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Inside the contracts of the top coaches

SEATTLE — The highest-paid nonprofessional sport coaches in the world squared off this weekend as college football played its conference championship games.

And those curious about how highly compensated these coaches are — including Washington coach Chris Petersen, who recently received a raise — can now instantly peruse their contracts online thanks to a group of curious Seattle lawyers.

The six lawyers manning the Seattle head office of HKM Employment Attorneys LLP have built a website (hkm.com/football) containing PDFs of the full contracts, exhibits and appendices of virtually every football coach working for an FBS and FCS public university.

“It was kind of random to begin with,” said Jason Rittereiser, one of the lawyers who worked on the site ahead of its launch Wednesday. “A couple of employment lawyers at our firm who are also big sports fans started talking about NCAA football coaches and how much they get paid. As far as public employees go, they’re some of the best, if not the best-compensated employees in the states they work in. So we wanted to see exactly how they are compensated.”

They knew that was possible, just not altogether easy.

One of the things about public universities is they are held accountable for the tax dollars given them and are subject to public-disclosure requests. Within a year, the HKM crew had acquired the contracts of just about every college football coach in their hands — 167 in total.

They could see exactly what top-paid coaches like Nick Saban, Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer earn in base salary and incentive bonuses. But also quirky clauses: like the 60 hours of private-jet time given to former Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, or the eight tickets to gymnastic events provided Robert Ambrose at Towson State.

The site doesn’t have contracts for private universities like Notre Dame, Stanford and Miami. Nor for Penn State, Pittsburgh and Temple, which claimed exemptions under Pennsylvania records law.

Some sites, like USA Today, were already posting NCAA football coaches’ salaries in a database before the HKM one launched.

“But none of them gave any analysis of it, or actually allowed users to view the actual contracts,” Rittereiser said.

So, the HKM lawyers took things a step further: posting a PDF of every contract. The site also has a best-to-worst ranking of the 167 contracts in terms of compensation, bonus clauses, perks, contract length, buyouts and golden parachutes, done by lawyer Daniel Kalish — who devised an algorithm to calculate final rankings.

A former King County prosecutor who specializes in complex trial litigation, Kalish, selected as a “Super Lawyer” in this year’s Washington Law and Politics Magazine, compiled the rankings and picked Alabama head coach Saban as having the No. 1 contract. Rick Comegy of Mississippi Valley State was assigned the 167th spot.

Of interest locally, the contract of Washington’s Petersen, ranked No. 13 overall — just behind No. 12 Les Miles of Louisiana State. Washington State head coach Mike Leach came in at No. 43.

Petersen’s contract stands out, given he’s the third-highest-ranking coach not to have his team in the final top-25 college rankings in the past three seasons (Charlie Strong of Texas is No. 8 and Brett Bielema of Arkansas No. 11). And that was before the UW last month gave Petersen a two-year extension valued at $4 million in 2019 and 2020.

Of course, Petersen only joined the Huskies from Boise State last season, finishing 8-6 overall after losing the Cactus Bowl to Oklahoma State. This year’s team needed an Apple Cup win over Leach’s Cougars to finish 6-6.

Petersen’s original five-year, $18 million deal, posted on the new website, shows him earning base salaries ranging from $345,161 to $420,000 in each of those seasons. But bigger money comes from compensation for participating in media programs, promotion, sponsorships and appearances set forth by the school.

For that, he gets $2,286,559 in 2014, $2,020,000 in 2015, $2,190,000 in 2016, $2,360,000 in 2017 and $2,530,000 in 2018. In addition, his appearance in last year’s Cactus Bowl garnered a $75,000 bonus — the same he’ll earn from this year’s bowl game.

Perks include two “courtesy cars,” a country-club membership and the UW paying for Petersen’s wife and children to fly to away games. Also, the original contract contained a clause that Petersen would automatically be extended through the 2019 season if athletic director Scott Woodward were to leave the school before the end of 2018.

As they say, the devil can sometimes be in the details.

The website opines that LSU coach Miles, rumored to be on the chopping block until recently, may have kept his job because of a termination clause that would have paid up to $15 million over a set period of years if he were fired before Dec. 31. That declines to $12.9 million if fired starting next year, then $8.6 million if a dismissal happens as of Jan. 1, 2018.

“Compensation matters big, obviously, when it comes to these deals,” Rittereiser said. “But it isn’t all about straight salary. There are a lot of hidden things in these contracts that make them better than others that may look the same.”

And now, football fans — and taxpayers who don’t care much for the sport — can comb through details and judge for themselves.