College football has been a pricey endeavor for years in Texas, but Texas A&M; University has broken new ground for sports spending in the state.
Following the 2017 regular season, the school officially hired national championship-winning coach Jimbo Fisher to a 10-year, $75 million contract. University administrators said that money will be guaranteed, making the deal used to lure Fisher away from powerhouse Florida State University staggering for both its duration and its annual pay.
Let's put the contract in perspective: A&M;'s off-the-field rival, the University of Texas at Austin — known as the richest athletics program in college sports — signed head football coach Tom Herman to a contract for half that length last year. And Herman's deal guarantees $45 million less. Fisher's annual pay of $7.5 million is more than the total amount of football revenue generated at the University of North Texas and Texas State University combined, according to NCAA financial reports.
But A&M; officials stressed Monday that they think Fisher is worth the money. Aggie administrators have said they want to win championships. And they say they'll pay for the coach without using any state-appropriated cash.
How is that possible? It's because A&M; football has been massively profitable in recent years.
In the 2015-16 school year, the last year for which NCAA records are publicly available, A&M;'s football team generated around $100 million, compared with only $30 million in expenses. Much of that $70 million profit was used to support other sports teams. But thanks to donations, licensing and other revenue, A&M;'s athletics department still generated more revenue than any other school in the country.
But the numbers are a little misleading. During the 2015-16 school year, A&M; was still collecting funds to pay for the university's $485 million stadium renovation, which was finished in 2015. Once those dollars stop coming in, revenue will dip.
Still, A&M; officials expect the athletics department to continue to pay for itself. Thanks in part to lucrative television deals, A&M; received around $40 million from the Southeastern Conference last year. And the renovated stadium will likely continue to bring in more money from ticket sales. Revenue from football tickets in 2015-16 was $41.7 million, records show.
A&M; President Michael Young reiterated that expectation by telling reporters Monday that the athletics program is "self-sufficient" and even contributes some dollars back to the academic side of the school. A&M;'s spending on sports, Young said, generates a significant return on investment.
Florida State officials cited A&M;'s wealth as one of the reasons Fisher left their school.
"At some point in time we may have the resources Texas A&M; has, but it got to a point where a school came calling, and they basically allowed Jimbo to make history and we just weren't able to do that here," Florida State athletics director Stan Wilcox told reporters over the weekend.
Still, a contract like that comes with some risks. This year, A&M; fired its previous coach, Kevin Sumlin, after his sixth season. Now it must pay him the more than $10 million left on his contract. If A&M; were to fire Fisher after his sixth year, it would likely owe far more than that.
And there's some uncertainty in the college sports world, not least with the health of the television networks that pay conferences so much. Fisher's contract extends beyond the Southeastern Conference's main TV deals. It's impossible to say whether schools like A&M; will be bringing in more or less television revenue near the end of Fisher's contract.
But A&M; leaders might be confident because gambles like this have worked out in the past. In 1982, A&M; generated national outrage for its hiring star University of Pittsburgh coach Jackie Sherrill to the biggest contract in college sports history at the time. A&M;'s president, Frank Vandiver, even threatened to resign over the deal.
Sherrill went on to be one of the most successful coaches in A&M; history. His average annual pay from that record-breaking contract? $280,000.
Disclosure: Texas A&M; University and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.
Correction: A reference to the profit being earned by the Texas A&M; University athletics department has been removed from this story. While revenue in the athletics department was higher than expenses, the excess revenue was being used to pay off the university's capital expenses for its new stadium.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2017/12/04/texas-m-guaranteed-75-million-football-coach-jimbo-fisher-how-can-it-a/.
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