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Highest college football coaches buyouts: Kirby Smart, Lincoln Riley among highest after $75 million Jimbo Fisher firing

The Texas A&M Aggies made history in 2023 by paying the biggest head coach buyout in college football history at over $70 million. While it’s currently the NCAA record, the remaining list of the highest college football coaches buyouts could eventually make new history.

Thanks to skyrocketing revenue for college football tied to the growth of the College Football Playoff and increasing TV rights costs, salaries for college football coaches have soared. While landing one of the highest salaries in the nation is one of the highest priorities for a coach taking a new job, securing one of the highest college football coaches’ buyouts also factors in.

Related: Highest-paid college basketball coaches

Below, we’ll examine the biggest coaches buyouts in college football right now and the history of the highest buyouts in college football history.

Biggest college football coaches buyouts

10. Nick Saban, Alabama Crimson Tide

  • Nick Saban buyout: $44.8 million

Alabama Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban is signed to a contract extension through 2030 and it seems unlikely that arguably the greatest college football coach ever would be fired. However, consider what’s happening with Saban’s close friend Bill Belichick in the NFL. No coach is ever permanently safe from being ousted. With that said, it’s far more likely Saban will retire when his contract expires rather than Alabama firing him midway through. If it has to happen, though, the buyout is pretty reasonable compared to his peers.

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9. Ryan Day, Ohio State Buckeyes

  • Ryan Day buyout: $46.222 million

Since taking over the Ohio State Buckeyes, Ryan Day has been one of the best head coaches in college football. He’s generated some buzz for NFL jobs and with three consecutive double-digit win seasons, it seems improbable that Day would ever be fired. However, one of the highest coaching buyouts in college football might not be a huge barrier for the Buckeyes. After all, Ohio State is now a juggernaut that has won national championships with its last three coaches. If the highest standard isn’t being met by Day, the Buckeyes won’t hesitate to pay the buyout and find someone who will meet the standard.

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8. Josh Heupel, Tennessee Volunteers

  • Josh Heupel buyout: $46.5 million

The Tennessee Volunteers hired Josh Heupel at a time when they just needed stability. He’s quickly turned this program around, nearly taking it to the College Football Playoff a year ago and maintaining its status as a top-20 team this season. Of course, Vol Nation wants national championships and the barometer for what’s acceptable will eventually rise. If it does and Heupel can’t put the Vols over the top, Tennessee’s boosters and the University of Tennessee will need to prepare to shell out one of the biggest coaching buyouts ever.

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7. Mark Stoops, Kentucky Wildcats

  • Mark Stoops buyout: $51.187 million

Mark Stoops has made the University of Kentucky more than just a basketball school. The Kentucky Wildcats football program is now consistently one of the 40 best teams in college football, with Stoops delivering four bowl wins in the last five seasons. Kentucky does have a $6.8 billion budget for the 2023-’24 fiscal year alone, so it could squeeze out enough to cover one of the SEC’s biggest college football coaches buyouts, but Stoops has delivered far too much consistency for a move to be made anytime soon.

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6. Matt Rhule, Nebraska Cornhuskers

  • Matt Rhule buyout: $62.062 million

Matt Rhule spent a few years away from college football, but he wasted no time joining in on the newest tradition shared by his peers. Any head-coaching vacancy that comes open, especially at programs with more desperation, is an opportunity to land a massive salary and now one of the biggest coaching buyouts in college football. Rhule, who delivered three double-digit win seasons in seven years at Baylor and Nebraska, will get paid more than a majority of NFL players do if the Nebraska Cornhuskers ever decide to fire him. What expectations Nebraska’s athletic department, fan base, and boosters have will be critical because the Cornhuskers have only won 10-plus games once since 2011.

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5. Dabo Swinney, Clemson Tigers

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Clemson
Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports
  • Dabo Swinney buyout: $64 million

If Tyler from South Carolina thought the Clemson Tigers were overpaying Dabo Swinney to be their head coach, he’d be shocked to learn what it would cost Clemson University to not have Swinney coaching their football team. The Tigers football program hasn’t returned to the heights it reached with Trevor Lawrence and Deshaun Watson, but Swinney has delivered more seasons with double-digit wins (12) than every other Clemson coach combined (seven) since the football program started in 1902.

4. James Franklin, Penn State Nittany Lions

NCAA Football: Michigan at Penn State
Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports
  • James Franklin buyout: $64.66 million

If you’re looking for which coach could be the next to join the list of the biggest coaching buyouts ever, it might be James Franklin. On the surface, an 86-38 record as head coach with four bowl victories and four double-digit win seasons seems acceptable. Yet, Penn State used to be a football powerhouse and it’s now 3-17 against top 10 teams with a combined 4-16 record against Ohio State and Michigan. Patience only lasts so long. It might not happen in 2023, but Penn State may eventually pay one of the biggest coaching buyouts ever.

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3. Brian Kelly, LSU Tigers

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Alabama
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
  • Brian Kelly buyout: $70.018 million

It’s a testament to how dissatisfied the LSU Tigers were with the results under Ed Orgeron that they footed the bill for one of the most expensive coaching transitions ever. Orgeron received a $17 million buyout from LSU, and then the Tigers’ athletic department committed over $100 million to Brian Kelly and his coaching staff. Incredibly, the next coaching change LSU’s football program goes through – which is inevitable – will set its new record for the most money ever spent on a coaching change.

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2. Lincoln Riley, USC Trojans

NCAA Football: Southern California at California
Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports
  • Lincoln Riley buyout: $80-$90 million

The University of Southern California is a private school, meaning the USC Trojans don’t have to reveal what a Lincoln Riley buyout would cost nor is his salary known. However, it’s been estimated that Riley signed a 10-year deal worth approximately $110 million and a few years in, the Trojans would owe him more than $80 million if they fired him. Securing $100-plus million, whether he wins a national championship or not, was a big win for Riley.

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1. Kirby Smart, Georgia Bulldogs – Biggest buyout in college football

Syndication: Online Athens
  • Kirby Smart buyout: $92.625 million

Kirby Smart has the highest buyout in college football, with the Georgia Bulldogs responsible for paying more than $90 million to him alone if they ever decided to make a change. Factor in the Bulldogs’ coaching staff and the University of Georgia would need to spend more than $100 million just firing coaches and that’s not including the cost of hiring a new staff. With that said, Smart has delivered back-to-back national championships and the Bulldogs’ football program generated a majority of the more than $200 million in revenue Georgia’s athletic department reported in the 2022 fiscal year.

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Highest coaching buyouts in college football

Here are the highest buyouts among college football coaches right now, per USA Today.

RankCoach, SchoolBuyout
1Kirby Smart, Georgia Bulldogs$92.625 million
2Lincoln Riley, USC Trojans$80-$90 million (estimate)
3Brian Kelly, LSU Tigers$70.018 million
4James Franklin, Penn State Nittany Lions$64.66 million
5Dabo Swinney, Clemson Tigers$64 million
6Matt Rhule, Nebraska Cornhuskers$62.062 million
7Mark Stoops, Kentucky Wildcats$51.187 million
8Josh Heupel, Tennessee Volunteers$46.5 million
9Ryan Day, Ohio State Buckeyes$46.222 million
10Nick Saban, Alabama Crimson Tide$44.8 million
11Dan Lanning, Oregon Ducks$44.333 million
12Mike Norvell, Florida State Seminoles$42.209 million
13Luke Fickell, Wisconsin Badgers$39.68 million
14Kirk Ferentz, Iowa Hawkeyes$37 million
15Bret Bielema, Illinois Fighting Illini$35.75 million
16Billy Napier, Florida Gators$32.384 million
17Jeff Brohm, Louisville Cardinals$31.416 million
18Brent Venables, Oklahoma Sooners$30.583 million
19Chris Klieman, Kansas State Wildcats$29.625 million
20Lance Leipold, Kansas Jayhawks$27.346 million
21Jim Harbaugh, Michigan Wolverines$27.236 million
22Hugh Freeze, Auburn Tigers$25.187 million
23Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State Cowboys$24.976 million
24P.J. Fleck, Minnesota Golden Gophers$23.725 million
25Kalen DeBoer, Washington Huskies$23.2 million
26Justin Wilcox, California GOlden Bears$20.725 million
27Eli Drinkwitz, Missouri Tigers$20.437 million
28Tony Elliott, Virginia Cavaliers$19.475 million
29Scott Satterfield, Cincinnati Bearcats$19.291 million
30Deion Sanders, Colorado Buffaloes$18.343 million

Who has the highest buyout for college football coaches?

Georgia Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart has the highest buyout in college football at $92 million. There are twenty-eight coaches with a buyout of $20-plus million as of the 2023 season.

What is Deion Sanders buyout?

Deion Sanders buyout with the Colorado Buffaloes is $18.343 million, which ranks 31st among active college football coaches.

What would Nick Saban’s buyout be?

Nick Saban would be owed a $44.8 million buyout, which ranks 10th among all college football coaches.

Biggest coaching buyouts ever

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

1. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M Aggies – $75 million

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2. Gus Malzahn, Auburn Tigers – $21.5 million

3. Charlie Weis, Notre Dame Fighting Irish – $19 million

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4. Willie Taggart, Florida State Seminoles – $18 million

Related: 2023 college football rankings

5. Tom Allen, Indiana Hoosiers – $15.5 million (settlement)

6. Tom Herman, Texas Longhorns – $15.4 million

Related: Heisman Watch 2023

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