25 Highest-Paid College Football Coaches in 2024

November 6, 2023

highest paid college football coaches

College football’s official designation as an amateur sport means players can’t be paid for their on-the-field performance. In 2021, though, a Supreme Court decision made it possible for student-athletes to earn money—just not from their schools. Now, college athletes can sell the rights to their NIL (name, likeness, and image), so they can take advantage of everything from shoe deals to paid social media posts without losing their NCAA eligibility. The NIL ruling is a step in the right direction, but it’s not without its limitations, and it doesn’t address the root of the problem: that college sports is a system that runs on unpaid labor. That fact gets cast into an even more absurd light when one considers how much money is in college sports—the NCAA makes about a billion dollars each year from March Madness alone. And that brings us to the highest-paid college football coaches.

College athletes aren’t paid, but college coaches certainly are. Only 17% of college athletes even participate in NIL money-making ventures, and the median compensation for Division I athletes was $65 per NIL activity. And yet Nick Saban is making 11 million bucks this year. Really? Check out a list of the highest-paid college football coaches below.

Highest-Paid College Football Coaches – Some Numbers for Context

College athletics programs bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue every year, and big sports schools are consistently among the top earners. Over the course of the 2022 fiscal year, for example, Ohio State raked in a whopping 251 million dollars in revenue. And it’s not surprising that football is the sport that accounts for the bulk of a school’s revenue. In fact, the average college football program brings in more money than the next 35 college sports—combined. What is a little more surprising is the fact that despite the huge revenues, most college athletics programs don’t operate at a profit. According to the NCAA, only 25 out of 65 Division I schools recorded a positive net generated revenue in 2019. Most schools, in other words, are operating at a loss when it comes to their athletics.

Highest-Paid College Football Coaches (Continued)

College football coaches at prominent schools still get paid, though. And when looking at their salaries as a percentage of total revenue, the numbers get even more shocking. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney boasts a yearly salary of $10.8 million—which is more than 15% of the team’s total revenue! To put that into perspective: Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey’s total compensation for the year 2022 was around 23 million dollars, while the company’s net operating revenues came to $43 billion. That means that Quincey’s salary—and believe me, I’m not defending the egregiously disproportionate rates at which CEOs are compensated—was 0.05% of Coca-Cola’s total revenue.

Highest-Paid College Football Coaches – Perks and Incentives

Another feature of these mega-contracts is that they’re loaded up with incentives and perks that make them even richer. If Alabama wins the SEC Championship this year, Nick Saban will take home an additional $125,000. If they win the College Football National Championship, he’ll pocket another cool $800,000. Of the top ten highest paid college football coaches, only one has a maximum bonus potential under $1 million.

The contracts also include perks. Most coaches receive country club memberships for their entire families. Many receive large budgets for personal travel and entertainment. Lastly, some even get unrestricted use of private jets.

Highest-Paid College Football Coaches

1) Nick Saban, The University of Alabama – $11.41 million

I sometimes forget that for a couple of lackluster seasons, Nick Saban was the head coach of the Miami Dolphins (his combined record in Miami was 15-17), where he made close to $5 million a year. His time in Tuscaloosa has been significantly less lackluster and significantly more lucrative. Under Saban’s sixteen seasons of leadership, the Crimson Tide have won eight SEC championships and six national championships. He’s coached four Heisman trophy winners, won coach of the year nine times, and boasts an overall winning percentage of 88%. And, lest we forget why we’re here, the contract extension he signed in 2022 puts him at the top of the list of the highest-paid college football coaches. His eight-year contract is worth a total of $93.6 million. This means he’s making, on average, $11.7 million a year.

2) Dabo Swinney, Clemson University – $10.88 million

William Christopher “Dabo” Sweeney has already had quite a storybook college football career—both as a player and a coach—and the contract extension he signed in 2022 makes him the Clemson Tigers’ head coach through the 2031 season. Dabo walked on to the Alabama Crimson Tide’s football program as a wide receiver and was a part of the team’s 1992 run to the national championship. In 2008, he became head coach of the Clemson Tigers, taking over for his former coach at Alabama, Tommy Bowden. In 2016 and 2018, Swinney led the Tigers to national championships, and his overall record at Clemson is 165-43. And that contract of his—it’s worth a total of $115 million.

3) Kirby Smart, The University of Georgia – $10.71 million

In 2015, Kirby Smart became the head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs, the team he played for as a college athlete. Since he came on as head coach, the Bulldogs have only lost 15 times. They won back-to-back national championships in 2021 and 2022, and they’re undefeated so far this year. Smart got his ultra-lucrative multi-year contract as well. Last year, he signed a contract extension worth $112.5 million that makes him the Bulldogs’ head coach until 2031.

Highest-Paid College Football Coaches (Continued)

4) Ryan Day, Ohio State University – $10.27 million

Ohio State head football coach Ryan Day is making $10.27 million this year, which means his salary is almost 10% of his team’s total revenue. Ohio State has been good during his tenure, but he hasn’t yet led them to a national championship (Day has held the head coaching position since 2019; the last time the Buckeyes won a championship was 2015). I’m not trying to pick on Ryan here, but I want to give an impression of just how cushy these college football coaching gigs really are: between the years of 2010 and 2014, under the stewardship of manager Bruce Bochy, the San Francisco Giants won three World Series titles. Three! And in that time, Bochy was making an estimated $6 million a year. That kind of money is far from a pittance, but by college football standards, it seems like a steal.

5) Mel Tucker, Michigan State University – $10.02 million (FIRED)

Mel Tucker is no longer the head coach at Michigan State. In September, Tucker was fired after it came out that he’d sexually harassed Brenda Tracy, a prominent advocate for survivors of sexual assault and a survivor herself. Tucker had been Michigan State’s head football coach since 2020, and in 2021, he signed a ten-year contract extension worth $95 million. By firing him for cause, Michigan State will avoid paying him the remaining $80 million on his contract. Harlon Barnett became MSU’s interim coach following Tucker’s termination.

6) Lincoln Riley, University of Southern California – estimated $10 million

Because USC is a private university, it is not obligated to make public the details of head football coach Lincoln Riley’s salary and contract. But reports suggest that his contract is worth $110 million over the course of ten years, which makes him one of the highest-paid college football coaches in the country. Prior to signing on with USC, Riley was head coach of the Oklahoma Sooners, where he sported a 55-10 record, making him the coach with the highest winning percentage in OU’s history. But he’s 18-5 at USC thus far, and his overall playoff numbers are underwhelming: he’s just 1-4 in end-of-season bowl games and 0-3 in the College Football Playoffs. And there’s already media chatter, amidst another disappointing Trojans’ season, that Riley might not be the right person for the job.

Highest-Paid College Football Coaches (Continued)

7) Brian Kelly, Louisiana State – $9.9 million

In 2021, Brian Kelly left Notre Dame to become head coach of the LSU Tigers, signing a 10-year deal worth $95 million. His base pay of, on average, $9.5 million a year, makes him one of the highest-paid college football coaches in the country. But his contract is chock full of bonuses and incentives which could sweeten the deal even more. For example: for each SEC Championship appearance, Kelly receives an additional $75,000. If the Tigers win it, that number becomes $150,000.

For each year that Kelly remains coach of the Tigers, he receives another half a million dollars—what’s called a “longevity bonus.” Oh, and if the Tigers make a bowl game, Kelly makes another half a million. But the more you dig into the details of the deal, the more coach-friendly it becomes: if he’s fired without cause, Kelly is guaranteed 90% of his remaining base pay. If he’s fired after winning a national championship, he’s still owed the entirety of his salary (two of the last three LSU coaches to get fired had just come off championship-winning seasons).

8) Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M – $9.1 million

It’s tricky business determining what makes these mega-contracts—whether for coaches or players—“worth it.” For many fans, at least, these huge deals can only be considered successful if the player or coach brings the team a championship. Last year, Aaron Judge signed a 9-year contract with the Yankees worth $360 million. Yankees fans were relieved and excited to have him back. Yet if Judge doesn’t lead the Yankees to a World Series title during his tenure in the Bronx, I wonder how the New York faithful will regard his time in pinstripes (spoiler: they probably won’t look upon it fondly). So when huge dollar amounts are hovering over coaches’ and players’ heads, expectations get high. And when expectations aren’t met, those long-term guaranteed contracts start to seem ill-advised.

Exactly that dynamic is playing out at Texas A&M. In August 2021, Fisher signed a 4-year extension which would make him the head coach of the Aggies until 2031. The average annual salary of $9 million. Last year, his team was abysmal, but because he would have been owed $86 million if fired in season, he kept his job. And even though it’d still cost the school a ridiculous sum—$76 million—to fire him this year, his job is reportedly in jeopardy as the Aggies sit at a mediocre 5-4 record and out of contention for an SEC or national title.

9) Mark Stoops, University of Kentucky – $9 million

Mark Stoops has been head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats since 2013, and in 2022 he signed an extension that will have him in Lexington until 2030, where he’ll be making a reported $9 million annually. The Wildcats went 7-6 last year. However, this year they’re 6-3, and overall, Stoops is the winningest coach in school history.

Highest-Paid College Football Coaches (Continued)

10) Josh Heupel, University of Tennessee – $9 million

In Josh Heupel’s inaugural year at the University of Tennessee, his team went 7-6 overall and lost a bowl game to Purdue in overtime. Last year, the Volunteers went 11-2 and beat Clemson to win the Orange Bowl. If Heupel keeps the trend going, the contract extension that he signed—that takes his annual pay to around $9 million—will almost certainly be seen as a good move. And hey, that’s a competitive rate for an SEC head coach these days.

11. Lane Kiffin Mississippi $9 Million
12. James Franklin Penn State $8.5 Million
13. Jim Harbaugh Michigan $8.3 Million
14. Mario Cristobal Miami $8 Million
15. Luke Fickell Wisconsin $7.6 Million
16. Mike Gundy Oklahoma State $7.6 Million
17. Mike Norvell Florida State $7.3 Million
18. Billy Napier Florida $7.3 Million
19. Brent Venables Oklahoma $7 Million
20. Kirk Ferentz Iowa $7 Million
21. Dan Lanning Oregon $6.6 Million
22. Hugh Freeze Auburn $6.5 Million
23. Bret Bielema Illinois $6.5 Million
24. Sam Pittman Arkansas $6.4 Million
25. Kyle Whittingham Utah $6.3 Million

Highest-Paid College Football Coaches – Additional Resources

We hope you enjoy our article on the highest-paid college football coaches. You may also find the following blogs to be of interest:

In the upcoming weeks, we will also be covering the following athletic-related topics:

  • Largest College Football Stadiums
  • Best College Football Stadiums
  • Who has the Most College Football Championships?