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The Patriots crushed the Browns 45-7 on Sunday for their fourth straight victory, the 250th regular-season win in New England for Bill Belichick. It’s a bit of a redemption season for the 69-year-old coach, whose streak of 19 straight winning campaigns ended in 2020 after Tom Brady decamped for Tampa, and Belichick detractors sharpened their knives, dubbing the quarterback the key cog to the coach’s success.
But Belichick has proven in 2021 that he is worth every penny of the contract that makes him the highest-paid coach in American pro sports. On a deal worth an estimated $18 million a year, Belichick oversees the NFL’s second-ranked defense and is grooming a rookie quarterback poised to carry the Pats forward.
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Sportico identified 25 current coaches who earn at least $8 million a year through conversations with power brokers in pro and college sports. The NFL leads the way with 14, followed by the NBA (seven), college football (three), and Kentucky’s John Calipari, in college basketball.
Belichick was not an obvious hire in January 2000 for the Patriots. Media, fans and experts scoffed at Robert Kraft’s decision to bring in a coach who posted one winning season in five years in Cleveland and at the cost of a first-round draft pick to compensate his former employer, the Jets. The Patriots drafted Brady three months later—days after the team unveiled plans for a new privately financed $325 million stadium—and the rest is history.
Brady and Belichick reached nine Super Bowls together, including six wins. Kraft, who paid a record $172 million for the Patriots in 1994, now owns an asset worth $5.35 billion that generates more than $200 million in annual cash flow.
“Each individual coaching situation is uniquely different when it comes to the qualities you are looking for,” said Jed Hughes, head of Korn Ferry’s sports practice, which led the search for both head coaches in February’s Super Bowl, Andy Reid and Bruce Arians. “At the end of the day, you need to have alignment between the owner, general manager and the head coach. If those three pieces get imbalanced, that is when things get unraveled.”
Stability breeds success in the NFL and leads to bigger paychecks. The six longest-tenured NFL coaches are all Super Bowl winners—only Belichick has more than one—and have 61 playoff berths combined. Each coach earns at least $11 million, outside of John Harbaugh, who is due a raise after nine playoff trips; his current $9 million-a-year Ravens contract expires after next season.
The entry price on NFL coaching salaries has jumped the last few years. Five years ago, the minimum salary was in the $3 million-a-year range, versus $5-6 million today. There is a good case that it should be higher. Consider 336 players have contracts that average at least $6 million annually, and 50 are at the $18 million Belichick level, according to Spotrac. “These coaches are the face of your franchise, they are the front porch,” said one person involved in coaching hires, who points to soaring franchise valuations. The average NFL team is worth $3.5 billion, with projected revenue of $550 million per team this year.
On college campuses, the coach is even more of the “face” of the program, since players turn over more regularly. These coaches are the CEOs of valuable assets and have their hands in recruiting, navigating transfers, fundraising, game management and now NIL.
Like the NFL, winning is the clearest path to riches for college football coaches. Nick Saban ($10.7 million), Jimbo Fisher ($9.5 million) and Dabo Swinney ($9.3 million) are the only college football coaches to crack the overall top 25. In addition to their lofty salaries, the trio holds the three highest winning percentages among active coaches, with Saban and Swinney deadlocked at 0.803.
Saban epitomizes the best case for what a college coach can do for a campus. Former Alabama chancellor Robert Witt called Saban the “best financial investment” the school ever made, and that was after only the first three of his six titles for the Tide. Since Saban was hired in 2007, undergraduate applications to the state’s flagship university have tripled to nearly 40,000. The athletic department’s revenue hit $189 million during 2019-20, up from $68 million pre-Saban.
The school is in the middle of a 10-year, $600 million capital campaign to improve athletic facilities, including a $107 million renovation of Bryant-Denny Stadium completed last year. Saban and his wife, Terry, donated $1 million to the initiative.
Elite college coaches are able to secure longer contracts than ever in the arms race for the best talent. Witness the 10-year deal Texas A&M gave Fisher in 2018, and then extended in August through 2031 at an increased rate. Yet, the honeymoon period has also shrunk. Fisher’s successor at Florida State, Willie Taggart, was fired nine games into his second season, while former football powerhouse USC is on its fifth coach over the past decade. There were 26 schools that paid their football staff more than $10 million during 2019-20, led by Alabama at $18.7 million, according to Sportico’s newly launched interactive college sports finances database.
The grace period for an NBA coach has also disappeared. Exactly 50% of NBA coaches have turned over since August 2020, and only five were hired for their current jobs before May 2018. The sport’s longest-tenured coach, Gregg Popovich, is also its best paid. The five-time champion, who turns 73 in January and was named coach of the Spurs in 1996, earns an estimated $11.5 million a year. Next up: Steve Kerr ($9.5 million), followed by Erik Spoelstra and Doc Rivers, both at $8.5 million.
The lowest head coaching salaries in the NBA are up but are still well behind their NFL brethren. Career assistants getting their first head coaching jobs can expect contracts in the $2.5-3.5 million-a-year range.
Nearly every coach in the top 15 has won a championship in the pros or in college. The exceptions: the 49ers’ Kyle Shanahan ($9.5 million) and the Colts’ Frank Reich ($9 million). In 2020, Shanahan had the last three years of his contract ripped up and replaced with a new six-year deal on the strength of a Super Bowl appearance during the 2019 season. Reich got a lucrative extension through 2025 in August, after leading the Colts to a pair of playoff appearances during his first three seasons and navigating the sudden retirement of franchise QB Andrew Luck.
Two sports missing from the top 25: hockey and baseball. Hockey’s top-paid coach, Joel Quenneville, resigned last month from the Panthers, in the aftermath of a league investigation into alleged sexual abuse incidents that occurred within the Chicago Blackhawks organization more than a decade ago. The league’s report showed Quenneville, Chicago’s coach at the time, was made aware of a player’s assault claim against a video coach but took no action. Quenneville, who won three Stanley Cups in Chicago, was making roughly $6 million annually under his five-year deal with the Panthers. Several NHL coaches are in the $5 million range.
Joe Torre made $7.5 million in his final season managing the Yankees in 2007, and skippers Mike Scioscia, Bruce Bochy and Joe Maddon all had contracts worth $6 million annually in 2018, but baseball’s dugout leaders have been increasingly commoditized, as power shifted to the front office.
MLB’s analytics revolution has made the baseball manager a paint-by-numbers position in many cases, and salaries reflect the reality. No one in the sport can match the top NHL salaries, much less those of NFL or NBA coaches. Maddon and Terry Francona are currently the best-paid MLB managers with annual salaries worth roughly $4 million, and a handful of baseball managers have worked on six-figure contracts recently.
Sportico’s salary estimates reflect all forms of compensation coaches earn from their teams or universities based on the average annual value of their most recent contract. Incentives can push these tallies higher. There are at least a dozen other coaches earning $7 million or more that missed the $8 million cutoff. The figures only cover U.S.-based sports leagues. There are thought to be roughly 10 managers of European football clubs who earn at least $14 million annually, and Atletico Madrid boss Diego Simeone leads the way with a reported salary of roughly $40 million in recent years.
One slot in the top 25 opened up last month when Jon Gruden resigned as coach of the Raiders following the publication of leaked emails he sent as an ESPN broadcaster in 2011. Gruden was in the fourth year of a 10-year, $100 million contract that was the richest by total value in the history of American sports. Gruden is suing the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell for what he claims was a “malicious and orchestrated campaign” that destroyed his career.
The winning percentages listed in the table above reflect either cumulative college or pro records, depending on their current employer. For example, Saban’s record excludes his time in charge of the Dolphins, while Urban Meyer’s winning percentage is only as a pro coach, but championships include those won in both college and pro for Carroll and Meyer.
The 25 Highest-Paid Coaches in U.S. Sports
Bill Belichick, New England Patriots (Average annual salary: $18 million)
Belichick's 31 playoff wins are 11 more than any other NFL coach. He trails Don Shula by 42 for most regular season wins.
Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks ($14 million)
He is one of just three head coaches to win a Super Bowl and a college football title. His current contract runs through 2025.
Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints ($14 million)
Payton signed his last contract extension in 2019. His 148 regular season wins are 55 more than Jim Mora in New Orleans, who ranks second in Saints history.
Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs ($12 million)
Reid got a new five-year contract in 2020 after he led the Chiefs to their first Super Bowl title in 50 years. He ranks fifth all-time in career wins, after passing Curly Lambeau this season.
Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs ($11.5 million)
Pop is the NBA's career leader in wins and picked up an Olympic gold medal this summer as head coach of Team USA in Tokyo. He is one of five NBA coaches with at least five titles.
Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers ($11.5 million)
Tomlin signed a three-year contract extension in April that runs through 2024. If the Steelers win at least three more games in 2021, it will mark 15 straight seasons for Tomlin without a losing record.
Nick Saban, Alabama ($10.7 million)
Saban, 70, did another extension in 2021 that pushed his average annual salary to eight figures.
Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M ($9.5 million)
Fisher's extension bumps his salary to $9 million in 2022, $9.15 million the following year, and up $100,000 each year afterward.
Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco 49ers ($9.5 million)
Injuries have hampered the Niners since Shanahan was hired in 2016. He is the only coach in the top 10 with a career losing record.
Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors ($9.5 million)
Kerr signed an extension with the Warriors in 2018 after the team's third title in four years. His 0.733 winning percentage in the playoffs is the highest in the history of the sport.
Dabo Swinney, Clemson ($9.3 million)
Swinney and Saban have won five of the past six college national titles. The two rivals have identical 0.803 winning percentages.
Frank Reich, Indianapolis Colts ($9 million)
Reich was the offensive coordinator when the Eagles won their lone Super Bowl, and the Colts signed him as their coach a week later in February 2018.
John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens ($9 million)
Harbaugh is the only coach since the NFL's 1970 merger to win a playoff game in his first four seasons, and he ran the streak to five when the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII.
Urban Meyer, Jacksonville Jaguars ($9 million)
Meyer only lost 32 games in 17 years as a college coach, with a high of five in 2010 at Florida. He lost seven of his first nine games with the Jaguars. His 0.854 college winning percentage ranks third all-time behind a pair of Notre Dame legends, Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy.
John Calipari, Kentucky ($8.6 million)
Coach Cal's contract is worth $86 million over 10 years. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.
Matt Rhule, Carolina Panthers ($8.6 million)
NFL owners cringed when David Tepper gave Rhule a seven-year, $60 million contract after a single strong season at Baylor, which raised the bar for all incoming college coaches.
Doc Rivers, Philadelphia 76ers ($8.5 million)
Rivers is earning less in Philly than the $10 million annual salary he made as president and coach of the Clippers.
Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat ($8.5 million)
Spoelstra, who took over for Pat Riley in 2008, is one of the most respected coaches in the NBA. Only Popovich has been with his current team longer.
Ron Rivera, Washington Football Team ($8.5 million)
Riverboat Ron was fired by the Panthers in the middle of the 2019 season but landed on his feet the following year under a five-year contract to coach Washington.
Sean McDermott, Buffalo Bills ($8.5 million)
The Bills gave McDermott a raise ahead of the 2020 season in a deal that runs through 2025. The coach then delivered the Bills’ first division title in 25 years.
Sean McVay, Los Angeles Rams ($8.5 million)
McVay’s career winning percentage is the highest among active coaches. The Rams ripped up the last three years of his deal in 2019 after he led them to the Super Bowl. He's in his fifth season in L.A. and is still the NFL's youngest coach at 35.
Bruce Arians, Tampa Bay Buccaneers ($8 million)
The Bucs bumped his annual pay after their Super Bowl win in February but reportedly did not add any new years to the contract of the 69-year-old coach.
Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks ($8 million)
Budenholzer was almost certainly headed for a pink slip without a huge 2021 playoff run, and he delivered with some help from Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks rewarded coach Bud with a raise following the franchise's first title in 50 years.
Nick Nurse, Toronto Raptors ($8 million)
Nurse's former agent, Warren LeGarie, filed a civil lawsuit in July against the Raptors head coach seeking a commission for his contract extension from last year.
Steve Nash, Brooklyn Nets ($8 million)
Nash's estimated starting salary is nearly unheard of for a coach with no experience, but the two-time NBA MVP carried substantial clout to manage stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, with James Harden later added to the mix.