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Houston’s contract for Major Applewhite shows the Cougars are tired of losing coaches

Applewhite’s contract makes it difficult for another school to hire him away. Houston’s had that happen enough.

Tennessee Tech v Houston Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Houston’s been one of the most successful non-power conference college football teams of the last few decades. A constant downside of the Cougars’ success has been that they’ve lost coaches to power jobs after they’ve won for a little while at UH: Art Briles to Baylor after a 10-win season in 2006, Kevin Sumlin to Texas A&M after 13 wins in 2011, and Tom Herman to Texas after 22 wins in the last two seasons.

The five-year, $7.5 million contract for Herman’s successor, Major Applewhite, looks like a concrete step toward Houston hanging on to its new coach for as long as it wants:

Some of Applewhite’s contract is regular. He makes $1.5 million per season, between his base salary and non-salary compensation. (Coaches often take portions of their pay in separate fees for media appearances, fundraising, and the like.) He’s got some nice bonuses if he gets to nine wins or anything above that.

After Herman left, Applewhite was the favored choice of many local high school coaches. He’s agreed to a contract that should keep him in the area for a good while, even if he wins big and immediately.

What’s unique about Applewhite’s deal is how hard it would be for him to leave.

Applewhite has a five-year contract. If Applewhite chooses to leave Houston for another job, he’ll have to pay Houston the same value that’s left on his contract. Depending on how much time’s left on the deal, that could be a lot, but it’d certainly be at least $1.5 million and probably much more. (If Houston fired Applewhite, it’d owe him $650,000 annually through the life of the contract.)

But that’s not nearly all of it. Where Applewhite’s contract becomes especially unique is that, if he were to leave, he’d also be responsible for the buyout costs for any of his assistant coaches who aren’t retained by UH’s next coach.

Football Scoop’s Zach Barnett lays this out:

For instance, defensive coordinator Mark D’Onforio signed a three-year, $400,000 a year contract that calls for a buyout rate at 50 percent of his base salary. So if Applewhite leaves after the 2017 season, he would owe $6 million plus $400,000 (half of D’Onforio’s base salary times two) and buyouts for any other assistants’ contracts we don’t have our hands on.

Assistant coaches often have their own buyouts to pay if they leave for another job, as some assistants normally do whenever a head coach goes from one school to another. But for at least some assistants, the cost of cutting ties would fall to Applewhite.

More specifically, the cost would fall to whichever school hired Applewhite. But high coach buyout costs are meant to be prohibitive, so the school levying the buyout is less likely to lose its coach.

When Herman left for Austin, his buyout owed to Houston was $2.5 million. If Applewhite were to leave after two years, as Herman did, he’d owe UH $4.5 million, plus whatever the school needed to pay in assistant buyouts.

There’s a precise kicker in the contract, too.

If Applewhite departs Houston for another head coaching job in the state of Texas, as a trio of his recent predecessors have done, his buyout costs go up 50 percent. So that $4.5 million would spike to nearly $7 million, plus those assistant buyouts.

"If a school in the state of Texas wants to come and take another one of [our] coaches, it's going to cost them a little to do that," Houston athletic director Hunter Yurachek said after Herman departed.

Houston turned out to be a steppingstone for Herman, Sumlin, and Briles. Applewhite’s contract is a clear statement that the Cougars don’t want to be that anymore.