Friday, November 17, 2006

Reviled or loved, agents get results

November 17, 2006

By Michael McCarthy and Steve Wieberg, USA TODAY

Knowledge is power in any negotiation. Just ask sports agents Jimmy Sexton and Neil Cornrich.

Separately, they represent many of the best-known and best-paid coaches in college football — and a fair number of NFL coaches and players as well.

Taken together, they represent at least a dozen of the 42 coaches earning more than $1 million this year in USA TODAY's study of Division I-A football coaches' compensation. They could represent more since Cornrich declines to release his full client list.

Their knowledge of who's making how much from what university, or NFL team, has helped drive up coaching salaries over the last decade, according to athletics directors and Sexton himself.

Cornrich's Cleveland-based NC Sports represents an array of coaches, including Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, Minnesota's Glen Mason, Kansas' Mark Mangino, Virginia's Al Groh, Boston College's Tom O'Brien, Arizona's Mike Stoops, South Florida's Jim Leavitt and Wisconsin's Bret Bielema.

Sexton's Athletic Resource Management in Memphis represents four top coaches in the Southeastern Conference — Auburn's Tommy Tuberville, South Carolina's Steve Spurrier, Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer and Arkansas' Houston Nutt — as well as Larry Coker of Miami (Fla.), Frank Beamer of Virginia Tech, Nick Saban of the Miami Dolphins and the Dallas Cowboys' Bill Parcells.

The agents' NFL connections are important. Pro salaries help set the bar for coaching salaries. Many coaches shuttle back and forth in search of the best deal.

Relations between agents and athletics directors are so poisonous, some ADs refuse to negotiate with them, says Dutch Baughman, executive director of the Division I-A Athletic Directors' Association.

"Some of them say they won't negotiate with terrorists," he says. "What happens in many cases is ... if I'm an agent and I'm talking to you, the AD, I'll tell you the compensation levels of my other clients in an effort to drive up the compensation for the coach you and I are talking about.

"The problem is the numbers they cite for the other coaches are grossly inflated."

Among the athletics directors telling USA TODAY they refuse to deal directly with agents are Arkansas' Frank Broyles, defending national champion Texas' DeLoss Dodds and Texas A&M's Bill Byrne.

"I don't want to deal with people in that profession," says Broyles, Arkansas's football coach from 1958-1976.

"If everything were equal, I'd certainly not go with the coach with an agent," Dodds says.

Sexton takes the terrorist remark as a compliment: "We are responsible for driving up prices. What else are we supposed to do? Drive them down?" Cornrich, an attorney, gives a more lawyerly answer: "Clearly, knowing the market leads to a fair result for both sides."

Sexton and Cornrich say the tough talk from athletics directors is more posturing, or wishful thinking, than reality.

Yes, there's some old-school ADs who won't talk to agents, Sexton says. What they're not saying is they pass off what they see as distasteful work to their assistants, university general counsels or even high-powered alumni on the board of trustees.

"I've never had a case where someone at the school didn't deal with me," Sexton says.

As for agents allegedly inflating salaries, they can't do it, Sexton says. "With all the open-records laws out there, these guys have access to the information. If I say a coach is making $2 million, they can go check it out themselves."

If people want to judge him, Sexton says they should look at his results. When longtime Virginia Tech coach Beamer hired Sexton in 2005, the agent immediately decided his new client was "underpaid." The result? With Sexton's help, Beamer negotiated a new seven-year contract in October that boosted his pay 42.9% from $1.4 million to $2 million a year. The deal runs through the 2012 season, with an option for three more years.

Beamer's contract also includes, according to the announcement by Virginia Tech, pay raises for his assistant coaches, an annual performance-based raise program and an improved bonus structure for postseason appearances.

"When we walked into the school, they knew we had the credibility to talk about what other coaches made," Sexton says. Beamer could not be reached for comment.

Agents take a 3%-5% cut from their clients, according to Sexton. Still, Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville says he doesn't know "very many" peers who fly solo. When the showdown comes at contract time, and the showdown always comes, the coach can play good cop to the agent's bad cop.

"You need somebody between you if you're going to do any negotiating or ask for anything else," Tuberville says. "If you go in and start dealing with numbers and all those things, you might create friction. So I just stay out of it."

Iowa's Ferentz, a Cornrich client, is in the midst of 13-month period in which he will earn at least $4.6 million through contract amendments made in May. Ferentz notes his fellow coaches are more familiar with X's and O's on the chalkboard than contracts, performance incentives and buyout clauses.

"I think Abraham Lincoln said something to the effect of 'Anybody who represents himself in a legal issue has a fool for a client,' " Ferentz says. "All I know is football. I know coaching a little bit. But I have zero knowledge when it comes to the business aspect of things."

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