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Other peoples’ money

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The way big time college football head coach contracts work these days is that the gargantuan salaries these contracts feature are generally not fully guaranteed (although this may be changing as the money pouring into the sport gets ever-more obscene). Instead, when a coach is fired for anything other than “cause” — rather bizarrely, the only cause for any coach ever getting fired, i.e., not winning enough games, doesn’t count as “cause” — the coach is entitled to some buyout payment in the form of liquidated damages, rather than the remaining salary on the contract.

Thus it was that last fall, when the University of Nebraska restructured Scott Frost’s contract to reduce his salary from five million to four million dollars per year, it also restructured the buyout in that contract. The new buyout clause stipulated that, instead of being owed $15 million in liquidated damages if he were to be fired, that amount would drop to $7.5 million if he was fired on October 1, 2022 or later.

A funny thing then happened, which was Nebraska was once again terrible at the beginning of this season, which began for it with a game against Northwestern in Dublin, Ireland at the end of August (don’t ask). Nebraska lost that game, and then two weeks later promptly turned around and was gnawed to death by a baby seal, that is, a lower division team that any big time college football program is supposed to beat by 50 points and is only playing to fill out the schedule while paying a couple of million bucks to the baby seal program to help pay for the cost of running its baby seal football team.

That was a week ago last Saturday. At that point everybody realized that Nebraska’s athletic director, Trev Alberts, was going to fire Frost on October 1st, when the buyout dropped by $7.5 million. Frost had been on the verge of getting fired anyway — hence the restructured contract — and these latest indignities were universally recognized as the proverbial last straw by all aficionados of that once-dominant program.

A funnier thing than that then happened, which is that Alberts woke up last Sunday morning and just fired Frost anyway. This meant that Nebraska had in effect paid an extra $7.5 million for no benefit other than not having Frost coach yesterday’s game against Oklahoma. Nebraska doesn’t play next weekend, meaning the Oklahoma game was the only fixture between the baby seal disaster and the contractually fateful morning of October 1st.

In other words, Trev Alberts effectively lit $7.5 million on fire, and nobody said boo about it. The way the college football head coaching market works is that the coaching carousel doesn’t start turning until December, after the regular season, so there was no way Nebraska was going to have anything but an interim coach for the rest of this season no matter when Alberts fired Frost, which means there was quite literally zero pragmatic justification for firing Frost last Sunday instead of waiting until 12 days from now. But Trev Alberts decided that he just had to have an interim coach for the Oklahoma game, which Nebraska lost by many many touchdowns after the defense decided about five minutes into the proceedings that they weren’t much in the mood to play tackle football on a beautiful late summer afternoon.

Now I find all this interesting for a variety of reasons, one of which is that the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is supposedly real short of scratch these days, so much so that His Eminence the Chancellor and Lord Regent of the Sacred Fields of Corn announced not long ago that the campus was going to undergo $22.5 million in permanent budget cuts over the next couple of fiscal years — a sum that exactly one third of which would be covered by the extra $7.5 million Trev Alberts lit on fire last Sunday morning for reasons best known to himself.

Since it would be irresponsible not to speculate about those reasons I’m going to do so:

*Alberts and Frost were both players at Nebraska in the 1990s under legendary coach and parole officer the Right Reverend Tom Osborne, and so Alberts decided he’d just do his homie a nice little $7.5 million favor, to soften the blow of being fired. (I think this is the actual reason).

*Alberts was signaling to potential future coaches that they’d be taken care of real well even if they fell on their faces as spectacularly as Frost did, who by the way was paid a measly $35 million to fall on his face for four and half seasons at Nebraska.

*Some loaded booster stepped up and offered to pay the $7.5 million extra because he didn’t want to see Frost coach the Oklahoma game, so hey free money!

*A bunch of players were going to quit the team and transfer elsewhere if Frost wasn’t fired immediately. I find this extremely implausible, as it would be easy enough to gruntle any disgruntled Cornhusker by simply assuring him that Frost was going to be fired after one more game anyway. This theory looks especially bad after the team essentially didn’t show up for that one game under the new interim head coach.

Anyway the moral of all this is I don’t know exactly what, but it probably has something to do with what economists call revealed preference and what social critics call the insidious cultural role of quasi-fascist spectacle in the Age of Trump.

Speaking of which, this is a great thread:

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