College coaching is big business. At many major state universities the highest paid employee is not the president, but the football coach. With big bucks involved, the Chronicle of Higher Education asks why universities often settle for hastily drafted contracts, or worse, informal writings that may or may not even be contracts. (If the terms "memorandum of understanding" or "letter of intent" ring a bell for you, you may understand what we're talking about here. And lawyers love them. As a lawyer who goes to court, I can tell you that one good "letter of intent" case can pay a lot of college tuition!)
Oddly enough, authorities quoted in the article think that the universities often get "out-gunned" by the coaches and their agents. And yet that point of view is plausible. Coaching contracts often get put together in a hurry. The employers usually rely upon their in-house legal staffs, who may or may not have the requisite expertise, and who always have many other things to think about. The coaches, on the other hand, have a singular focus: to get the deal done as quickly as possible, on the most favorable financial terms. And usually with the help of agents and lawyers who do have the requisite expertise. Viewed that way, one can see that it is not always a fair fight.
How to level the playing field? For one thing, college administrators can try to anticipate their coaching needs — and coaching changes — and prepare for the negotiation in advance. One way to prepare is to line up some "outside talent," such as consultants and outside attorneys, to work with in-house lawyers as an integrated team.
We can tell you from experience that a poorly drafted contract can cause many problems down the road. Especially when you're playing in the high stakes world of major college coaching, get it right from the start to avoid big problems later.