The University of Maryland ran up an $8.1 million tab paying football coaches not to coach, according to financial records obtained by The Baltimore Sun.
The university, which has had three head football coaches and two interim coaches in the last 4 ½ years, spent more on buyouts in the 2019 fiscal year than on the current head coach’s salary ($2.1 million), football team travel ($1.2 million), and football recruiting ($548,699) combined, according to a recent financial report to the NCAA.
The school said it paid $4.5 million of the $8.1 million to nine former coaches during the fiscal year ending June 30 and owed the rest. Buyouts are one of the university’s costliest football expenses even as it struggles to reverse the football program’s fortunes.
The biggest beneficiary, former head coach DJ Durkin, had signed a five-year, $12.5 million contract in December 2015 calling for him to receive 65% of any remaining money if he was dismissed. Durkin was fired in October 2018, four months after offensive lineman Jordan McNair died after suffering heatstroke. According to a spreadsheet from the school, Durkin received $3.2 million during the last fiscal year, was owed $2.1 million after that, and — under his contract — was permitted to continue collecting the money even if he got a job with another school.
Maryland confirmed that it continues to pay Durkin, who is also making $700,000 a year as an assistant coach at the University of Mississippi, according to a copy of his contract provided by that school.
Buoyed by increasing television revenues, a number of college athletic programs have been willing in recent years to pay what would have once seemed exorbitant buyouts so they can unload coaches and hire fresh talent. “They say ‘If we don’t make this change now we’ll have these boosters who are threatening to pull their money,’ “ said B. David Ridpath, an associate professor of sports business at Ohio University.
Ridpath said he was troubled that Durkin and other Maryland coaches received hefty payments following a dark period for the school after the death of McNair, a former McDonogh School standout who suffered heatstroke during a team workout and died two weeks later. “That really bothered me,” Ridpath said of the buyouts.
Attempts to reach Durkin through his attorney and Mississippi were unsuccessful. The school said it doesn’t make assistant coaches available for interviews.
The others receiving Maryland buyouts are former interim head football coach Matt Canada and former assistants Jimmy Brumbaugh, Chuck Heater, Aazaar Abdul-Rahim, Bryan Stinespring, Chris Beatty, Jafar Williams and Rick Court.
Maryland said the assistant coaches’ contracts each contain clauses allowing it to discontinue the buyouts if the assistant secures another job. Those clauses could allow Maryland to reduce the $8.1 million obligation by $600,000 or more, the school said.
Court resigned as the program’s strength coach a few months after McNair died. The player’s death led to independent reviews of how Durkin, Court and many other coaches and administrators had been running the program.
Court’s buyout was for $314,908, the spreadsheet said. It said the other assistant coach buyouts range from $43,364 for Williams. to $1.2 million to Canada.
The Maryland buyouts — plus another $2.6 million in buyout money for football coach Randy Edsall, who was fired with a losing record in 2015 — burdened an athletic program spending increasing amounts since joining the potent Big Ten Conference. The biggest football expenditures in the 2019 fiscal year were the combined salaries of the current head coach and his 10 assistants ($6.7 million), athletic student aid ($5.4 million) and the buyouts.
The Terps’ record in conference football games is 14-38 since Maryland joined the league in 2014 — two years after budget constraints forced it to eliminate seven sports teams — with the goal of stabilizing athletic department finances, elevating the football program and rejuvenating the fan base. Football ticket sales declined sharply to $5.9 million in the 2019 fiscal year although Maryland said they rose last fall as part of the 2020 fiscal year. The report to the NCAA, dated Jan. 15 and obtained in a public records request, covered only the 2019 fiscal year.
Current head coach Michael Locksley is in his second year, although he has long been associated with the school, including a brief stint as interim head coach. After so much upheaval, school officials believe the program will benefit from continuity under Locksley.
“Maryland Athletics is focused on the long-term success of our football program,” said spokesman Jason Yellin. “Just last season, we saw a 12-percent increase in ticket sales and attendance rose by more than 4,200 per game.” He said those and other statistics “are evidence that our fans are rallying around Maryland Football.”
To pay its contracts and other obligations, Maryland relies heavily on revenues distributed by the Big Ten to its member schools regardless of how their teams perform. The conference has lucrative television deals with ESPN and Fox Sports.
The financial reports covering 2019 and earlier show Maryland’s Big Ten share amounted to $42.2 million, up from $40.6 million in 2018 and more than double the distribution it received ($19 million) in its final season in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Maryland athletics also relies on revenue from ticket sales, advertisements and sponsorships, student fees and other sources.
Full-time undergraduate students must pay $399 to athletics, while graduate students pay $133, the school said. According to the report, student fees accounted for $12.4 million (11.4 %) of the department’s operating revenue of $108.8 million.
While other schools in major conferences have been on the hook for larger buyouts than Maryland’s, analysts consider $8.1 million a sizable hit. The school doesn’t make nearly as much from football ticket sales as many other Big Ten schools — such as Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State — with much larger fan bases and stadiums.
“Eight (million dollars) sounds like a lot. That would stand out,” said University of Michigan sports economist Rodney Fort.
Fort said the wisdom of individual buyouts is best judged in the long term when it can be determined whether absorbing a contract was ultimately justified by hiring a replacement who helped boost team revenues.
But other sports economists say contract buyouts, which media pundits liken to “golden parachutes,” often amount to bad business.
“Even smaller schools will fire a coach before the contract is up and pay these ridiculous buyouts,” said Ridpath.
Buyouts can be structured in various ways. A university luring away another school’s coach will sometimes foot the bill for the remainder of that coach’s old contract in addition to offering the new hire a hefty salary.
That was the case when Michigan State, another Big Ten school, hired Colorado football coach Mel Tucker to a $5.5 million a year contract several weeks ago. Michigan State — in a stipulation attached to Tucker’s new deal — agreed to pay $3 million to Colorado for Tucker’s “current contractual buyout.”
That sort of arrangement makes buyout critics wince.
“The idea that coaching contracts are structured so that institutions are required to pay million dollar buyouts shows that the rush to hire a coach often creates a financial hardship on the school,” said Drexel University sports management professor Karen Weaver. “Higher education needs to look closely at why we keep repeating something that hurts the university in the long run.”