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Jimbo Fisher’s contract: Albatross, or impetuous-proof?

Will the massive deal doom the Aggies, or ultimately save us from ourselves?

Whenever Texas A&M football coach Jimbo Fisher is mentioned, his contract is sure to be one of the first topics brought up. Fisher’s $9.15 million annual salary isn’t astronomical by 2023 standards (there are now 11 coaches making $9+ million per season, including six in the SEC alone), but it’s the total guaranteed value that is striking. Because all of it is guaranteed. After signing a 10-year, $75 million contract when he first came to College Station in December 2017, Fisher and the Aggies re-upped for a new 10-year, $94.95 million deal that took effect in 2022.

There are only two other college football coaching contracts in that realm, which is not by coincidence. Fisher negotiated his deal in Summer 2021, fresh off the heels of a 9-1 season that saw the Aggies win the Orange Bowl and finish No. 4 in the AP Poll. More importantly, Fisher was receiving overtures from former Texas A&M Athletic Director Scott Woodward, now at LSU, about replacing the soon-to-be-fired Ed Orgeron in Baton Rouge. A few months later, Mel Tucker would lead Michigan State to an 11-2 season and signed a nearly identical 10-year, $95 million deal, which was also fully guaranteed. The size of that contract was also largely driven by the fact that Tucker was reportedly linked to the coaching vacancy at LSU. So it should come as no surprise that the only contract LARGER than these two deals is the one for Brian Kelly, who took the LSU job and signed a 10-year, $100 million deal in December 2021. That deal is 90% guaranteed (and becomes 100% guaranteed if LSU wins a national title).

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Texas A&M Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, the 2022 results are where these stories diverge. Nobody talks much about Kelly’s contract these days, because he took his team to an SEC Championship Game, a New Year’s Six Bowl win and a 10-win season last year. Fisher and Tucker, meanwhile, nosedived into embarrassing 5-7 seasons that have many questioning the future of their respective programs.

There’s little doubt that, at least in College Station, Jimbo Fisher’s job would have been in peril after the 2022 season had it not been for his massive buyout (which would have been $85.95 million on Jan. 1, 2023). I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that he would have been fired after that 5-7 season (even the buyout of his original contract would have been $37.5 million), but those discussions would have at least taken place, and if he stayed, his seat would have been RED HOT heading into the next season. As it stands, Jimbo Fisher’s massive contract meant that for better or worse, he was going to be our coach heading into 2023, and likely even beyond that. That’s largely been portrayed as a bad thing – that the contract is an albatross around the neck of the Texas A&M program – but I don’t think that story is fully written yet.

Is there a world where A&M doesn’t show improvement and languishes in mediocrity for years until Jimbo’s buyout moves into a more affordable range? Of course. After watching this team last season, you can’t rule out those problems persisting. But there are also reasons for optimism about the future of this team. The Aggies still boast one of the most talented rosters in college football, and unlike last year, there is experience to go along with that talent. A&M returns 80% of their 2022 production (No. 7 nationally), when just a year ago they returned only 60% of their production (No. 81 nationally). It promises to be Jimbo Fisher’s most experienced team he’s had since coming to College Station, with the only one that’s even close being that 2020 team that was easily the highlight of his tenure (that team returned 77% of its production). That, combined with the hiring of Offensive Coordinator Bobby Petrino, are reasons to believe that improvement is possible. Whether you think it’s trite or not, we’ve heard repeatedly from A&M coaches and players that this spring/offseason has had a vastly improved vibe from a year ago.

Given that, there’s a scenario where we look back on Jimbo Fisher’s contract not as an albatross, but an impetuousness-proofing mechanism that forced Texas A&M to have the patience to let Jimbo Fisher course correct and turn this program around. College football coaches today have a shorter leash than at perhaps any time in the sports existence. You don’t have to look far to see examples of teams playing musical chairs with their head coaching position and moving on every 3-4 years hoping to win the coaching lottery. But there are other examples of patience paying off.

Six years into Jim Harbaugh’s tenure Michigan, he had only one bowl win, no 11+ win seasons, no conference title game appearances and no victories over rival Ohio State. And whether you blame COVID or not, no Michigan fan was happy when they went 2-4 in 2020. When many people thought he deserved to be fired, Michigan stayed the course (and Harbaugh, to his credit, re-structured his contract to add more years but reduce his annual salary). Fast forward two years, and the results could not be more stark. The Wolverines have won 25 games over the past two years, including beating Ohio State, winning the Big Ten and going to the College Football Playoff in each of those two seasons. Suffice to say, folks in Ann Arbor are glad they stayed the course.

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Michigan vs Florida State Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Another good example is Mark Stoops at Kentucky. Five seasons in, Stoops had a combined record of 26-36, had never won more than seven games in a season, had never won a bowl game and was 1-4 against in-state rival Louisville. But he rewarded the Wildcats’ patience by delivering four bowl wins and two 10-win seasons in the subsequent five years, along with an undefeated record against Louisville in that span.

Obviously A&M is not a blue blood like Michigan, and we also aren’t a basketball-first school like Kentucky. A&M’s place in the hierarchy of college football falls somewhere in the middle. But the point remains that what a coach has done does not always predict what he will do. Downward trends don’t go on forever, just like upwards ones don’t either. Progress in college is almost never that predictable and linear, and it’s a part of what makes the sport so great.

No Aggie is going to claim that they enjoyed last season. For me personally, it may have been the most painful season I have endured as a Texas A&M football fan (and that is saying something). It was a season when seemingly everything that possibly could go wrong, did. Save the LSU win in the final game of the season, it was basically a punch to the nuts from start to finish. It was no doubt cause for alarm that changes needed to be made, but that doesn’t mean those changes needed to be wholesale.

None of us know what the 2023 season holds. We might look back and say that the naysayers were right. That Jimbo was cooked and A&M is being held hostage by the bloated contract they handed him. Or 2022 could be a blip in the radar for a program that, prior to that season, was thought by many to be one on the rise to national prominence. A&M could stay healthy, see the team’s experience pay off, the new offense thrive and put together an unexpectedly strong season. And if the latter happens, you’d have that contract which has been ridiculed by so many to thank for it.

Poll

How do you think the Aggies will fare in 2023?

This poll is closed

  • 36%
    10+ wins, pass the maroon Kool Aid!
    (135 votes)
  • 48%
    8-9 wins, disaster averted
    (178 votes)
  • 12%
    6-7 wins, this sucks
    (47 votes)
  • 2%
    0-5 wins, click here to donate to the buyout fund
    (8 votes)
368 votes total Vote Now
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