University of Illinois Assistant Coaches Controversy: A re-examination of Assistant Coaches' Term of Contract

University of Illinois Assistant Coaches Controversy:  A re-examination of  Assistant Coaches' Term of Contract

Professor Martin Greenberg

INTRODUCTION

This has not been a banner year for the University of Illinois (Illinois) football program.  After starting the 2011 campaign with a 6-0 record, Illinois finished the season losing six straight games, making Illinois the first BCS team to open the regular season with six straight wins and closing with six straight losses.[1]

In November of 2011, acting athletic director Mike Thomas (“Thomas”) informed Ron Zook (“Zook”) that he had been fired as head coach.[2]  Zook had five losing seasons at Illinois, finishing with an overall 34-51 record.[3]  Despite the end of the season losses and the firing of the head coach, Illinois was invited to the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl and posted a 20-14 win over UCLA.[4]  The Illinois - UCLA contest was an interesting match-up since UCLA was given an NCAA waiver to compete despite a losing record, both schools fired their coaches, both schools were playing under interim leaders, and UCLA had four players ineligible for the game while Illinois had two players ineligible.[5]  But most noteworthy of all was a contentious legal and contract dispute between several of the Illinois assistant coaches (Joe Gilbert, Jeff Brohm and Chip Long) and the school administration.[6]

In January of 2010, Zook hired several assistant coaches.[7]  The assistant coaches maintain that they were guaranteed two-year contracts that would roll over each year.[8]  But evidently during the summer of 2010, shortly before Illinois opened its football camp, those assistants were given formal contracts to sign that contained a termination clause that was not in concert with the original represented agreement.[9]  The written contract stated "in any contract year ending after January 31, 2011, either party may terminate this contract effective at the end of the contract year by giving written notice of termination to the other party no later than sixty days prior to January 31st of the current contract year."[10]

Although several of the assistants signed the formal contract without checking the fine print to make certain that it was representative of what they were orally told, the assistants claimed that they were assured by Zook and then athletic director Ron Guenther (“Guenther”) that their two-year deals rolled over after the 2010 season.[11]  The assurances helped curb interest in job shopping and even with a disappointing 2011 season, the assistant coaches further claimed that they were reassured by Zook that they had contractual security to the end of 2012.[12]  The controversy had gotten so ugly that the assistants threatened to boycott the Kraft Fight Hunger bowl game, which ultimately they did not.[13]

New athletic director Thomas, who replaced Guenther and who had inherited the contract dispute, said very clearly that "we're living by the language of the contract that was signed by those coaches."[14]

While the facts of the case as reported are not exactly clear, it appears that what happened was, what was promised did not appear in the actual contract that the assistant coaches were asked to sign.  Illinois, with Zook's firing in November 2011, used the clause as previously stated to terminate the assistant coaches.  The assistants had thought that pursuant to represented promises they were safe through and including the 2012 campaign.

Assistant college coaches are an unprotected class of employees and need competent representation.  There is no standard form contract and contracts range from a one-page letter of employment with no protections, to a document full of legalese.  A coach's contract is the most protective armor in a job environment of fatalities.  Assistant coaches need to set aside the disease of job elation and make certain that not only the numbers and package are right but the contract is also right.  Contract negotiations are a business deal and ultimately adversarial.  Therefore, the Illinois assistant situation is a good reminder that a coach had better get a sophisticated lawyer. All compensation must be in writing, nothing oral; handshake deals or promises for fulfillment by presidents, athletic directors, or head coaches are now days of the past.  Don't trust anyone.  Contract negotiation is a business deal and ultimately a business deal involves a written agreement.  If a formal contract is to follow, some form of Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) or Letter of Intent (LOI) should be executed until a formal written contract is presented so that there is no future misunderstanding of the contractual deal.

The Illinois situation could have been avoided, if no formal contract was executed, by simply entering into an MOU with a formal contract to be tendered subsequently.  The MOU would have indicated not only the package but the term of the contract.  There would have been no misunderstanding, then, at the time a formal contract was executed.

While a head coach is the centerpiece of an athletic program, assistant coaches are also critical to the success of the program.  Assistants perform numerous functions including coaching, budget administration, travel coordination, recruiting, media interviews, marketing of the football program, student-athlete discipline, tracking student-athlete's academic progress, and compliance with NCAA Conference and University rules.  Head coaches need competent assistants who they can trust.  Without quality work from top-notch assistants, athletic programs cannot be successful.  In recent years there has been an increased recognition of the importance of good assistant coaches, pay to assistants has increased, and many assistants are now given written contracts that provide them with some legal protections.

          The Illinois case also is a good opportunity to review what is happening in the contract field of assistant coaches in major programs.

In 2006 and 2007, I, in conjunction with Attorney Jay Smith, undertook a study of assistant coaches contracts - more particularly the legal and contractual protections provided to Division 1A football and men's basketball assistant coaches.[15]  The information came from 53 schools representing 10 of the 11 conferences with Division 1A football and men's basketball programs.[16]   Findings were published in an article entitled "A Study of Division 1 Assistant Football, Men's Basketball Coaches' Contracts" which was published in the Marquette Sports Law Review, Vol. 18, 12/2007, No. 1,[17]  (hereinafter the Study).

The Study indicated that most college assistant coaches had only one-year contract terms.[18]  Under these one-year contract terms, assistants must wait for the university to renew their contracts each year.  However, there was some evidence that there has been a trend toward giving some assistant coaches longer term contracts, especially in the major football and basketball programs.[19]  Longer term contracts are far from prevalent among collegiate assistant coaches; however, it has been increasingly common primarily among football assistants at major programs.[20]  Giving assistant coaches longer term contracts helps schools to keep assistants who might otherwise be lured away to a different coaching job. Additionally, top head coaches have pushed for longer term contracts for their assistant coaches.[21]

The Study also concluded that the fate of assistant coaches is usually tied to that of head coaches.[22]  The assistant coach's contract usually calls for automatic termination when the head coach is fired or, in the alternative, the contract gives the university cause to terminate assistants if the head coach is terminated.[23]  This clause is included in the contracts because universities want to give the new, incoming head coach an opportunity to compile his own staff.[24]  An example of such a clause is as follows:  "If the head coach is removed, terminated, or his contract or appointment expires, or is terminated for any reason, then this agreement (the assistant coach's agreement) will automatically terminate effective as of the same date of the termination of head coach."[25]

Often the clauses connecting the assistant coaches' fate to that of the head coach are not necessary.[26]  Terminating assistants is usually easy for the university and without consequence because most assistants operate under a one-year contract; therefore, the university simply does not renew the assistant's contract in the off-season.[27]  There are also several assistant coaches who are at-will employees and consequently can be terminated at any time by the university.[28]  For those coaches who do have multi-year contracts, the clause connecting the employment term of the assistants to the head coach is important.[29]  Without this clause, the university would not have cause to terminate the assistant.[30]  If the university still terminates the assistant, it would be without cause and in most situations the university would need to pay the assistant coach liquidated damages.[31]

It is possible, however, for assistant coaches to retain their jobs when the head coach is terminated, but this rare.[32]  A situation where this could happen is if the head coach is terminated or dismissed during the season.[33]  If the head coach is terminated during the season, the assistant coaches usually will retain their positions for the remainder of the season.[34]  Usually one or more of the assistant coaches would be promoted to replace the head coach for the remainder of the season.[35] The university usually will not dismiss the assistants along with the head coach because replacing the whole staff in the middle of the season would be virtually impossible and would create chaos for the athletic program.[36]

The other way, of course, that assistant coaches can keep their jobs is to be selected for the new coach's staff.[37]  The new coach would usually have the option to choose his or her staff.[38]  If the new coach likes a particular assistant coach or coaches, he can extend them a job offer to remain at the university.[39]

The Study indicated that rollover contracts are extremely rare among assistant coaches.  A rollover contract is a contract where the term constantly remains at its original length.[40]  This happens because the coach has a rollover provision wherein every year the term of the contract is extended by one year in order to keep the term of the contract the same as it was originally agreed upon by the coach and the university.[41]

The trend for head coaches has been longer term contracts, usually from five to eight years, without rollover provisions.[42]  There are probably few, if any, rollover provisions among assistant college coaches.  Rollover contracts or rolling horizon provisions are normally either automatic or consensual in nature.

In 2009, USA TODAY undertook the first comprehensive school-by-school and coach-by-coach review of pay and term of contract for entire football staffs in the NCAA top level bowl division.[43]  While over two hundred coaches had multi-year contracts, including forty-four with three-year deals and half a dozen with four- and five-year deals, the majority of assistant coaches had one-year deals.[44]

 

2009 NCAA Assistant Coaches’ Term of Contract – USA TODAY

School

Zero Years

One Year

Two Years

Three Years

Four Years

Five Years

Air Force

 

10

 

 

 

 

Akron

 

9

 

 

 

 

Alabama

 

 

5

4

 

 

Al. Birmingham

 

9

 

 

 

 

Arizona

 

9

 

 

 

 

Arizona State

 

9

 

 

 

 

Arkansas

9

 

 

 

 

 

Arkansas State

 

9

 

 

 

 

Army

 

12

 

 

 

 

Auburn

 

 

6

3

 

 

Ball State

 

5

4

 

 

 

Boise State

 

9

 

 

 

 

Bowling Green

 

9

 

 

 

 

Buffalo

 

9

 

 

 

 

California

 

6

3

 

 

 

Central Florida

 

9

 

 

 

 

Central Michigan

 

7

2

 

 

 

Cincinnati

 

8

1

 

 

 

Clemson

 

 

8

1

 

 

Colorado

 

9

 

 

 

 

Colorado State

9

 

 

 

 

 

Connecticut

 

9

 

 

 

 

East Carolina

 

9

 

 

 

 

Eastern Michigan

 

9

 

 

 

 

Florida

 

8

1

 

 

 

Florida Atlantic

 

9

 

 

 

 

Florida International

 

1

8

 

 

 

Florida State

 

6

1

1

1

 

Fresno State

 

9

 

 

 

 

Georgia

1

8

 

 

 

 

Georgia Tech

 

9

 

 

 

 

Hawaii

 

9

 

 

 

 

Houston

 

9

 

 

 

 

Idaho

 

9

 

 

 

 

Illinois

 

8

 

 

 

1

Indiana

9

 

 

 

 

 

Iowa

 

9

 

 

 

 

Iowa State

 

7

1

1

 

 

Kansas

6

 

1

2

 

 

Kansas State

 

5

3

1

 

 

Kent State

8

 

 

1

 

 

Kentucky

 

 

8

 

1

 

Louisiana Tech

9

 

 

 

 

 

Louisiana-Lafayette

 

9

 

 

 

 

Louisiana-Monroe

 

8

 

 

 

 

Louisville

 

8

1

 

 

 

LSU

 

2

2

5

 

 

Marshall

 

7

2

 

 

 

Maryland

 

6

2

1

 

 

Memphis

 

9

 

 

 

 

Miami (Ohio)

 

6

3

 

 

 

Michigan

9

 

 

 

 

 

Michigan State

 

 

9

 

 

 

Middle TN State

1

4

4

 

 

 

Minnesota

 

7

2

 

 

 

Mississippi

 

4

3

2

 

 

Mississippi State

9

 

 

 

 

 

Missouri

 

7

2

 

 

 

Nebraska

 

 

9

 

 

 

Nevada

 

9

 

 

 

 

Nevada-LV

 

9

 

 

 

 

New Mexico

 

8

1

 

 

 

New Mexico State

 

8

 

 

 

 

North Carolina

 

4

5

 

 

 

North Carolina State

 

8

 

1

 

 

North Texas

 

9

 

 

 

 

Northern Illinois

 

9

 

 

 

 

Ohio

 

9

 

 

 

 

Ohio State

 

5

4

 

 

 

Oklahoma

 

9

 

 

 

 

Oklahoma State

 

 

1

4

1

3

Oregon

 

6

 

 

3

 

Oregon State

 

7

2

 

 

 

Purdue

9

 

 

 

 

 

Rutgers

 

9

 

 

 

 

San Diego State

2

7

 

 

 

 

San Jose State

3

5

1

 

 

 

South Carolina

 

6

 

3

 

 

South Florida

9

 

 

 

 

 

Southern Miss.

 

4

3

2

 

 

Tennessee

 

 

5

4

 

 

Texas

9

 

 

 

 

 

Texas A&M

 

 

7

2

 

 

Texas Tech

9

 

 

 

 

 

Texas El-Paso

 

9

 

 

 

 

Toledo

 

 

5

4

 

 

Troy

9

 

 

 

 

 

UCLA

 

6

2

1

 

 

Utah

 

7

2

 

 

 

Utah State

9

 

 

 

 

 

Virginia

 

9

 

 

 

 

Virginia Tech

3

 

6

 

 

 

Washington

 

 

8

1

 

 

Washington State

 

9

 

 

 

 

West Virginia

 

 

8

 

 

1

Western Kentucky

9

 

 

 

 

 

Western Michigan

 

9

 

 

 

 

Wisconsin

 

8

 

 

 

1

Wyoming

 

7

2

 

 

 

Total

144

543

153

44

6

6

Percentage ≈

16%

60%

17%

5%

1%

1%

 

Not much has changed since 2009 regarding term of contract for assistant coaches.  While there is a trend toward giving some assistant coaches longer term contracts, it appears to be most prevalent among the major football programs.[45]  Most assistant coaches still have one-year contract terms.[46]  Data from 372 assistant coaches who signed contracts in 2010 revealed that 307 of those assistant coaches had only one-year terms.[47]  Fifty-three of the coaches had two-year deals, and only ten had three or more years.[48]  Two coaches had rollover provisions.[49]  The majority of the coaches with multi-year deals work for schools with major football programs.[50]  

 

2010 NCAA Assistant Coaches’ Term of Contract – National Sports Law Institute

School

One Year*

Two Years

Three Years

Four Years

Five Years

Rollover

Clemson

 

 

 

1

 

 

Florida State

 

5

3

 

 

 

Georgia Tech

8

1

 

 

 

 

NC State

5

 

 

 

 

 

North Carolina

2

 

 

 

 

 

Virginia

 

3

1

 

 

 

Kansas State

4

 

 

 

 

 

Texas A&M

 

3

 

 

 

 

Kansas State

 

2

 

 

 

 

Oklahoma

1

 

 

 

 

 

Rutgers

3

 

 

 

 

 

Cincinnati

9

 

 

 

 

 

Connecticut

9

 

 

 

 

 

Louisville

6

2

 

 

 

 

South Florida

 

 

 

 

 

2

Michigan State

5

4

 

 

 

 

Purdue

2

1

 

 

 

 

Illinois

5

 

 

 

 

 

Minnesota

1

1

 

 

 

 

Wisconsin

3

 

 

 

 

 

Iowa State

5

 

 

 

 

 

Nebraska

 

9

 

 

 

 

East Carolina

8

 

 

 

 

 

Marshall

9

 

 

 

 

 

Central Florida

8

 

 

 

 

 

Houston

10

 

 

 

 

 

Memphis

5

 

 

 

 

 

Ball State

6

 

 

 

 

 

Central Michigan

10

1

 

 

 

 

E. Michigan

8

 

 

 

 

 

Miami (Ohio)

9

 

 

 

 

 

Northern Illinois

8

 

 

 

 

 

W. Michigan

7

 

 

 

 

 

San Diego State

7

 

 

 

 

 

Air Force

7

 

 

 

 

 

New Mexico

8

 

 

 

 

 

Utah

7

 

 

 

 

 

Wyoming

7

2

 

 

 

 

Arizona State

9

 

 

 

 

 

Oregon State

4

3

 

 

 

 

Arizona

8

 

 

 

 

 

Cal-Berkeley

 

2

 

 

 

 

UCLA

2

 

 

 

 

 

Oregon

5

 

 

 

 

 

Wash. State

10

 

 

 

 

 

Colorado

2

 

 

 

 

 

LSU

1

 

 

 

 

 

Alabama

5

4

1

 

 

 

Florida

 

6

 

 

 

 

Georgia

9

 

 

 

 

 

South Carolina

6

 

 

 

 

 

Tennessee

3

1

2

 

 

 

Arkansas State

8

 

 

 

 

 

Florida Int'l

1

2

 

 

 

 

Middle TN

2

1

 

 

 

 

North Texas

9

 

 

 

 

 

Boise State

6

 

 

 

 

 

California State

6

 

 

 

 

 

New Mexico St.

7

 

 

 

 

 

San Jose State

6

 

2

 

 

 

Hawaii

6

 

 

 

 

 

Total

307

53

9

1

0

2

Percentage ≈

82.50%

14.20%

2.40%

0.30%

0.00%

0.50%

*Includes contracts that are for less than one calendar year

 

While there are not any comprehensive studies for 2011 or 2012 term of contract data as of yet, some independent research revealed that the trend among major football institutions continues.  In 2011, four assistant coaches at the University of Florida signed multi-year contracts.[51]  While the three-year deal was not enough to keep Charlie Wise from leaving for Kansas, Florida is trying again and agreed to a three-year deal with the new offensive coordinator for 2012.[52]  All nine of Charlie Weis’s new assistant coaches at Kansas signed two-year deals in 2012.[53]  Maryland’s new offensive coordinator signed a four-year deal,[54] and Clemson’s offensive coordinator signed a six-year deal in 2012.[55]

CONCLUSION

The Illinois assistant situation is a good reminder that all coaches, not just head coaches, need good lawyers. Coaches should also be proactive.  They should get promises in writing via a memorandum of understanding or a letter of intent so there is no confusion when it comes time to memorialize the deal.  Finally, all coaches should do what the coaches in the Illinois situation seemingly did not do, and read the fine print. 

As for term of contract, one-year deals are still the most common agreements entered into by assistant coaches. I would expect the trend of multi-year terms for assistant coaches to continue among NCAA schools with major football and basketball programs.  Additionally, some smaller programs have begun to follow suit, and I expect more to do so.

Thank you to Jessica Pfau, a second-year student at Marquette University Law School, who assisted me in the research, writing, footnoting and editing of this article.  Jessica is working towards her Sports Law Certificate from the NSLI.




[1] Herb Gould, Three Illinois Coaches Threaten Boycott Unless Contract Issues Resolved, Chi. Sun Times, Dec. 31, 2011, http://www.suntimes.com/sports/colleges/9731130-419/odd-bowl-game-isnt-w....

[2] Ron Zook Out at Illinois After 7 Years, ESPN Chicago, Nov. 27, 2011, http://espn.go.com /Chicago/ncf/story/_/id/7286936/illinois-fighting-illini-coach-ron-zook-fired-0-6-finish.

[3] Id.

[4] Ben Kercheval, Illinois Wins Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, Dec. 31, 2001, NBC Sports, http://collegefootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2011/12/31/illinois-wins-kraft-....

[5] Pat Forde, Fired Illinois Assistants, Administration in Contract Dispute, Yahoo! Sports, Dec. 26, 2011, http://my.news.yahoo.com/fired-illinois-assistants-administration-contra....

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Gould, supra note 1.

[14] Forde, supra note 5.

[15] See Martin J. Greenberg & Jay Smith, A Study of Division I Assistant Football and Men’s Basketball Coaches’ Contracts, 18 Marq. Sports L. Rev. 25 (2007).

[16] Id. at 28.

[17] See id.

[18] Id. at 33.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

[35] Id.

[36] Id.

[37] Id.

[38] Id.

[39] Id.

[40] Id.

[41] Id.

[42] Id.

[43] 2009 NCAA Football Coaches’ Contracts, USA TODAY, Nov. 10, 2009, http://www.usatoday.com/sports/college/football/2009-coaches-contracts-d....

[44] Id.

[45] See generally 2010 NCAA Football Coaches’ Contracts (on file with the National Sports Law Institute).

[46] See generally id.

[47] Id.

[48] Id.

[49] Id.

[50] See generally id.

[51] Rachel George & Matt Murschel, Charlie Weiss Tops Florida Gators Coaching Staff Salaries, Orlando Sentinel, Feb. 25, 2011, http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2011-02-25/sports/os-florida-gators-....

[52]UF Announces Brent Pease is Its Next Offensive Coordinator, Orlando Sentinel, Jan. 11, 2012, http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2012-01-11/sports/os-florida-brent-p....

[53] Matt Tait, Contracts Reveal KU Football Assistants’ Pay, KUsports.com, Feb. 1, 2012, http://www2.kusports.com/news/2012/feb/01/contracts-reveal-ku-football-a....

[54] Steve Yanda, Maryland OC Mike Locksley Agreed to Four-Year Deal Worth $500,000 in Guaranteed Annual Compensation, Wash. Post, Jan. 9, 2012,http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/terrapinsinsider/post/maryland-oc-mi....

[55] Travis Sawchik, Morris Reaches Agreement to Stay at Clemson, Post and Courier, Dec. 5, 2011, http://www.postandcourier.com/news/2011/dec/05/morris-reaches-agreement-....