ATHENS — Georgia’s signing of basketball coach Tom Crean to a six-year, $19.2 million contract last week made a statement. And the Bulldogs are about to make another statement when it locks down Kirby Smart as their football coach for the foreseeable future.
The question is, what will that statement be?
At the moment, Smart is set to earn only a half-million dollars more than Crean annually. That won’t last. The fiscal year ends June 30, and by then, Smart figures to be making twice that.
The exact salary the 42-year-old Smart ends up getting from UGA remains to be seen. Athletic director Greg McGarity has declined to discuss it. But whatever the Bulldogs end up doing could be enlightening when it comes their current mindset with regard to their football program.
Suffice it to say, it’s a very, very good time to be a successful football coach. Actually, it’s a good time even to be a bad coach if you’re at a Power 5 school — and in the SEC in particular. You might have noticed that a lot of money has been pouring into — and out of — the league in which Georgia competes.
Last year, the SEC generated $596.9 million in revenue, distributing approximately $40.9 million to each of its 14 members. Most of that, or a lot of that, is a result of the conference’s TV arrangement with ESPN.
Being amateur athletics and all, the SEC’s member institutions can’t pass on that windfall to the players — I mean student-athletes — who provide the labor and the entertainment responsible for generating all that income. So, after funding their non-revenue sports and sending some funds the universities’ way, the schools generally invest the proceeds into facilities and coaches.
As a result, we’ve seen SEC coaches start banking some serious green.
Believe it or not, Alabama’s Nick Saban is not even the league’s highest-paid coach anymore. Well, not technically.
According to USA Today’s latest report, Saban currently earns $6.94 million annually. That’s actually less than the salaries that new Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher ($7.5 million) and old Auburn coach Gus Malzahn ($7 million) are due to pull in based on new contracts.
But when “completion bonuses” and “talent fees” are factored in — and I’m pretty sure the IRS counts those — Saban was due to earn $11.125 million this last year. And that was before winning another national championship, which I assume would generate some kind of bonus.
And that’s where Smart made out pretty well in 2017-18. What he may have lacked in guaranteed salary, he made up for in incentives.
Smart is due to receive an additional $800,000 from the Bulldogs’ run through the SEC championship and into the College Football Playoff Championship Game based on the bonus structure in the contract he received from Georgia in 2016. Had Georgia won that final game rather than suffer that excruciating overtime loss, Smart would have made an additional $400,000. As it was, his assistant coaches made more than $800,000 in additional bonuses based on the team’s success last season.
And that’s the way McGarity likes it for Georgia’s coaches. He prefers that their contracts be incentive-based. Or, at least, he used to.
Smart is expected to receive a new deal from UGA as a result of the SEC championship and playoff run last season. He has to, really, just based on what has been going on in the market.
Texas A&M hired Fisher away from Florida State after firing Kevin Sumlin and immediately made him the highest-paid coach in the league. Malzahn, who lost to Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, received a seven-year, $49 million deal shortly after that loss. Dan Mullen went from Mississippi State to Florida and now makes $6.1 million a year. Tennessee hired Jeremy Pruitt from Alabama and he’s due to draw a $4 million salary from the Vols.
And just like that, they all make more than Smart ($3.75 million). Now what?
Traditionally, Georgia hasn’t been known to pay anybody the most to do anything, and I doubt that will be the case here. Certainly, heading into just his third season as the Bulldogs’ head coach, Smart remains a junior executive in relation to his top-earning peers
But Georgia made a statement when it trotted out $3.2 million-a-year contracts — the second-most lucrative to Kentucky’s John Calipari — in front of Thad Matta and Crean to coach the basketball team. And I expect the Bulldogs will make a statement here with football, too.
Georgia can’t, won’t and probably shouldn’t pay Smart on the scale that Alabama pays Saban. And he doesn’t have the experience that Fisher or Malzahn or even Mullen do. But he did something this past season only Malzahn has done when he won the SEC. And he just about won it all after that.
More important, though, is where Georgia sees itself in the SEC football hierarchy. That’s why Auburn continues to dump truckloads of cash at Malzahn’s door. That’s why Florida doled out so much to get Mullen to leave Starkville. Sure, markets and resumes dictate salaries to a degree, but it’s also about these football programs staking a claim to their status in the SEC and college football.
Will Georgia stake a football claim with Smart? What it just did in basketball indicates it probably will. If so, the Bulldogs will have their first Six Million Dollar Man.