Million-Dollar Buyouts Expand to College Athletic Directors: Data Viz

As an alumnus, native Mountaineer and recent past chair of the NCAA Division I Council, Shane Lyons had a lot of collateral as West Virginia’s athletic director. Hired in 2015 from Alabama, where he served as deputy AD, Lyons was originally credited—or more recently, blamed—with giving football coach Neal Brown a two-year contract extension in April 2021, which now obligates the school to pay Brown $16.7 million if it wants to fire him without cause.

Lyons’ termination earlier this month, in what is widely speculated as a precursor to Brown’s eventual bye-bye, cost significantly less. Still, it isn’t cheap—almost $2.2 million, according to a copy of his separation agreement obtained by Sportico—and West Virginia could be on the hook for a lot more if it fires Lyons’ successor, if recent trends hold.

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While athletic director payouts still pale in comparison to those of most football and men’s basketball head coaches, ADs are increasingly negotiating deals that could theoretically make their school (or its alumni base) pause before reflexively dropping the axe.

“The increase in the payout represents increases in job security,” said Bob Lattinville, an agent with William Morris Endeavor who represents around 20 FBS ADs (he does not represent Lyons). “As athletic directors identify and navigate all of the changes in college athletics, they need a meaningful runway to analyze what is going on and try and satisfy a host of divergent stakeholders as they implement their plans.”

As part of his work, Lattinville maintains a running database of publicly available athletic director contracts, a tranche of which he provided to Sportico. (Here’s the full list.) One of the more notable takeaways from even just a cross-section of the FBS AD workforce is how many of them are due seven-figure payouts if terminated right now. There is even a small-but-emerging, eight-figure club for AD dead money, led by Texas’ Chris Del Conte, whose contract currently guarantees him at least a $13.3 million golden parachute if he is fired without cause.

In August, the Longhorns’ cross-state rival Texas Tech signed athletic director Kirby Hocutt to an eight-year contract extension, a copy of which Sportico obtained, which would pay him $11.3 million if he were canned this year. Though the odds of such a rapid disillusionment are slim, they are not unthinkable, given the propensity of athletic department scandal that has occurred on Hocutt’s watch.

Texas Tech originally hired Hocutt away from the AD post at Miami. Shortly after, the NCAA began investigating the Hurricanes over convicted Ponzi schemer and UM booster Nevin Shapiro’s admission that he paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to Miami football players and recruits over the better part of a decade.

Hocutt’s Red Raiders extension followed the firings or forced resignations of the schools’ women’s basketball, softball and tennis head coaches—the first two were original Hocutt hires. (Marlene Stollings, who was sacked as women’s basketball coach in 2020, later filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against Texas Tech and Hocutt, which led to the school paying her a $740,000 settlement, according to USA Today.)

Never mind Hocutt’s payout, said Marty Greenberg, a sports lawyer who has represented both college coaches and athletes: “I am surprised this guy has a job.”

Neither Hocutt nor the school responded to requests for comment about the terms of his employment. However, even if he doesn’t want to discuss his earnings, Hocutt’s contract has no doubt spoken to the industry.

"It is a top-down auction market whether you are an athletic director or [pro] wide receiver,” said Lattinville.

In some ways, it is surprising that it took so long for athletic directors to achieve this level of employment security, given how college sports has already enabled football trainers to become millionaires.

Tom McMillen, CEO of the athletic director industry association LEAD1, says that because ADs are typically considered part of a university’s leadership—many carry the title of school vice president—they are almost always compensated relative to their boss, the president or chancellor, as opposed to their exceedingly well-paid subordinates coaching football and basketball.

Lattinville offers another theory: “So few people have any truly analogous experience to being a head football or basketball coach. ... But if you look at boards of trustees or boards of regents, they are loaded with captains of industry and lawyers who believe, somewhat naively, that an AD is essentially running a nine-figure domestic business.”

Not surprisingly, Lattinville thinks this is a misguided view—and believes that athletic directors are now beginning to demand contracts commensurate with what their job demands.

“The industry of college athletics has recently undergone so many material changes that those individuals who possess the necessary skills, experience and character to be a successful AD are just as rare as elite-level coaches,” Lattinville said.

The unsettled state of college athlete amateurism, along with the workplace distresses from the COVID-19 pandemic, have made growing numbers of athletic department administrators head for the exits over the last two years. Meanwhile, the position of collegiate AD, long regarded as the pinnacle of a highly alluring career in sports, has lost a good deal of its luster.

“ADs now conduct their business in a fishbowl and to the extent they are not demonstrating progress, they get kicked to the curb,” he said.

McMillen contends that by creating greater and greater job security for athletic directors, institutions will ultimately be safeguarding their own long-term futures.

“If you are an AD today, your calculation is I am going to punt this down to the next AD when I am long gone,” McMillen said. “[Even] in corporate America, there is still a long-term perspective. I can’t in-debt the company to get short-term earnings. In college sports you can do that.”

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