In yet another summer of college realignment panic, the question of how much money is needed to compete rings even louder. It was reasonable to assume Texas and Oklahoma were doing pretty well by the margins. Heck, the Longhorns had their very own television network across the second-most populated state in the country. But there were more dollars to be had in the SEC, so they both bolted.
USC had never seemed to bargain hunt. They hired coaches they wanted (Pete Carroll, Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian), and enjoyed basking in the glamorous image of Southern California football royalty. But when there was more cash in the Big Ten, they joined an alien Midwestern league a million cultural miles away.
Finding long-term safety and stability is certainly at this center. The SEC will always be a power broker. The Big Ten has clearly become the second-most powerful football brand. But the money (it's always the money) which solidifies the jousts and pillars for these two conferences does one other very important thing. It allows schools to fire head coaches.
Look at what's happening at Syracuse. When Dino Babers was hired in '16, the hope was that a dynamic offensive mind could drag a nationally irrelevant program into the 21st century. While Babers has been easy to root for, optimistic and conversational, the results aren't there. In six seasons he's had one winning campaign. Aside from a magical '18 season where the Orange finished 15th in the polls, SU's best record has been 2-6 in the ACC.
But even though the success hasn't come, the Dome has swaths of empty seats, and recruiting is annually ranked near the bottom of the ACC, AD John Wildhack says Babers is not on the hot seat. Conjuring up your best Brian Windhorst, “Now why is that?" The answer is cash, and the lack thereof at SU. It doesn't take much digging to see examples of how Syracuse athletics needs to constantly worry about its bank account. “Jim Boeheim makes a plea to Syracuse fans to step up their NIL donation game” is a headline that blared at the Post-Standard’s website last week. The school finally broke the infamous naming rights deal on the Carrier Dome which was a bankrupt albatross for decades. Players and their families say SU has one of the worst nutritional departments in the Power 5. There ares needs everywhere.
As ESPN’s Pete Thamel reports, a Babers buyout after this season would cost SU $10M. This is not an athletic department that has ten-large to throw away. Babers made $3.9M in ’20, which means coughing up $10M to take a hike is more than 2.5x his annual salary. That's on top of paying the next head coach as well. Syracuse frankly doesn’t have $14M ($10M Babers buyout + $4M new salary) to spend on the ’23 Syracuse football head coach, and therein lies the awful predicament.
The ACC television deal is a good one for SU, considering it's not adding much value from a football standpoint. Certainly having Syracuse in basketball is a huge draw for the conference, but the bulk of a TV deal is done with the profitability of football in mind. So SU's cut of $36M annually is extremely helpful from the league. But you can't allocate half of your annual television income to your football coaches.
But in other places a $10 million payment is a bargain. The SEC's payouts per school rose to $55 million annually last season, and look at some of their buyout numbers. Florida paid Dan Mullen $12 million to pack his bags. LSU will pay Ed Oregon $16.8 million to step aside so Brian Kelly can take over. Gus Malzahn got an insane $21.45 million buyout at Auburn. If Babers was 68-35 with a trip to a national championship game like Malzahn was, he'd have half the menu named after him at Dinosaur BBQ. But instead, Syracuse can't afford to kick Babers to the curb. Most coaches' buyouts also come from the pockets of angry boosters and frustrated fans who will pay for a better team. And as disheartening as another 3-9 campaign might be this year, there's not a lot of local appetite to personally give away millions of dollars in the hopes SU can beat NC State and Louisville to get to a Belk Bowl.
In the world of college football, more conference money helps you accomplish a lot of goals. Stadium improvements. Player luxuries. Practice facilities. Larger staffing. And firing coaches you don't want anymore. Because even if some schools want to, they may not have the cash to do anything about it.
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