SportsPulse: With the annual release of our college basketball coaches compensation database, Trysta Krick looked at some of the best perks in the contracts of the top coaches in the country.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Rick Pitino’s contract was founded on faith. It bound the University of Louisville to its men’s basketball coach well past his 73rd birthday and, when first signed, for more than $50 million.
There was no provision to protect the university in the event the two parties simply tired of each other. There were no clauses to limit payments if Pitino was let go and then latched on somewhere else. It was a prenup drafted as if divorce were a remote possibility; legally naïve and arguably negligent.
It is a mistake Louisville is reluctant to repeat.
With Pitino pursuing a $38.7 million breach of contract lawsuit against his former employer, contesting its claim he was fired for “just cause” following a series of high-profile scandals, the university has adopted more precise and prudent language in its coaching contracts, beginning with the seven-year deal signed last March by men’s basketball coach Chris Mack.
Salary database: See a detailed breakdown of how much coaches make
While not as lucrative as Pitino’s, the agreement with Mack involves more than enough money to warrant due care. Mack’s starting annual compensation from the school is $4 million.
That puts him sixth in USA TODAY’s new survey of Division I men’s basketball coaches’ pay. Ahead of him are four coaches who have won a national championship – Kentucky’s John Calipari, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Kansas’ Bill Self – and Virginia’s Tony Bennett, whose $4.15 million for this season includes a $1 million, non-annual longevity payment.
But there’s another number that’s critical to any assessment of Mack’s contract.
At 12,157 words, it is more than twice the length of Pitino’s last deal and, says Laura Landenwich, an employment lawyer with a Louisville law degree, the two documents are “night and day in terms of how much control the university has over its employee.”
“I don’t know if this represents a disparity in bargaining power or something cozier than that,” Landenwich said. “But it’s a lot more detailed. … From my perspective, that’s appropriate.”
Mack’s deal also was founded on faith – his.
‘The negative stuff’
The Xavier University graduate would leave the familiarity and security of his alma mater for a school that already was serving NCAA probation and facing the prospect of additional repeat-offender penalties. The federal investigation that led to Pitino’s firing is ongoing, but the alleged bribery scheme behind the recruitment of McDonald’s All-American Brian Bowen hovers over the Louisville program.
Players recruited by Pitino were contemplating transfers. Recruiting had atrophied under interim coach David Padgett, who was in no position to make promises. Louisville could afford to double Mack’s base salary — based on numbers that schools report to the NCAA, Louisville had one of the nation’s top operating surpluses from men’s basketball in 2017-18 at more than $19.1 million — but it also needed to dispel some of his doubts.
“We didn’t have any idea what roster we were walking into,” said Jason Charney, Mack’s agent. “There was not one person signed. … What happens if everybody leaves? It’s a disaster. It’s a 10-win team this year. It’s a 15-win team next year.”
Amid all of the uncertainty, though, Mack could see a destination job. Louisville offered top-notch facilities, championship tradition, devoted fans and the elite competition of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The city of Louisville also is the hometown of his wife, Christi, whose own basketball career includes two state championships at Holy Cross High School in nearby Shively.
“Loved the challenge of the ACC,” Chris Mack said via text message. “In my area of where I’ve recruited, so very familiar landscape. One of the top programs in America when all the negative stuff goes away — which it will. In it for the long haul. Best league, best players, best coaches. Want to win it all.”
Picked 11th in a preseason ACC poll, Mack’s Cardinals finished tied for sixth and will start the conference tournament Wednesday with a record of 19-12. If some of the enthusiasm engendered by a 7-1 start in ACC play has dissipated against a backloaded schedule, a 2019 recruiting class ranked as high as second nationally by ESPN has eased concerns about the long haul ahead.
Louisville athletics director Vince Tyra eased some of Mack’s NCAA concerns by agreeing to automatically extend his seven-year contract should infractions that predated his hiring result in a postseason ban or a reduction to fewer than 11 scholarships.
“This was offered up by me to mitigate any concerns from Coach Mack that a potential loss of a postseason would eliminate his ability to serve out the term with an opportunity for postseason incentives or other factors,” said Tyra, who took over in March 2018.
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“It was a very amicable negotiation,” Charney said. “Vince made Chris understand where Louisville was and what the situation was moving forward and at the same time made Chris understand, ‘You’re the guy I really want. You’re the guy to take us back to the promised land.’ ”
Besides the hefty initial base salary, Louisville showed Mack how much it wanted him in other ways. The school paid more than $5.5 million to cover the buyout that Mack owed for terminating his employment with Xavier and the taxes that Mack might have owed on the buyout payment. Louisville also agreed to let Mack accelerate a $250,000 raise scheduled for 2021 by reaching the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 in any season before then. He can then accelerate another $250,000 raise scheduled for 2023 by reaching the Sweet 16 a second time before that date.
Even so, his deal involves less money than Pitino’s did and it is far less lopsided.
If Mack is fired without cause by Louisville, his compensation is capped at 36 months’ salary, an obligation that would be at least partially offset by future income from another job that Mack would be obligated to seek. The buyout total would start at an eight-figure amount, but, at present, 16 other public school men’s basketball coaches would be owed more, according to USA TODAY’s compensation survey.
Pitino’s contract contained no comparable buyout or offset clauses.
“This is a very sensible change,” said Len Simon, an adjunct professor of law at Duke University, the University of San Diego and the University of Southern California. “No mitigation provisions are the result of huge bargaining power by the coach or bad lawyers by the school. There is no reason that a coach (or other employee) who is fired in the middle of a five-year contract should earn two paychecks when he is rehired.”
More control for university
Pitino’s contract allowed him to have a separate personal services deal with Adidas, Louisville’s athletics outfitter, and that deal, worth at least $1 million a year to Pitino, cut heavily into the amount of cash Louisville received from the company. Mack cannot have such an arrangement.
Mack’s agreement gives final authority over the team’s schedule to the athletics director. Pitino’s contract gave it to Pitino.
Mack’s contract also requires more record keeping than did Pitino’s and allows for more audits. Mack must maintain lists of who gets his tickets and report revenue and expenses from his basketball camp. It limits the university’s liability in the event Mack is let go without cause and it restricts Mack’s ability to work elsewhere in the ACC. It also obliges him to refer to the university and its representatives “in a positive tone” and stipulates that he carry himself in “a dignified manner” and dress “in attire appropriate to each occasion.”
“Remember my wife joking with me, ‘Well, maybe they saw you out in those jeans you wear with the holes in the knees,’ ” Mack said. “She hates those jeans, tried to ban me from them.”
Tyra says Mack’s contract was not drafted “in reaction” to Pitino’s but rather reflects the university’s desire to identify and adopt “best practices” in college athletics.
Were previous contracts inadequate?
“I can’t speak to that,” Tyra said, “but am certain that changes were needed and have been implemented in all head coaching contracts that have been executed since I have been here. They would include the language of my own contract to be consistent with steps taken to improve our compliance and governance of the athletic department.”
Much of the new language is consistent with recent contracts negotiated by Power Five conference schools. Similar language can be found in the contract extension signed in October by Louisville women’s basketball coach Jeff Walz.
“I don’t care one iota about that type of language in a contract,” Mack said. “If that makes them feel better about their coach, all good with me.”
Contributing: Christopher Schnaars
Follow Tim Sullivan of The Courier-Journal on Twitter @TimSullivan714