Will Texas A&M fire Jimbo Fisher and pay his $77 million buyout?

Right about the time Miami thumped Jimbo Fisher’s reliably inconsistent Texas A&M team back in September, I started trying to understand the price of oil coming out of the Permian Basin to predict the 2023-2024 college football coaching market.

If the coaching carousel would start early, A&M was an obvious choice to kick things off: a wealthy brand underperforming for its deep-pocketed and frequently delusional corps of boosters.

Mainly located in West Texas, the 86,000-square-mile Permian Basin is America’s highest-producing oil field, typically turning out 4 to 5 million barrels daily, and sometimes more.

It is crucial to the American oil and gas industry. It is also chockablock with wealthy Texas A&M Aggies, almost all of whom vehemently regret the gaudy, 10-year, totally guaranteed $75 million contract their university feted Fisher with in December 2017. In return, Fisher has delivered an above-average 44-25 run over the past five-plus seasons, but nothing close to the national title expectations Aggies have long pined and overpaid for.

CFP rankings stay steady ahead of a potentially momentous weekend

Entering this weekend, Fisher’s 26-21 record in SEC games had message boarders (and me) assuming that if oil approaches $100 a barrel anytime soon (it’s sitting at $76.42 as of this writing), cash-flush and historically squirrelly Aggies boosters would pull the trigger on Fisher’s current buyout of roughly $77 million. There are plenty of wealthy A&M boosters in other industries, but the price of chicken usually doesn’t upend global GDP in a week.

And yes, Fisher’s buyout if he is fired this year is $2 million more than the total value of his original contract, thanks to a wonderfully stupid extension agreed upon after the Aggies went 9-1 during a 2020 season that was affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The new contract pushed Fisher’s salary to $9 million a year and extended him through 2031, and Fisher has responded with a 9-13 SEC record in the years since.

After the Houston Chronicle’s Brent Zwerneman reported this week that A&M, at least as of now, was leaning heavily toward giving Fisher one more season despite another year of failure to meet expectations, a significant chunk of anticipation has disappeared.

And here I was trying to understand OPEC’s impact on fourth-quarter pricing during a fresh Middle East conflict or potential supply constraints in the United States because of drilling consolidation.

It seems — and I cannot overemphasize seems — that one of college football’s most notorious spendthrifts is exercising a modicum of reserve. One could argue that’s because Fisher’s buyout is serving the purpose it intended: Even among a social class that embodies the American stereotype of excess, $77 million to make one man go away is a prohibitive cost, crude prices be damned.

Combined with the fact that A&M isn’t awful, just merely not great (each of its conference losses this season have been by seven points or fewer) amid quarterback injuries and bad assistant hires (former head coaches-turned-Fisher assistants Steve Addazio and Bobby Petrino probably aren’t long for College Station even if their boss survives), it’s at least arguable Fisher hasn’t fully earned bust status just yet.

But, all that said and with every indicator both published among my colleagues and in my own off-the-record conversations suggesting Fisher is safe entering 2024, I still refuse to believe there’s zero chance he is let go.

First, keeping Fisher would require a tremendous amount of calmness and maturity for a consortium that’s defined the exact opposite in the college football economy for decades. A&M is the world’s richest little brother, boasting national title finances to hide a community college trophy case. This was the football program once most famous for buying a gold Pontiac Trans-Am for a player who ultimately never signed with the program.

Second, we often focus too much on the demand side of the coaching market instead of the supply side. The working idea right now is less that A&M doesn’t have a replacement in hand and more that it doesn’t have one ideal enough to eat that $77 million bill first. But supply can change quickly, and in the age of the transfer portal exodus, often very quietly.

Third, crude production can never exceed the college football value of time or its paucity of patience. If A&M holds on to Fisher and weathers another fine-but-not-great season with no playoff appearance in 2024, it would still owe him $67.5 million if he is fired next year, saving the boosters a relatively scant $10-ish million. If I’m looking at the futures market, A&M’s pride is worth more than $10 million for another season of championship ignominy.

Could the Aggies be better in 2024? Absolutely. Will the roster be stocked with talent? Almost assuredly. Is there a single indicator that Fisher or Petrino will evolve the offense past its plodding and outmoded form into something capable of keeping pace with LSU, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, etc.? There are years of data screaming “no.”

Svrluga: Let JMU play in a bowl game. It’s just common sense.

I don’t doubt Zwerneman’s reporting at all — he broke the news that Oklahoma and Texas were joining the SEC — but his phrasing is careful to mention that it’s just now November, and things could change. The struggle here is believing in the supposed calm of the Aggies’ gilded class.

Plus, I keep thinking about Texas’s suspiciously swift firing of Tom Herman after the 2020 season. Herman went 32-18 in Austin, received public support from the university as late as Dec. 12 of that year and was fired Jan. 2, 2021, after leading the Longhorns to an Alamo Bowl win. Hours later, then-Alabama offensive coordinator and former USC head coach Steve Sarkisian was announced as Texas’s new head coach, bringing direct SEC experience to a program then still in talks with the league about a potential transition.

Granted, Texas only paid out around $15 million to fire Herman, while A&M would have to eat five times that. But the slickness of it all lingers: Before speculation could mount among the Longhorns’ strong roster or a leaky search conducted half in public, Sark was already in place.

If I were Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp, the man every Aggie knows will actually be making the decision, I’d be looking to preserve as much of Fisher’s pristine, NIL-soaked recruiting as possible with a quick and clean coup planned with total discretion. I’d also spend November and December pushing a public narrative that Fisher was totally safe.

Texas and Oklahoma will land in the league next season, closing a decade-long SEC head-start for the Aggies that has yielded zero division, conference or national titles. During Fisher’s run, A&M has watched rivals LSU and Alabama win national titles and Georgia reset the hierarchy of power. Not to mention that Fisher is now 0-3 against Lane Kiffin’s Mississippi, a poverty program compared with the Aggies’ budget (something Kiffin has taken great public pride in).

If A&M holds to its alleged word and keeps Fisher, you can consider it either a stroke of rational thought or an admission of financial defeat — that dumping $77 million before another coach can be hired is the critical mass of the wanton Texas oil lifestyle.

But I can’t help but see that insane number as proof the Aggies will continue apace, even now. After all, the strongest evidence A&M is willing to buy Fisher out is the fact it offered him all that guaranteed money in the first place.

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