and NFL coaches.

“This s**t is INSANE,” the agent texted. “Saban and [Ohio State’s] Ryan Day are getting ready to sign deals that average $15-20 mil per year. And Kirby [Smart at Georgia].”

Then he put the next bit into context: Most first-time NFL head coaches were landing deals at $5 million a season. The Miami Dolphins’ Brian Flores, Cleveland Browns' Kevin Stefanski, Arizona Cardinals' Kliff Kingsbury and Green Bay Packers’ Matt LaFleur, for example, are all in the spectrum of $5 million to $5.5 million per season. (The agent said reports of Flores and Stefanski making around $3-$3.5 million are incorrect).

According to the agent’s own salary data, the next tier up is reserved for more experienced NFL coaches. Rhule’s $8.5 million per year is an outlier in the group in terms of experience versus salary. But the rest have long NFL resumes and all fall into the $8 million to $9 million range: the Buffalo Bills’ Sean McDermott, Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Bruce Arians, Los Angeles Rams’ Sean McVay, and Washington Football Team’s Ron Rivera. 

The $9 million to $10 million tier includes the San Francisco 49ers’ Kyle Shanahan, Jacksonville Jaguars’ Urban Meyer, Indianapolis Colts’ Frank Reich and Baltimore Ravens’ John Harbaugh.

The super-recent spike in college football coaching contracts will likely have an impact on the NFL. (Erick Parra Monroy/Yahoo Sports)
The super-recent spike in college football coaching contracts will likely have an impact on the NFL. (Erick Parra Monroy/Yahoo Sports)

Finally, the highest rungs are locked down by the longest tenured names. The mountaintop, as you would expect, is the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick, which the agent pegged between $18 million and $20 million per season. He said four others are in the $10 million to $15 million range, including the Seattle Seahawks’ Pete Carroll, New Orleans Saints’ Sean Payton, Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin and Kansas City Chiefs’ Andy Reid.

Pinning down the exact numbers for head coaches in the NFL is far more difficult than the players they coach, largely because teams and even agents treat the figures as highly proprietary and there is no union or salary cap involved that would lead to their dissemination. Teams don’t share the salaries between each other, and in the rare instance that a coach unexpectedly lands a long and hefty contract — like the one Panthers owner David Tepper awarded to Rhule — it often does not go over well inside the fraternity. Largely because it raises the specter of signing coaches to longer-term deals with more guaranteed money.

Thus far, the NFL has been able to control those salaries through the constant turnover beneath the top few tiers, which has helped bog down “entry level” head coach salaries when a coordinator moves to the top spot or a college coach gets tapped. But the league has also done that without pressure from college football, which aside from a few elite-level programs had managed to keep salaries relatively controlled. 

Michigan State and Tucker struck a blow to that model. And then the top-level programs like LSU and USC made strides to pay their head coaches effectively the same kind of money that the most elite NFL coaches make.

That’s going to raise some NFL boats, most notably among the coaches who have had successful tenures and even made or won Super Bowls who are now making salaries that are in line with Michigan State, and far, far less than LSU, USC, and the multitude of other top college programs that will be blowing out extensions.

And as the agent repping both college and NFL coaches put it, “Don’t take the impact on young coordinators lightly. Those guys have always waited out their chance at a head coaching job in the NFL — but if you’re making $1 million and a college program is willing to pay five times that, or even more, we might finally see more NFL coordinators willing to leave for college jobs. I think things are changing and it’s going to open more possibilities.”

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