Penn State Head Coach James Franklin

Last Saturday’s Penn State/Michigan State game wasn’t quite as important as it might have been had both teams not previously lost key contests. But it was historic in another sense, as it featured the nation’s two highest paid Black college football coaches, each of whom have signed lucrative contract extensions. 

Michigan State’s Mel Tucker signed a 10-year $95 million dollar deal several days ago. He’s in his second season with the Spartans, and with their 30-27 victory completed a 10-2 season, finishing 6-0 at home. While there was some criticism of Tucker’s deal after Michigan State was blasted by Ohio State 56-7, generally he’s gotten praise for helping reinvigorate a program that had fallen on hard times. Most importantly, his team edged in-state rival Michigan 37-33 in Ann Arbor earlier this season. Tucker will reportedly earn $9.5 million starting next season, second in the nation only to Nick Saban’s $9.75 million at Alabama.

The James Franklin extension, a 10-year deal running through 2031, won’t pay as much, but is hardly a poor deal. Franklin will make $7 million per season in total guaranteed annual compensation. Franklin’s contract also includes an annual $500,000 retention bonus and a $1 million annual loan for life insurance.

Franklin’s buyout — the amount of money an NFL team or another institution would need to pay Penn State to hire Franklin away — rises from $4 million to $12 million through April 1, 2022. It drops to $8 million through Dec. 31, 2022; $6 million through 2023; $2 million through 2024 and 2025; and $1 million from 2026 through the duration of the contract.

Both Tucker and Franklin were linked to openings at other schools. Tucker, who was formerly defensive coordinator at Georgia, had been mentioned as a possibility for the LSU job, while Franklin had been cited as a candidate for the Southern California position. Thus far there’s been far less criticism and backlash to Tucker’s extension than Franklin’s, mainly because Franklin has been at Penn State for eight years and the Nittany Lions have only won one Big 10 title.

“Penn State’s future is bright, and I’m honored to continue to serve as your head football coach,” Franklin said in a release. “Nine weeks ago, the administration approached me about making a long-term investment in our football program. This prompted numerous conversations outlining the resources needed to be competitive at a level that matches the expectations and history of Penn State.” 

“With the support of President Barron, Sandy Barbour and the Board of Trustees we’ve been able to create a roadmap of the resources needed to address academic support, community outreach, Name, Image and Likeness (NIL), facility improvements, student-athlete housing, technology upgrades, recruiting, training table and more. This renewed commitment to our student-athletes, community and fans reinforces all the reasons I’ve been proud to serve as your head football coach for the last eight years and why my commitment to Penn State remains steadfast. Throughout this process I’ve kept our leadership council, recruits and staff updated on those conversations and I’m excited we’ve reached an agreement we can finally share with you.”

Since Tucker is only in season two and can boast a 10-win year, there’s little reason to question his overall performance, even with the horrendous Ohio State game. But that’s not the case with Franklin, who has lots of critics despite an overall good record. He’s 67-34 overall, 7-5 this season, and 42-28 in the Big 10.

Penn State has made six bowl appearances, including three New Year’s Six bowls, and three 11-win seasons. In 2016, Penn State won the Big Ten title and played in the Rose Bowl. The Nittany Lions have three top-10 finishes in Franklin’s tenure. Overall, Franklin is 91-47 as a head coach. He spent three seasons at Vanderbilt, where he led the Commodores to three bowl appearances and two top-25 finishes, before becoming the coach at Penn State in 2014.

While Tucker will enter season number three with heightened expectations, Franklin will face even more pressure after being 11-10 and 8-10 in the Big 10 over the past two seasons. He will begin 2022 with the nation’s No. 5 recruiting class, and this group could be the best Franklin has signed in his time at Penn State. Franklin’s recruiting classes have ranked in the top 25 in each of his last nine seasons as a head coach.

The big deals signed by Mel Tucker and James Franklin are indicators some Black coaches have reached the top in college football. It also means the performances of their teams will be under intense scrutiny throughout their tenures.