How Tennessee's Josh Heupel found a friend in Eli Drinkwitz. (Hint: Money) | Toppmeyer
Heupel should have wrapped Drinkwitz in a bear hug and tousled his hair to say, thanks for securing that raise, buddy!
In a contract extension that redefined what an ill-conceived deal looks like within an industry that specializes in signing ill-conceived deals, Missouri announced a two-year contract extension earlier this month for Drinkwitz that raised his salary to $6 million, increased the total possible buyout it could owe if it fires him and upped the salary allotment for his staff.
If Missouri (4-6, 2-5 SEC) thinks Drinkwitz is worth a $6 million salary, how much will the Vols pay for Heupel, who has defeated Missouri by an average of 40 points the past two seasons and has No. 5 Tennessee (9-1, 5-1) in contention for the College Football Playoff?
Heupel, last summer, received a one-year contract extension to take his deal through the 2027 season, and his salary increased to $5 million.
But if the rate for a Missouri coach who is 15-18 is now $6 million, then a coach who is 16-7 at Tennessee is speeding toward eight figures.
Athletics directors specialize in spending other people’s money. With the SEC's television revenue set to balloon and athletes still competing without paid wages, that frees up more money to apply to either coaching or administrative salaries, buyouts or facilities.
As Drinkwitz correctly stated before the game, the market for coaching contracts got reset last fall. Michigan State awarded Mel Tucker a fully guaranteed 10-year, $95 million deal, while Penn State’s James Franklin received a pauper’s fate, receiving a guaranteed 10-year deal valued at $85 million.
Still, a school conceivably could have been interested in hiring Tucker or Franklin.
Drinkwitz has not posted a winning season at Missouri. His record through 33 games matches that of his predecessor, Barry Odom, who was fired after going 25-25 in four seasons.
Missouri’s Board of Curators, who unanimously approved Drinkwitz’s contract extension, treated this like a game of Rob Your Neighbor, fighting to retain a prize that, when the dust settles, no one else coveted.
If Missouri’s administrators were British Tories, they might have enshrined Liz Truss as prime minister for life.
Drinkwitz had three years remaining on his deal before the contract extension. No one was kicking down Missouri’s door with the required cash to steal Drinkwitz. And anyone who believes a five-year contract is needed to sign prospects isn’t familiar with recruits' mindset. Most recruits are more interested in what kind of NIL deals they can earn or how many alternate uniforms a school offers than poring over a coach's contract details.
Now that Drinkwitz bamboozled Missouri, Heupel can stick his hand out toward Tennessee in good conscience.
Same for Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss.
Kiffin is earning $7.25 million. Ole Miss matched a program record with 10 victories last season, and the Rebels (8-2, 4-2) have a chance to exceed that in Kiffin’s third season.
Drinkwitz’s deal resets the market rate for losing coaches in the SEC. In turn, the SEC’s winners who currently earn in the $5 to $7 million range can demand a fat raise.
College Football Playoff heat check
Entering Saturday, five SEC teams had at least a longshot hope of earning playoff selection. Exiting Saturday, scratch Alabama (8-2, 5-2) and Ole Miss from the list.
No. 9 Alabama got bumped after LSU’s victory over Arkansas eliminated the Crimson Tide from contention for the SEC West crown. Then, Alabama beat No. 11 Ole Miss, 30-24, to dash the Rebels’ hopes.
Georgia (10-0, 7-0) continued its march toward the No. 1 overall seed by handling Mississippi State. LSU remains alive. The Tigers (8-2, 6-1) must win out and defeat Georgia in the SEC Championship to have a shot at selection.
The SEC’s best chance at two bids, though, remains Georgia paired with Tennessee. The Vols likely will remain No. 5 in the rankings, but No. 6 Oregon and No. 12 UCLA losing helps. The Ducks and Bruins joined Alabama and Ole Miss as teams that exited Saturday with their playoff bids squashed.
To shore up its standing, Tennessee still needs either No. 4 TCU or No. 8 (and climbing) Southern Cal to lose, and the Vols must root for Georgia to win the SEC Championship.
The stink of this season will follow Jimbo Fisher
If you’re Jimbo Fisher, how do you come back from this?
A season like this follows a coach like a rank fart. Only a playoff bid next season can cleanse Fisher of this stench, and mention of Texas A&M and playoffs evokes memories of Jim Mora. Playoffs?!?
Fisher’s $87 million buyout won’t protect him forever. Paying such a buyout would be unprecedented, but Texas A&M already has engaged in multiple unprecedented moves with Fisher’s deal. Flushing money on each end of a bad contract is the way of college athletics.
Oh, and the Aggies’ 2023 recruiting class ranks 23rd in the 247Sports Composite, behind schools like South Carolina and Arkansas.
Three and out
1. Auburn alumnus and interim coach Cadillac Williams celebrating a victory became one of the feel-good stories of the 2022 season. But for AU fans who want to remove Williams’ interim label and end this coaching search, take a deep breath. Remember, Williams is one of seven coaches to beat A&M this season. That list includes Shawn Clark. The search must continue, but Williams earned this moment.
2. Karma found Mark Stoops. Vanderbilt beat Kentucky 24-21 as the Commodores snapped a 26-game SEC losing streak. This day has been coming for the Commodores, who are improved in Clark Lea’s second season. And this day has been coming for Stoops, who needlessly engaged in a dustup with John Calipari last summer after Calipari correctly labeled Kentucky "a basketball school." Kentucky (6-4, 3-4) is mired in a disappointing season that would put Stoops under the microscope if he weren’t coaching at a basketball school.
3. With Ole Miss losing to Alabama, the list for SEC Coach of the Year now can be reasonably whittled to three contenders: Heupel, Georgia's Kirby Smart and LSU's Brian Kelly.
The "Topp Rope," is his twice-weekly SEC football column publishing throughout the USA TODAY Network. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Also, check out his podcast, SEC Football Unfiltered, or access exclusive columns via the SEC Unfiltered newsletter.