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College football & coaching contracts - an interview with the lawyer of Bill Parcells, Joe Gibbs and Sylvester Croom

Rick Davis
Sunday, 03 March 2013

US college sport is big business and with more at stake both in terms of reputation and financially it is important to understand what contractual clauses are necessary for a coach’s contract. Someone who has a wealth of experience in this area is Richard (Rick) T. Davis of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC a former football player for the University of Alabama and the Cincinnati Bengals.

 Rick, during his four years at Alabama, won four Southeastern Conference (SEC) and one national championship. Following his senior season in 1974, he was elected as permanent co-captain by his teammates. Rick was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in 1975 and played four years in the National Football League. He has spent the last 30 years advising American college football and NFL coach and players including legendary coaches Bill Parcells, Joe Gibbs, and Sylvester Croom. 

College football


LawInSport: What concerns you the most about college football right now?


Rick: One of the things I get really concerned about in college sports is the conference realignment, and that’s tied to money. That's a big part of what we do; you only have to look at what coaches are getting paid now and how much the television contracts are worth (ESPN and ABC etc). This is what’s triggering a lot of the realignment and this is what concerns me. Even though the money is great for our clients, what effect is it having from a coaching standpoint? There is a great amount of intensity and pressure on the coaches to be successful so quickly. Frank Beamer is the head coach at Virginia Tech and he's been there for a long time and has done a great job, but it took him about 6 years to get Virginia Tech turned around once he took over. Of course he's been there 25 years now. Today, in the environment we're in, schools do not give a coach 6 or 7 years to turn a program around. You get 2-3 years. That's what concerns me. From where I see it, from representing the coaches, this continues to grow. There's a great deal of pressure to win because if you don’t win and the school takes a hit from a revenue standpoint, it becomes hard to recruit. The other pressures that come along with losing put more and more pressure on the coaches and the athletic directors. The athletic directors are sometimes forced out, but the head football and the assistant coaches, they’re the ones who get fired.


We had a client last year, Ellis Johnson, who was a head coach at Southern Mississippi, and he'd been a coordinator at South Carolina, a coordinator at Mississippi State with Sylvester Croom and a coordinator at the University of Alabama. He was considered a tremendous success and one of the top coordinators in college football. He got the head job at Southern Mississippi and they didn't win a game that year and they fired him after one year. One year! That's the kind of stuff that is happening out there. He came out of it fine, I think we did a good job with his contract so Southern Mississippi had to continue to pay him; they owe him $700,000 a year for the next 3 years. 


He landed at Auburn as their defensive coordinator and he's making $800,000 a year there. So it was one of those situations where financially he came out of it fine. Southern Mississippi had a good year the year before. When Ellis got there just everything that could go wrong did go wrong. In the end he landed on his feet, but it’s difficult for some of the assistant coaches who were at Southern Mississippi because they are still looking for work. So that's the pressure, that's one of the things that I see. The money is great for coaches; the money is great for a lot of the Universities. Some Universities are not making money because they’re trying to compete and to compete they have to spend money. 


Coaching contracts


LawInSport: How have the pressures on the colleges and coaches effected the negotiations of coaching contracts? Is there anything that you would say is key to the negotiations? 


Rick: One of the most important things is obviously you want to try and get them as much money as you can. The financial aspect of the contract is important and that cuts against what I was saying, but that’s our job. Then to work with the University to ensure he has a budget for his assistant coaches so he can go hire the best staff he possibly can. Part of what we did with the Southern Mississippi deal, was we got Southern Mississippi in the Ellis’ contract to specifically state what the budget was for the assistant coaches for the term of Ellis’ contract, people couldn't come back and take that pot of money away. He had a set amount of money, so obviously the financial part of the contract is important, but then you get into other things. We had Southern Mississippi change the language that had been used in the previous coach’s contract. An important provision in the head coach’s contract is what happens if the coach’s contract is terminated without cause; if you're losing games, that is not termination for cause. So what does the University have to do if they decide that they want to terminate the coach without cause? What we want is the University to have to pay the coach. They had to pay the previous coach, but if he got another job then Southern Mississippi could reduce what they owed him by the money that he was making at the other job. So my position was why should Southern Mississippi benefit from the coach, after Southern Mississippi fired him? Ellis took chances and incurred costs and moved his family to come to Mississippi, he already had a great job.


So termination without cause, in my book, is a critical provision, if your contract is terminated for cause, if you've done something, it's a violation or immoral situation, all the schools now are putting the moral provisions in the contract because of the Bobby Patrino situation, it is understandable. But termination without cause, that’s critical for me and it’s one of the things that we really look at.




LawInSport: Your concern for the welfare of the coaches and their families is immediately apparent. How have you helped clients strike the right balance between getting the best contracts professionally and personally? 


Rick: We try to help the coach decide what is going to be the best thing for them in the long-term, not just the short-term reward that they may receive financially. You can go somewhere and double your pay for three years, but then you could get fired because it’s a bad situation, and then you may have left a great job on a path to an even better job if you had stayed. That's one of the things we talk about with our clients because you get personally involved with the coaches and their families. We don't just look at the contract, we try to look at the total picture and provide the coach and his family with advice. I'm 59 years old and I've been doing this for quite awhile. I’ve played the game and I feel like I understand the demands that the coaches are faced with and the pressures they're under. Our clients see that from us in the way we do things, and I think they appreciate the fact that it's not just a professional relationship, but it's also a personal relationship. We're concerned about them making the right decision. It's about getting as much money as you can for the coach and if you do a good job, word is going to get out about the way we you handle things for your clients. Bobby Bowden at Florida State is a client of ours and we're proud to have a relationship with someone like coach Bowden, not only because he’s a great football coach, but also because of the person he is. I think that other coaches see the people that we represent and I think that sends a message about the way we do things, or at least we hope it does. 


The influence of a coach


LawInSport: I can sense that your coaches have had a lot of influence throughout your career. Please can you explain what influence your coaches have had on you?


Rick: Coach Bryant died in early 1983 and he always said he would die right after he retired and he did. He retired, his last game was the Liberty Bowl in 1982 and he died in early 1983. Coach Bryant is viewed, even today, as probably the greatest college football coach that's ever been around. Coach Bryant had the most wins at Major College level, until Coach Paterno and Coach Bowden passed him. Coach Bryant was bigger than life especially in Alabama; he won 6 national championships at Alabama. He played at Alabama, he was a player back in the 30's then he was a head coach at Maryland for a couple years, then he went to Kentucky, then to Texas A&M, then he came back to Alabama in 1958. Alabama had a great program but in the 50's they were bad, they were really bad. So Coach Bryant came back, he was kind of a good old boy from Arkansas. A big man, kind of looked like John Wayne and that was his persona. He was big probably 6.2-6.3 and came across as just very humble and publicly he was very humble. He was just a bigger than life type of person, especially in the State of Alabama; he came in '58 and then in ‘61 they won the national championship and then won it again in '64 and '65. We won one in '73, that was my junior year, and then they won one in '78/'79. He was a great football coach, but he was also a great teacher. The things that he would emphasis to players were that there is life after football. I played at Alabama and then went to Cincinnati, I was drafted with the Bengals Paul Brown was the coach there. Paul Brown was “big time”, he was one of the greatest coaches in NFL history, and then I played for John McKay at Tamper Bay. Coach McKay had been the Head Coach at the University of Southern California then he came to the NFL. Marv Levy was a coach when I was at Kansas City; he went on to the Buffalo Bills. He didn't have a great career at Kansas City, but he went to a bunch of Superbowls with the Bills. Maybe it was because I grew up an hour from Tuscaloosa where the University of Alabama campus is, but I grew up just idolizing Coach Bryant because of the way he did things. The NFL, for me, was anti-climatic after having played for Coach Bryant at Alabama. Coach Bryant was very strict. Joe Namath played at Alabama; Coach Bryant kicked him off the team for drinking. He got caught drinking during the football season. He was the Starting Quarterback, but Coach Bryant didn't care. He ends up kicking him off the team for the last 2 regular season games and the Bowl game. Kenny Stabler who played for the Raiders was a few years younger than Namath. Joe was gone and Stabler got in trouble and coach kicked him off the team...With Coach Bryant it was all about the team and no one person was bigger than the team. The practices and the workouts were really tough. He would just about kill you, his thought process was, and he would tell you this, if you're going to quit, I want you to quit on me in the fourth practice. I don’t want you to quit on me in the first quarter when the game is on the line. And he would push you so hard that when you got in game, if you could make it through the practice, then the games were a piece of cake, they were easy. The American Football Coaches Association has a big convention every year and it was in Nashville Tennessee a couple of weeks ago. I was up there and it’s just a great way to network and to see everyone in one location as opposed to having to go all over the place. Somebody introduced me to this one particular coach and the guy who introduced me, told the coach that I played for Coach Bryant at Alabama, and the coach immediately goes WOW. He said “that's enough right there”. With a lot of American Football coaches, the fact that you played for Coach Bryant, it’s a kind of a stamp of approval. People think if he can do that, and you lived to tell about it you must be okay. It is one of those things that everybody who played for Coach Bryant is proud of it, cause it was hard. You're a better person for having gone through it all and experienced it and that's what Coach used to tell us. He said, “Hey, life’s not easy. You'll come home one day and you don't have any money, can't pay your bills and your wife has gone off with the banker, horrible things, but what are you going to do about it? Are you going to quit, if you're going to quit leave right now?” He said “you got to get ready cause that's what life is. Life is about overcoming obstacles.” He was just a very unique individual, one of the great football coaches and a great person. If you worked hard for him he would do anything in the world to help you. Whether you were a star player or you were a fifth string player he didn't care. If you worked hard he would go out of his way to help his players.




The experience of working with these legendary coaches has helped Rick to build strong relationships with his sports clients. The two interviews with Rick demonstrate that being a good sports lawyer is as much about understanding the emotions and motivations of your client as it is about understanding the law.


Sean Cottrell

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