Fired coaches: $itting pretty
Ron Zook sits on the back deck of his sprawling house on Lake Weir, contemplating his options. Water skiing. Lunch with wife Denise. A quick trip to Tampa for quality time with buddy Jon Gruden.
Not a care in the world.
"It's been kind of fun to get up in the morning and take some walks with Denise," Zook said. "I've done some things that I've never done before, which is kind of different."
For the first time in his adult life, Zook isn't gearing up for training camp. Or looking at his playbook. Or writing letters to recruits.
He's an unemployed college football coach. But, like the rest of the guys in the 2011 fired class, he'll have plenty of money to buy groceries and gas.
"I'm fine," Zook said. "I'm good to go."
Illinois owes Zook $2.6 million, which he will receive in four equal payments during the next two years.
Zook's buyout isn't close to the biggest. Houston Nutt is due $6 million from Mississippi. And Kansas already has paid Turner Gill $6 million.
Texas A&M says it owes Mike Sherman $5.8 million, but the coach's representatives say the number is $8.8 million. Negotiations are ongoing between school President R. Bowen Loftin and Sherman.
The 13 coaches receiving buyouts will receive in excess of $27 million. They will get an average of $2.09 million per coach.
It seems like a lot of money to pay people to stay away from your football team.
"It's a reality of the college coaching world," Illinois senior associate athletic director Susan Young said.
Is there a breaking point? An unreachable number?
"Every time we say that, you get the next highest-paid coach in that respective sport," Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said. "Did we ever think we would see coaches getting paid $5 million a year in college sports? I'd like to sit here and say, 'Yeah, at some point this might be a little bit more measured and be more under control,' but I don't think anyone can speak to that in complete certainty as to what it may look like another five, 10, 15, 20 years down the road."
The revenue continues to grow. The Big Ten will distribute $284 million this year to its members from television, bowl and NCAA tournament payments.
In his first year as Illinois athletic director, Thomas watched the men's gymnastics team win a national title, the volleyball team finish second, a men's golfer become the medalist at the NCAA Championships and Illini runners take three outdoor track titles.
Thomas also fired three high-profile coaches. Zook was the first (Nov. 27), followed by women's basketball coach Jolette Law (March 2) and men's basketball coach Bruce Weber (March 9).
"It was unique," Thomas said. "I don't think anyone would want to be put in that situation. I've been doing this for a long time. It's the first time I've ever had a situation like that as it relates to those personnel decisions at that level as far as the numbers and the dollars."
The three will be paid a combined $7.12 million ... to not coach at Illinois.
"Obviously, it's difficult and it's not ideal," Thomas said. "You'd rather the situation be different. In fairness to those people that was how the contracts were written and that's what we will abide by."
The school gave the coaches options in terms of how they would receive their buyouts. Zook and Law opted for twice-a-year payments. Weber will receive his money annually.
The payments will be direct deposited into their designated accounts.
"The same way it would have been if they had been here as an employee," Young said.
The money will come from the Illinois athletic department budget. Thomas said the payouts, which average $2.37 million annually, won't have a negative impact on the program. Coaches will continue to recruit and teams will travel just like they always have.
"No university funds (are being used)," Thomas said. "You have to budget for it and plan for it.
"One of the things that Susan (Young) and the DIA has done well before my arrival is they have been very fiscally sound. We'll continue to do that in the future."
When Thomas contemplated making a change in the three sports, he had to think about more than just the buyouts.
"You've got to base it on lost revenues as well," Thomas said. "When you look at a men's basketball program that their attendance went from 16,700 to 14,900, that's almost 2,000 people a game. Based on our gate this year, in 20 games we were down about $50,000 a game."
Thomas had similar concerns for the upcoming football season, which loses big draws Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin and replaces them with Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota.
For football, Thomas wants to follow the Virginia Tech model. The school, which used to struggle to fill Lane Stadium, now sells out every game, regardless of opponent. Virginia Tech can count on the same amount of financial impact from football attendance each year.
"We need to get to that point," Thomas said.
The contracts for Law, Weber and Zook call for them to get their money whether they are employed elsewhere or not.
That's the way many contracts were written in the past, too. Former Illinois football coach Ron Turner was paid his entire Illinois contract after taking a job as Chicago Bears offensive coordinator.
"But I think the trend going forward is to mitigate the damages if the coach takes another job, so he's not being paid two times," Young said.
The change has been necessitated by the size of the contracts.
"When you were paying coaches several hundreds of thousands of dollars instead of several million dollars, the issue didn't seem as significant," said longtime Champaign attorney David Sholem, who represents Weber and Turner. "I think that's probably how it's evolved. It's become more of a focal point."
Tim Beckman's contract includes a provision that will deduct $275,000 annually from the buyout "attributable to the Head Coach's duty to mitigate damages with other incomes, regardless of the exact income which the coach earns following the termination."
Beckman's buyout is two times his base pay of $400,000 for each of the remaining years. If Beckman is released by the school with two years left on his deal, he will be owed $1.05 million ($1.6 million minus $550,000 to mitigate damages).
Contracts for new men's basketball coach John Groce and women's basketball coach Matt Bollant haven't been finalized. But they are expected to contain clauses similar to the one for Beckman.
There is also a buyout in the Illinois athletic director's contract. If Thomas is fired by the school, he will receive his $475,000 base salary for each of the remaining years on his deal.
While the coaching buyouts seem extreme in some cases, Young said they are no different than what is being paid to departing executives at major corporations. In some cases, the corporate buyouts dwarf the coaching buyouts. But there is less public attention for the corporate leaders, who don't have their faces on television each Saturday.
"I came from that world," said Young, a former corporate executive. "Typically, there's some kind of severance package. I'm sure there are people getting a lot more. Some CEOs have big-time buyouts."
Thomas is at his third school as an athletic director, working previously at Akron and Cincinnati. One change he has seen with the contracts is that more coaches are represented.
"They are looking for people with that expertise," Thomas said.
Zook was called to meet with Thomas at the Bielfeldt Building the morning after a humbling loss to Minnesota.
When Thomas called, Zook knew it "wasn't for breakfast."
"That's not an easy time for anybody, including myself," Thomas said. "You want to be fair and do the appropriate thing based on what's in the contract. I think we've done that and that would be how we intend to do business in the future."
Zook had an up-and-down tenure at Illinois, leading the team to the Rose Bowl in his third season, then watching the program drop to 3-9 two years later. His final two teams qualified for bowls, winning consecutive postseason games for the first time in school history.
Weber's Illinois career included a national title-game appearance in his second season and six trips to the NCAA tournament in nine years.
But in the final three years of Weber's career, the Illini qualified for the NCAA tournament only once. His last team wasn't invited to any tournament.
"The coaches realize it's a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business," Sholem said.
Generally, in the coaching business, there isn't much loyalty on either side. But Sholem was working with guys who "if they had their way, would have preferred to retire here."
That hasn't always been the case at Illinois. John Mackovic left for Texas. Lon Kruger went to the NBA. Bill Self took his dream job at Kansas.
"This was a station along the way," Sholem said.
When coaches are hired, they have to prepare for the inevitable departure. Job insecurity is dealt with in the contracts.
"It's an important part," Sholem said. "Most of the coaches realize they are talented and they are in demand, so they realize that if they lost one job, statistically, they are likely to find another. So, it's not so much the issue 'Am I going to be able to replace my income?' They've got confidence in their ability. I don't think finances are the foremost factor on these coaches' minds. It's probably very low on the list. They'd work for less and still do what they're doing because they love what they're doing."
Their level of pay is just another way to gauge respect, Sholem said. The coaches at Illinois have a good idea what their peers are making in the Big Ten and beyond. Those numbers can become part of negotiations.
"It's an indication whether or not the coach is valued and appreciated," Sholem said.
Law's teams went 69-93 in five seasons. She was over .500 twice, but her final two teams went 20-42. She was 27-59 against the Big Ten.
When Thomas was hired last summer, he knew there were questions moving forward with the three sports. But he had no preconceived idea about making changes.
"Everybody would love to have Jim Boeheim at Syracuse or what Bobby Bowden did at Florida State," Thomas said. "Then, you know you're having success and not dealing with some of the things we've had to deal with the last nine months."
Back to school
Of course, Zook wants to return to the sidelines. It won't happen in 2012, though he had some opportunities.
The Jacksonville Jaguars were interested in him as special teams coordinator, a job he held previously in the NFL with the Steelers. But Zook decided the timing wasn't right and turned down a chance to be considered.
Zook will spend the 2012 season working as a studio analyst for CBS Sports. The television path worked just right for Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez and Washington State's Mike Leach. They recharged their batteries while waiting for the inevitable offers.
Zook has been fired twice by BCS schools, first Florida, then Illinois. But his reputation as a recruiter should put his name in consideration when jobs open in 2012. And they will. Count on more than a dozen FBS positions changing hands after the upcoming season. The guy living by the lake will be interested.
"Football is in his system," said Frank Frangie, a Jacksonville radio host and longtime Zook friend. "That's why he and Jon (Gruden) spend so much time together watching tape and talking football. He's as happy and relaxed as I've ever seen him but still chomping at the bit for the next thing."
Frangie talks to Zook almost every day. Frangie got a bit concerned one day when he couldn't reach Zook, who usually answers his phone without fail. Had he fallen off his skis or got snagged by a gator?
Nope. Zook was out putting a basket on Denise's bike, so they could take their dog along on rides.
But there are only so many baskets to hang.
"He's got a great life," Frangie said. "He's worked hard, made a bunch of money and is not an extravagant spender. He's got what you and I would consider the ultimate life. But Ron, like all these other coaches, football is in their blood. He's a young 58. He's as young a 58 as you'll ever see. To say he's content to live on that lake and never coach again is totally inaccurate."
Law and Weber will be blowing their whistles during the 2012-13 season. Law joined Holly Warlick's staff at Tennessee. Weber took over for Frank Martin at Kansas State, inheriting a team most consider better than the one he left at Illinois.
The moving van was at Weber's house earlier this week, packing him up for the long trip to Manhattan, Kan.
With the new homeowner set to take possession, Weber didn't have much time to chat with his endless friends in C-U.
Weber wasn't wearing orange and blue. Neighbors saw him in a purple shirt: Kansas State's color.
Not far from Weber's place, Zook's home in southwest Champaign hasn't been sold yet. Keeping his house has allowed Zook to make a gradual move to Florida.
"We've got stuff in both places," Zook said.
Zook has plenty of orange and blue clothing. He doesn't plan any symbolic gesture to rid himself of the stuff.
"I don't hold grudges," Zook said. "Things happen. I know this: I can look in the mirror and feel pretty good about both places. You look at Florida and you look at where that program is right now, it's embarrassing. At Illinois, we did stuff that they'd never done in history. They can say what you want to say, but I feel that both places the program is way, way better than it was when I got there."