After receiving an email, I felt it was necessary to clarify the below column in two ways. First, I am not insinuating that a verbal agreement negates the terms of a signed contract. Rather, I am stating that it makes good business sense to negotiate in good faith regardless of the signed contract. Secondly, though fewer words were written about one of the two sides in this fiasco, it is important to understand that I hold each side at fault for the way things transpired on Wednesday.
Jim McElwain and the $7.5 million buyout
Wednesday was a day of posturing in Florida’s pursuit of Colorado State head coach Jim McElwain. And most of it, or at least a good portion, was because of how Tuesday’s events unfolded for both parties.
According to reports by The Gainesville Sun and ESPN, Gators athletic director Jeremy Foley only decided to fly to Fort Collins, Colorado, on Tuesday after CSU officials told UF that McElwain’s buyout was indeed negotiable.
Foley, who is already spending $6.3 million to buy out Will Muschamp and may have to pay up to $8 million total to pay off assistants that McElwain decides not to retain (if he’s hired), saw McElwain’s $7.5 million buyout as a roadblock but one that he was willing to navigate through in order to secure his target.
Armed with whatever Rams officials told him and (most likely) knowledge of the clause in McElwain’s contract that specifies the school president can reduce or eliminate the buyout, Foley took off from Gainesville, Florida, with a contingent of four other Florida staffers. As Foley and the Gators were on their way across the country, OnlyGators.com learned and first reported that a private jet owned by a Florida booster had a flight plan to Fort Collins, and ESPN soon confirmed that Foley was onboard said jet.
By the time Foley arrived in Colorado, local media were waiting the airport and subsequently decided to follow the Gators’ rented sports utility vehicle to McElwain’s home. While there, one reporter actually rang the doorbell (for what reason, your guess is as good as mine) while others ordered pizza; a photographer also took a paparazzi-like photo through McElwain’s window as he and the Florida staff negotiated terms of his deal.
The intense media coverage of the Gators’ high-profile pursuit of McElwain, coupled with a report released around 10:45 p.m. by The Coloradoan, may have painted the Rams into a bit of a corner. In the report, former (recently-fired) Colorado State athletic director Jack Graham went on record saying that there was a verbal agreement made over the summer between McElwain and CSU president Tony Frank (with other parties there as witnesses) in regards to under what circumstances Frank would consider reducing or eliminating the huge $7.5 million buyout that he wanted McElwain to agree to as part of his contract extension. Graham noted that he was against the verbal agreement, which “severely compromised if not completely unwound” the buyout clause in McElwain’s contract.
[Before we go on… There was some question as to the legitimacy of that report on Tuesday, but ESPN early Thursday morning confirmed that there was indeed a verbal agreement – between Frank, McElwain and at least three other parties on June 6 – that Frank would “reduce or eliminate the buyout if McElwain were offered a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’-type job,” per reporter Brett McMurphy.]
Whether Foley did his due diligence and knew about this supposed verbal agreement – perhaps McElwain (who was present for said meeting) told him before he got on the plane, or maybe he had no idea but took CSU officials at their word that they would negotiate – is not able to be ascertained at this time. But after seemingly coming to terms with McElwain late Tuesday night, it appeared obvious that Foley and Florida’s contingent needed to stay over in Fort Collins as they had one more hurdle – the buyout – to overcome before returning home.
On Wednesday, whether there was a miscommunication or an about-face, Colorado State suddenly became unwilling to negotiate. Perhaps the words of a recently-fired athletic director, criticizing Frank’s negotiations with McElwain six months earlier, burned Frank’s ears enough to cause him to fold his arms, shake his head and stand pat. Maybe someone put it in Frank’s head that he suddenly had leverage – after all, the opposing party was in his town meeting with his employee – so he decided to try in earnest to squeeze every last penny out of UF.
At 1:40 p.m., the Orlando Sentinel reported that CSU would not agree to a significant reduction of the buyout. The Gators then set a flight plan for Gainesville, boarded their booster-owned private jet and took off. Three hours after the initial report, while the plane was still in the air, the Sentinel noted that the Rams have “not budged an inch on the buyout,” further explaining why Foley returned home.
In other words, Foley walked out of the dealership in attempt to regain some much-needed leverage after being told that he could not hitch his wagon to McElwain’s ride for anything under the $7.5 million sticker price.
After landing in Gainesville around 6 p.m., Foley gave a relatively bland statement to reporters waiting at the airport but noted that there “might be something more tonight,” holding out hope that Colorado State would come back to the negotiating table.
Three hours later, information credited to anonymous sources began to seemingly tell Florida’s side of the story as it pertained to the Gators pursuing McElwain and leaving Fort Collins without a deal signed. The Sun and ESPN both reported the aforementioned information about Foley allegedly being misled about the Rams’ willingness to negotiate, and ESPN’s story added that Florida was suddenly “’pessimistic’ that the deal will get done” if Frank does not come back to the table to negotiate terms of the buyout.
Whether coming from UF directly or not, the information paints a picture of a staff that is unwilling to cave to CSU and Frank, a president operating without an athletic director in place and making major mistakes as he does so. The Gators’ sudden pessimism is meant to put the Rams on the spot. “Hey, Colorado State, good luck getting what you want for McElwain if we leave the table.”
Yes, as written in the contract, the Rams have every right to believe they are owed $7.5 million in the form of a buyout if another program wants to poach their coach. And McElwain signed that contract in front of his lawyer, though he did so with faith that Frank would honor his supposed verbal agreement. That does not mean it is best for business for CSU to insist on that going through.
What Frank is failing to consider is how his no-compromise approach is potentially affecting the future of the Colorado State program. McElwain looks to be headed out the door eventually – let’s face it, salvaging this relationship would be difficult at best – and CSU is going to need to hire a replacement. What young up-and-coming coach looking for an opportunity to lead a program would want to sign with the Rams knowing the school president is being completely rigid – and potentially went back on his word – to try and prevent his coach from being awarded one of the top-five jobs in the nation?
The coaching profession is a fraternity, and everyone knows what is going on everywhere in this age of immediate information. What Frank is doing – regardless of whether that verbal agreement even took place at all – is not just bad college football business, it’s bad business, period.
Again, the Rams have every right to want the terms of that contract to be fulfilled, but they should also have the presence of mind to understand their place in the college sports landscape and make the best out of a bad situation.
Foley traveled to Fort Collins to sign a coach and enter a good-faith negotiation with an opposing party. Rather than try to compromise and ensure both men leave the table equally pleased and miserable, Frank is trying to hold a man’s career hostage while going up against a behemoth in Florida.
That is not to say Foley is not without some fault here. If he went to Fort Collins without doing his due diligence on the ability to legitimately negotiate this buyout, that’s a problem. If he left only with the knowledge of the clause in McElwain’s contract – readily available online prior to this coaching search – then he had to also be prepared to drop $7.5 million or leave without the coach. If he was indeed given assurances by CSU officials that a negotiation would take place in good faith, he should have at least tried to make some headway in that regard before making his intentions known and sending a contingent across the country.
Nevertheless, at this point in time, there is way too much for both parties to lose for the Gators and Rams to both sit on their hands and refuse to compromise.
Florida would lose its (current) top coaching target, a man Foley obviously pinpointed to lead his program – otherwise, he’s not making the effort he did to fly across the country – and take a major credibility hit. The Gators have suffered enough embarrassments over the last few years, the last thing they need is another.
Colorado State would ruin its otherwise-severed relationship with its employee, the man who they are holding hostage with a $7.5 million buyout. Do you really think McElwain is not going to hold it against Frank that he kept him from the opportunity of his coaching career? Are players going to want to make a commitment to that program knowing the tension in the athletic department and that McElwain will jump out of there as soon as a school is willing to pay that $7.5 million to free him?
As mentioned earlier, it would also severely damage the Rams’ reputation nationally. Coaches will have serious second thoughts about taking a job from Frank, and agents may be utterly turned off by his lacking willingness to simply be a businessman and get a deal done. Colorado State will also be without, say, $3-5 million and potentially a high-profile game in Gainesville. It’s a lose-lose for them, either a coach or respectability and a more-than-fair amount of money.
In the end, UF and CSU will come to an agreement because there is no other choice…at least, that’s what I still think will happen despite the puffed-out chests from both sides.
When a coach wants to leave, he’s gone, and forcing him to stay is a no-win scenario. Regardless of what is or is not true about a supposed verbal agreement, it’s time for Frank to step up as a businessman and make a deal that will benefit his program long-term. It may not be as good as having McElwain coaching his team, but the compromise – whatever it ends up being – will still be a substantial consolation prize.
Not Only Gators: Nothing
Sorry folks, you just read about 1,700 words written between 1-3 a.m. I’m wiped.
This Week’s Movie Trailer
Top Five (redband trailer is much better but NSFW):
The Top 5 List
From the home office in Wahoo, Nebraska…
Things I’ve missed while covering this coaching search:
2. Health(ier) food
4. Keeping up with The Howard Stern Show
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