By X&O Labs Research Staff
As coaches, we all see the prestige associated with coaching America's greatest game. We flock to various conventions, scour over daily television reports and flood coaching websites hungry for the next job opportunity. So it's not surprising when we see a former colleague, mentor or friend leave for greener pastures and land the next coordinator or position coach job. But what we don't see is the handshake agreements that are not included in the contract, the neglected clauses and the other shortcuts taken to get a deal done in time for a press conference. The coaches themselves often don't even realize their mistakes until they find themselves fired and left wondering where they went wrong. But by then it's too late. In this X&O Labs' Coaching Research Report, we are offering an exclusive look into the biggest and most common mistakes that are made in coaching contracts so that you don't fall victim to them, too.
In 2011, researchers at X&O Labs have surveyed 1,800 college level assistant football coaches and interviewed coaching agents, attorneys and employment experts. We've found what we consider to be the 17 Mistakes College Assistant Coaches Make with Their Contracts.
You can't change the brutality of the business of coaching college football, but there is one thing you can do - protect yourself and your family.
The following is part one of a two part report by X&O Labs. Part one features contract mistakes 1 through 9. In Part two, we will discuss contract mistakes 10 through 17 (click here to read part two). The following mistakes are in no subsequent order.
Mistake #1: Not Having a Contract
Perhaps the old coaching adage, "I'd do this for free," does have some merit to it. Surprisingly enough, it's not just the mid-major and small time programs that are buying into this philosophy. Over 36% of coaches polled have worked essentially on borrowed time by not having a contract. Even some NFL assistants we spoke with have not finalized their contracts. According to one BCS level coach, for the last two years he has worked without a contract from March to June and couldn't get on the field for the first day of two-a-days in August because a contract had not been finalized.
This is one of the easiest traps to fall into. Many coaches are often hired right before spring football begins, so before they know it they're caught up in drills and don't have the time or legal assistance to finalize a written contract.
According to agent Dennis Cordell of Coaches, Inc., most teams want to form one-year contracts that offer no long-term job security. However, in recent years there have been more multi-year deals signed at FCS and FBS levels. "I think now you need to produce at least a two-year deal. If one of my clients needs to uproot his family and move across the country for a job, then he's going to need more security. Not only do multi-year contracts protect the coach financially if he is fired before the contract expires, they also can deter schools from firing a coach when he has more than one year on his deal."
Mistake #2: Not Saving a Copy of the Contract Signed by Both Parties on File
We were surprised to see this one make our list. Keeping a copy of your employment contract on file is common sense. Shockingly, we found over 36% of college assistant football coaches do not have a copy of their contract signed by both parties.
As detail-oriented as coaches are when it comes to their programs, some are not meticulous enough to store away important documentation - documentation that can cost them tens of thousands of dollars.
During our research, one attorney who asked not to be identified shared an example of how important it is to keep a signed copy of your contract on file: "I sat in on conferences where there was a dispute with a $6 million signing bonus from a NFL defensive player. The franchise said they didn't agree to a specific term - and the player lost out on all that money simply because he or his agent didn't have a copy of his contract to prove it."
Cordell added: "Some of the coaches I've signed still may not have a copy of their contract on them and need to check with their wives because they don't know where it is. Often times they can't produce it within 30 minutes."
Keep a copy of your contract, signed by both parties, in a safe place that you can access within 30 minutes. In fact, one employment expert we talked with took this advice to the next level: "Every coach should keep the original signed copy of their contracts at home in a safe or fire box. I also have them scan the contract and keep on their computer in the event they need to email copies. And, obviously, your attorney or agent will always want a copy on file as well."
Note - Can't find your contract? No problem. Just ask your school for a copy.
Mistake #3: Not Having an Attorney or Agent Review Your Contract Prior to Signing
Before a university will present a college assistant coach with a contract, that contract has been reviewed by the school's legal department to ensure that it protects the university. That is why we were shocked to learn that 92% of college assistant coaches did NOT have an attorney or agent review their contract before they signed it.
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The importance of having an attorney or agent review your contract is increasing with the demands of the job. Coaching is big business now, and needs to be treated as such. Gone are the days of the solid eye contact and a firm handshake. It's what's on paper that matters. "When I first started in this business only half the assistant coaches in the NFL had agents," said Cordell. "There were certainly not many at the FCS level, many head coaches did not even have them. That attitude about not needing one [agent or attorney] is changing every year. It's a million dollar business now."
Coaching contracts are an employment agreement between two parties - you and the school. When you fail to have a legal expert review your contract, you are ensuring that only the school's best interests are protected.
Mistake #4: Relying on Verbal Promises from Authority Figures That Are Directly Contrary to the Terms of the Contract
According to our research, the three most common oral promises schools make are:
- Pay for your moving expenses
- Provide a car
- Give you a prominent title, such as assistant head coach
Reimbursing coaches for moving expenses is the most common verbal promise made by schools. The average move for a coach and his family can burn up to $7,000 on the low-end and $14,000 on the high-end. During our research, we heard from many coaches who were victims of broken promises.
Note - if you are negotiating a contract with a school, it is perfectly acceptable to ask for moving expenses of $10,000.
If a person of authority from your school gives you a verbal promise, you must immediately ask to have it added to your contract or have your contract amended to include the new agreement.
If these verbal promises are not added to the contract or amended to the contract immediately, they can easily be forgotten and never come to fruition. Plus, in many cases they simply are not valid agreements.
Mistake #5: Not Thoroughly Defining the Termination for Cause Section Language That Allows Schools to Fire You Without Further Pay Based on a Violation of This Language
We've all seen coaches engaged in legal battles with former employers regarding whether they were fired without cause, and entitled to future wages, or fired with cause but not entitled to anything. The battles can go on for years and cause irreparable damage to a coach's reputation by being dragged out in the courts and in the press. A recent, high-profile battle of this type involved USC head coach Lane Kiffin who filed a grievance two years ago against the Oakland Raiders claiming that he had been fired without cause and was thus deserving of salary that the Raiders refused to pay. Unfortunately for Kiffin, the termination for cause section of his contract with the Raiders was poorly written and vague enough that an arbitrator ruled in favor of the Raider organization after finding that Kiffin had made false statements to the media and committed other minor violations. Even assuming the Raiders' claims were correct, it is probable that the arbitrator would not have found Kiffin's violations to be serious enough to justify his termination for cause if his contract had been worded differently. Fortunately for Kiffin, he has landed on his feet as head coach of the USC Trojans. However, it has yet to be determined whether other coaches who are fighting similar battles will be as fortunate.
So what do you need to do before inking your name? First off, defining that verbiage in the contract is crucial. Says Cordell, "If I were on the other end of that contract, the biggest thing I would look for is someone underneath a coach like a GA or SID; one that doesn't necessarily know everything about compliance. For example, there are recruiting dead periods where you can text but you can't email, etc. But if you have a blackberry, texting and emailing are essentially the same things. Contracts will say that the coaches are 'responsible for violations committed underneath them.' It's not always as obvious as a position coach having all his wide receivers driving brand new Benzes. These contracts should be specific. Coaches can't know where everyone is during the off-season. Just cause a kid goes to Miami doesn't mean he's getting paid to do so. It has to all be defined."
Mistake #6: Identifying Other Grey Areas Which Turn into Red Flags in Contracts
Within two and a half weeks of his hiring at the University of Pittsburgh, head coach Mike Haywood was fired by the same institution after an arrest on a domestic violence charge. While Pittsburgh's Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg claimed the decision was not tied to any legal proceedings, it instead was due to a strong belief that "it would not be possible for Haywood to coach under the existing circumstances." It's important to note that these charges were dropped. While it may be uncertain (due to the short time period) whether or not Haywood signed a contract to coach at Pitt, some contracts routinely produce ambiguous "morals clauses" that permit a school to fire a coach who gets into legal or personal trouble or embarrasses the school with his behavior.
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According to Cordell, the conviction of a crime is a major gray area in contracts. "Under most schools' contracts you can be fired if you are simply just accused of something. In your contract, you want a conviction, not an accusation to fire you. That's why I always try to require a conviction rather than an arrest or charge as grounds for termination for cause. A contract is a business arrangement, not a moral obligation.
Mistake #7: Allowing Schools to Stop Paying You If Your Head Coach is Fired or Leaves on His Own - Two Situations That You Have Absolutely No Control Over
While conducting our research, X&O Labs happened to come across an interesting, yet probably not uncommon story. One of the assistant coaches we spoke to was working for a head coach that got fired right before the bowl season. Consequently, when the interim coach (who was part of the same staff) took over in duties, he in turn fired the assistant despite being on a one-year contract that was still in effect. And because the head coach had been fired, the school was under no obligation to pay the remainder of the assistant coach's contract.
In fact, the overwhelming majority (40.3%) of the coaches we polled said that if their head coach left for another job or got fired, the school could terminate their employment as well.
After talking with Cordell, apparently these situations are not that rare. "It happens to coaches all the time. One of my clients got a promotion to head a major college program and it turns out the guy that took over where he left didn't want one of his former assistants. Now that assistant is working a high school gig. It doesn't make sense, particularly when you've already proved your success at the other place." According to Cordell, this is something that needs to be stated in that contract so that you have some immunity when the head coach gets fired or does leave.
Mistake #8: Agreeing to a Contract that Allows the School to Fire You Without Cause with Minimal Penalty but at the Same Time Prevents You From Getting Out of the Contract to Accept a Better Position with a Different School
Cordell refers to unequal termination language as the "double edged sword" in contract negotiations. The coaches and the institution are playing by different rules. "If you look at a standard two-year contract, it often will allow a school to fire a coach after the first year without cause and only have to pay him for an additional thirty days. Yet under the same contract, a coach can face stiff monetary penalties for leaving on his own accord and in some cases the school can even threaten a legal injunction to prevent the coach from accepting the new position. It's rarely a two-way street - the school can restrict the coach but the coach has no power to restrict the school."
In describing how he advises clients, Cordell notes that there is no single way to attack this problem. In some cases, a coach is willing to sacrifice his ability to leave for another job in return for a higher salary or increased job security from his current employer. For other clients, it is more important to have the ability to leave freely should another opportunity arise. In every case, though, it is crucial that the school and the coach are playing by the same rules when it comes to termination.
Mistake #9: Not Researching Salaries
While coaches continually stress the importance of competition amongst their players, they rarely bother to look into how their own peers are doing. The sharing of salary information is critical for all coaches because each new contract that is signed sets the benchmark for how much other coaches can expect to earn when they sign their next deal. While factors such as conference affiliation, experience and position play a role in determining salary, there is a trickle-down effect that ties together all coaches and their respective salaries from NFL head coaches to lower level college assistants.
To help alleviate this problem, we've already started the research for you. Based on survey results, FCS position coaches' average earnings lie in the $40,000 to $60,000 range while FBS position coaches are in the $80,000 to $100,000 range. Moreover, position coaches at BCS conference schools average in the $120,000 to $150,000 range. To learn more about the salaries of FBS coaches, click here to visit the USA Today's salary database from 2010.
While coaches may not know how to apply this research directly to improve their own situation, Cordell notes that one of the most common ways to get more money is to have multiple schools interested in you. When a coach is able to make more than one school compete for his services, the biggest winner is often the coach himself.
Coaching in the competitive world of collegiate football is difficult. One way to make the job easier is to understand the business side of the profession beginning with your employment contract. Coaching has become a big business with serious consequences for all involved. Coaches are fired and hired on a daily basis for reasons that go beyond wins and losses. If you have never had to deal with being fired or other hardships that come with the job, it is only a matter of time before you will. By following the above suggestions and recognizing where others have struggled, you can prepare yourself to handle the highs and lows are the profession in stride.