Were UK to change its coaching staff following the 2016 season, it could cost far more than $12 million, however.
All of Stoops’ assistant coaches except one have contracts guaranteed through June 30, 2018. Assistant head coach for offense Eddie Gran is the exception; his deal runs through June 30, 2019.
So if Kentucky removed Stoops and assistants following the current season, the university could be on the hook for some $17.898 million in payouts.
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(For the assistants, the buyout figures could be mitigated if they subsequently took other jobs, releasing UK from having to pay some or all of the contract guarantees).
UK’s steep financial commitment to Stoops was cemented on Oct. 29, 2014, when Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart signed the then-second-year football coach to a six-year, $21.5 million contract extension.
At the time, Stoops had won seven of the 20 games he’d coached at Kentucky.
It is easy now that Stoops (12-26) is off to a worse start than even Bill Curry (14-24) through his first 38 games as Cats coach to wonder what Barnhart and UK were thinking in making such a lucrative promise to a head coach who was still mostly unproven on the field.
The fair thing, however, is to try to go back to late October 2014, and remember how things appeared at the time.
When the extension was signed, Stoops had a 5-3 record midway through his second season. The coach’s recruiting was being hailed as a breakthrough for Kentucky, with the Cats’ 2014 signing class ranked 18th in the country by Rivals.com.
Where past UK coaches whined about lack of funding for football facility upgrades, Stoops persuaded some wealthy Wildcats men’s basketball boosters to put big resources into football. That made possible the chic $45 million football complex that UK opened this summer.
Given his off-the-field success and those five early-season wins in his second year at UK, Stoops’ name was being linked in the media in 2014 with possible coaching openings at schools such as Michigan and Iowa (the coach’s alma mater).
So Barnhart acted.
“Mark is guiding our program in the direction we all want it to go, and we are proud to reward that,” Barnhart said at the time of the Stoops extension. “I was confident Mark was right for this job when I hired him, but he has exceeded my expectations. From leading a group of young men, to recruiting, to fundraising, to becoming an important part of the Lexington community, Mark has embraced and excelled in all facets of being Kentucky head football coach.”
Just after the extension was announced, I wrote that UK’s move reflected the irrational marketplace in which big-time college coaching contracts get done.
I also asked the following question: Was Barnhart more apt to be viciously second-guessed if:
A.) He extended Stoops’ contract prematurely, the coach failed, and the university got stuck with a massive buyout payment?
B.) He didn’t extend the coach, only to watch a successful Stoops bolt for a better deal at a more traditional football school?
At the time, I said “B” was the bigger risk for Barnhart.
Two games into Stoops’ fourth season, “A” seems the scenario UK is more likely to face.
The good news for Kentucky is, that as bad as the Wildcats have looked in being outscored 72-7 over their past six quarters, there are still winnable games on the 2016 UK schedule.
The bad news for UK is, if you throw out last season’s blowout of overmatched Charlotte, the Cats’ past four games have all been disasters.
Kentucky suffered a coaching meltdown that led to the 21-17 loss at Vanderbilt in 2015. UK saw a 24-7 halftime lead morph into a 38-24 loss to Louisville in last year’s season finale.
After an entire offseason built around the theme “Finish,” Kentucky opened 2016 by watching a 35-10 lead turn into a 44-35 loss to Southern Mississippi. Then came Saturday’s no-show at Florida, where UK looked lost while getting smoked 45-7.
The only thing that would justify paying a coach $12 million — and, potentially a coaching staff almost $18 million — not to work would be a complete competitive collapse.