Why didn’t New Mexico State’s Jerry Kill sign his football contract?
Nearly a year after announcing his hiring at New Mexico State, head football coach Jerry Kill still hasn’t signed a work contract with the university, the school has confirmed. this week.
As of Friday, he hadn’t even signed the university’s initial offer letter dated November 21, 2021 – a two-page document that spells out the basic financial terms of his job but also says he’s on probation for a while. a year like any other of new employees there.
This is an unusual situation. Kill, 61, is still a coach in one of the the toughest jobs in major college football. He’s also still paid $550,000 a year, an athletic department official said. But without a signed contract — or even a signed initial offer letter — Kill’s situation dives into a precarious realm that carries significant risks for both parties and has at times created awkward situations and headlines that have raised eyebrows among fans. It once became a federal matter in Kentucky after men’s basketball coach Billy Gillispie went two years without signing his contact before being fired in 2009.
“It’s strange,” said Martin Greenberg, a lawyer and sports law professor at Marquette, who has represented coaches in contract negotiations but is not involved in the Kill case.
USA TODAY Sports inquired about this in October as part of its annual college football coaching compensation survey. NMSU assistant athletic director Braun Cartwright said Oct. 10 that the university expects Kill’s contract to be signed “in the next few days.” The reason he said he wasn’t signed was ‘we went through some things (in the contract)’ but ‘nothing from the coach’ caused the delay.
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Kill did not immediately respond to a request for comment through a school spokesperson.
His team is 4-5 this year after starting the season with four straight losses.
“There were a few more changes that needed to be made,” Cartwright said in an email Nov. 9. “Although we are close, he is still unsigned.”
Formal contract signings in college sports can sometimes be delayed months after a coach is announced, simply because it takes time to work out the various clauses and language in a document that may contain 24 pages or more. In the meantime, before signing a formal contract, coaches usually work under a two- or three-page memorandum of understanding or letter of offer that sets out at least basic compensation terms.
In Kill’s case, he hadn’t even signed that last letter, which is rare. And it’s been almost a year since he was hired, which is also quite rare.
“It’s a dangerous area for colleges,” Greenberg said.
The reason is that it creates a legal risk for both parties when there is no signed employment contract, especially in the event of dismissal. In effect, a signed contract serves as a prenuptial agreement, setting out the detailed terms of a potential separation and how much each is owed in the event of termination or resignation. Without these conditions spelled out in writing, it can lead to ugly and costly disputes after the separation, much like a contentious divorce between spouses who have not signed a prenuptial agreement.
For example, Kill’s unsigned offer letter obtained by USA TODAY Sports does not specify what he or the university would expect if he resigns or is fired. In his case in particular, he probably has an increased interest in obtaining these conditions with signatures, given his history of kidney cancer and seizuresin addition to the fact that NMSU is one of the hardest places to win in major college football.
In its history dating back to 1894, only two out of 35 NMSU head coaches have won more than 23 games at the school. Since 1972, NMSU has also had 10 non-interim head coaches before Kill, nine of whom have been fired. The other coach – DeWayne Walker – resigned to take an assistant coaching position in the NFL in January 2013 after going 10-40 in four seasons.
“At the time, I just felt like maybe my career was on the line if I stayed there another three years,” Walker told USA TODAY Sports in 2020.
And yet here is Kill, battling this tide of history without a signed and sealed deal to protect him. It probably didn’t help that Kill’s former agent Jordan Bazant left the agent business late last year. It is unclear who now represents him in contract negotiations.
What could go wrong in the meantime?
The Kentucky Dispute
The Gillispie case in Kentucky shows how low it can go. Gillispie signed a three-page memorandum of understanding in Kentucky when he was hired in April 2007, but he never signed a formal contract as the two sides argued over issues including deferred compensation and the definition of the terms of termination, according to court records.
Then, after he was fired in March 2009, it became a federal matter.
Since there was no signed contract, each party sued the other in federal court for what was owed to Gillispie after he was fired.
“A real and justifiable controversy has arisen between the parties as to whether the memorandum of understanding constitutes a long-term employment contract,” the university said in its lawsuit against him.
Gillispie, who finished with a 40-27 record in the UK, claimed he was fired without cause and was therefore entitled to $6 million to buy out his contract based on his interpretation of the memorandum of understanding. Kentucky said in court records that it owed him nothing because the memorandum of understanding was “unenforceable” and the parties had not signed a long-term agreement.
The university “asserts that the Memorandum of Understanding was expressly intended by the parties to be only a letter of intent or an agreement of understanding, and is neither a fully integrated writing nor a final expression of the entirety of the parties’ agreement,” the university said. in his trial.
The litigation dragged on until October 2009, when the two sides settled, with Gillispie getting around $2.9 million, about half of what his memorandum of understanding stipulated.
“It’s not an area where colleges want to be,” Greenberg said. “They don’t want to legislate in this area. They don’t want to be in court. Gillispie settled and most of these things settled because of dirty laundry (used as leverage against each other in legal disputes).
Greenberg already had his own troubles with an unsigned contract when he represented Utah men’s basketball coach Rick Majerus in the early 1990s.
The cases of Utah and Georgia
Greenberg said Majerus hadn’t signed a contract in over a year because Majerus didn’t want a moral turpitude clause in his contract, simply because it wasn’t clearly defined. In the meantime, Majerus was a hot coach and became a candidate for a job at UNLV.
“I went to the athletic director (at Utah) and said, ‘We don’t have a contractual relationship. We are simply an at-will employee. You are free to terminate, and we are free to terminate. And we will terminate,” Greenberg said.
Utah eventually dropped its desire to add a moral turpitude clause to Majerus’ contract, Greenberg said. Majerus, who died in 2012, did not accept the UNLV position and remained in Utah.
Other coaches have made headlines in recent years when they went several months without signing formal contracts, leading fans to wonder if either had any doubts.
In January 2015, Georgia announced a two-year contract extension and $800,000 raise for coach Mark Richt, bringing his annual compensation to $4 million. But he never signed it. After his team struggled on the field later that year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution even published an article about it in November 2015.
“Mark Richt is still unsigned, but UGA will honor the $4 million contract,” the headline said.
The newspaper said the delay was partly due to a disagreement over the conduct and ethics clauses of the new contract.
Richt was then fired later that month and had to rely on the university to honor a handshake deal to get his new $4.1 million severance package.
“Just because someone hasn’t signed it doesn’t mean we’re not going to honor it,” then-Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity said in the article.
In another instance, Texas A&M announced in early December 2017 that it had hired coach Jimbo Fisher from Florida State. Six months later, the Texas Tribune ran an article with a headline that read, “Texas A&M promised Jimbo Fisher a 10-year, $75 million deal five months ago. here’s why it’s not signed yet.”
Texas A&M cited tax code changes and Fisher’s busy schedule as reasons for the delay. Fisher then signed his contract on August 17, 2018, more than eight months after his hiring announcement.
Kill also gained local media attention in 2011 after going several months without a signed contract in Minnesota. Kill was hired there as head coach in early December 2010, but as of April 2011 still had no signed contract, prompting the Star Tribune to take notice.
Kill finally signed his contract in Minnesota on Oct. 21, 2011, more than 10 months after his hiring announcement, according to the copy obtained by USA TODAY Sports. He then abruptly retired in October 2015, citing health issues.
At NMSU, Kill’s current unsigned offer letter makes his situation particularly risky for him.
“The specific terms and conditions of your position may be changed without the need to add a written addendum to this letter of offer,” the November 2021 letter states.
In contrast, formal signed contracts generally require that any changes be made through bilateral written agreements. But Kill doesn’t have that or even a signed warrant letter.
What could go wrong?