So what does a $95 million-or-so head coaching contract buy a school these days?
In the case of Texas A&M and Michigan State, a couple of disappointing (teetering on disastrous) football seasons, not to mention massive underdog status against their respective conference powerhouses this week.
Oh, and probably plenty of worry (hidden or not) about whether exactly two aspirational contract offers to two coaches that had never even won the schools a league title might turn out to be epically horrible decisions.
On September 1, 2021, Texas A&M — coming off a 9-1 season — announced a new 10-year, $95 million contract for coach Jimbo Fisher.
A few months later, Michigan State — in the midst of an 11-2 season — announced a new 10-year $95 million contract for coach Mel Tucker.
These were twin, industry-changing deals and not necessarily because of the eye-popping numbers. It was because of who, and from whom, the deals involved.
This wasn’t Alabama rewarding Nick Saban for national championships won. This was A&M and State willingly overpaying for coaches they believed had shown they were capable of making them competitive with the best teams in the country, let alone in their respective conferences, such as Alabama or Ohio State.
Well, on Saturday afternoon, Michigan State hosts the Buckeyes. A couple of hours later, Texas A&M kicks off at Alabama. It’s a yardstick day for both programs. What may be clear is that no one is getting their money’s worth this fall.
MSU is 2-3, including 0-3 against Power 5 opponents (cumulative score: 100-48). The Spartans will need a massive turnaround to avoid competing for the basement of the Big Ten. This weekend, they are a 25.5-point underdog to Ohio State.
Meanwhile, Texas A&M is a little better at 3-2 (with victories over Miami and Arkansas) but is coming off an 18-point loss to Mississippi State. This is Fisher’s fifth season on the job and he delivered a lackluster 8-4 campaign in the first season of the big deal. Now, the Aggies look like an SEC West afterthought. They are 24.5-point dogs in Tuscaloosa.
This isn’t what anyone envisioned when expensive deals (and massive buyouts) locked up both men for the long term.
“Coach Fisher continues to demonstrate he is building our program for long-term success and he is a perfect fit for Texas A&M,” A&M athletic director Ross Bjork said at the time of the contract extension.
“We look forward to many more successful seasons, competing at the highest levels under Coach Tucker,” MSU president Samuel Stanley said of Tucker's deal.
The idea then was to have the programs competing and occasionally beating the Alabamas and Ohio States of the world. Those are the unmovable juggernauts of the SEC and Big Ten, respectively. It’s who A&M and MSU want to be.
They don’t win every year, but it’s close. Alabama has taken seven of the last 10 league titles. Ohio State has five of eight.
Instead, what was expected to be a huge showdown between the Aggies and Tide — complete with Saban-Fisher back-and-forth this offseason — is more of a breather for Alabama between road games to Arkansas and No. 8 Tennessee. Saban spent his press conference on Monday warning about overconfidence (or "rat poison" as he calls it).
In East Lansing, the concern is how a defense that couldn’t stop Washington and Minnesota will stand up against an explosive Ohio State.
Does that mean both schools should regret the deals?
Not necessarily. First off, it’s just one season — one part of one season actually.
Fisher, for his part, won the 2013 national title at Florida State, so it’s not like he can’t lead a program to the top. He also inked the No. 1 recruiting class in the country last year, a rare occasion that someone bested Saban on national signing day. That’s a serious talent infusion — it’s just they are freshman currently.
Tucker, meanwhile, is only in his third season at MSU and the first was a COVID fire drill. The 11-2 campaign should buy him some credibility and he has nationalized the Spartans recruiting efforts, an acknowledgement that his job needs to be more than just being Big Ten competitive.
This is college football, fortunes can change quickly. And anything can happen Saturday which could spark a turnaround.
Besides, this is what schools such as Texas A&M and Michigan State almost have to do to be great. They aren’t historic powers. They don’t have all the advantages. The key is finding the coach that overcomes some of that and using money to keep them happy.
It’s a gamble, but that’s the gamble that comes with the territory, the cost of doing business.
A year ago, that meant near nine-figure contracts to coaches who hadn’t yet earned it. It was a promissory note, of sorts.
That promise is nowhere near fulfillment yet, and nationally-televised embarrassments may be coming this weekend.
It’s time to wonder, but with that much money guaranteed, there is no use in worrying. Just hope for better days to come. Preferably as soon as Saturday.