How Jimmy Sexton became college football's most powerful agent
How Sexton became college football's most powerful agent (cont.)
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- When the national title game kicks off on Monday night, agent Jimmy Sexton predicts he'll be miserable. Sexton is the first agent to represent both coaches in a BCS championship game, which means he'll sit in attendance with his three sons, carefully dressed so that his color scheme doesn't hint at an allegiance to Florida State or Auburn.
"I wouldn't miss the game, but even in the regular season it's tough to go to a game where you have two clients," Sexton said. "It's especially tough when it's for the national championship, as one guy will be elated and the other guy will be dejected."
Few figures will loom larger over the game than Sexton. Not only does he represent the Seminoles' Jimbo Fisher and the Tigers' Gus Malzahn, but he also has emerged as a central figure in the University of Texas' coaching search. The specter of the Longhorns' job has hovered over the sport for months, coinciding with a chain reaction of raises for Sexton clients including Fisher, Malzahn, Alabama's Nick Saban and UCLA's Jim Mora. The flurry of speculation and contract extensions has further cemented Sexton's power in college football, something that's grabbed headlines, provided fodder for blogs and petrified fan bases into wondering if their messiah coach might flee. Sexton bristles at the perception of him as a "Darth Vader figure" -- his words -- lording over the sport, but his influence is real.
"He carries a lot of power in college athletics," said former Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton. "When everything happened with Mack Brown at Texas, I said to myself, 'A lot of guys are going to get paid and Jimmy will have a role in that.'"
So how did a former equipment manager with no formal legal training become one of the most powerful figures in college sports? Interviews with dozens of coaches, athletic directors and adversaries reveal a nuanced portrait -- a self-made super-agent who transcends the Jerry Maguire stereotype by specializing in a personal touch.
His genteel drawl conjures Beale Street more than it does Wall Street, as he carries himself with a self-effacing Southern charm. In a movie about his life, a casting director would likely choose John Goodman over Tom Cruise. Sexton is smooth but not slick, affable without being phony and blunt without being offensive.
"I always felt like the best negotiations are where you get what you want, but no one hates you for it," Sexton said. "I'm not trying to go in and make everyone mad and cause an uproar. Get what you can and everyone feels good about it, it's a small world out there, and you go back to the same ADs time and again."
That philosophy sums up how Sexton has managed to represent coaches at Auburn and Alabama, USC and UCLA, and three different coaches at Tennessee over a three-year stretch. Along the way, he's emerged as a confidant to everyone from Bill Parcells to Saban to Tim Tebow.
"Jimmy's very good," said Cincinnati's Tommy Tuberville, Sexton's first coach client. "Nick Saban loses to Auburn and he gets him a $2 million a year raise. That's pretty good."
In 2013, Sexton's 14 college head-coaching clients made nearly $30 million in salary, according to USA Today's coach salary database. In 1995, Bobby Bowden signed the first million-dollar coaching contract in college athletics. In December, Sexton reset the market by getting Saban $7 million a year.
Sexton recently became one of the heads of the football division of entertainment giant CAA, which charges fees on coach contracts between three and four percent. That means CAA collects more than a million dollars annually on Sexton's college coaches' salaries alone. (That doesn't include endorsement deals -- of which agents receive heftier fees -- or Sexton's more than 30 NFL player clients and his booming assistant coach business.)
The intrigue in Sexton stems, in part, from the perceived conflicts of interest that surround his college operation. Sexton represents five of the 14 SEC coaches (CAA represents eight of the 14), and his lengthy client lists mean he often trumpets multiple candidates for the same job, or uses one client's raise as leverage for another. Sexton's job also includes recruiting potential player clients from programs in which he represents the coaches.
Athletic directors acknowledge Sexton's perceived role as puppeteer, but they're also quick to credit him for the relationships he's built. "He's created that position for himself and frankly has done so because he's done an excellent job," said one BCS AD, who asked not to be named. "Does it concern you? Sure. But there are a lot of things you can control and a lot of things you can't."
One thing that can't be denied is the influence Sexton wields in college football, particularly in the Southeast corridor. Is he an opportunistic Southern charmer? Or a hard-nosed power broker? It depends on whom you ask.
Sexton's first coaching client came in 1995, when he helped Tuberville -- then at Ole Miss -- negotiate a contract for $225,000 per year. Driving back to his office in Memphis from Oxford, Sexton recalled thinking, "There's a value here."
Tuberville, who no longer uses Sexton but remains close to him, became a huge advocate, recommending him to coaches like Frank Beamer. Most special teams coaches in the SEC today make more than the $225,000 Tuberville made at Auburn in 1995, and Sexton wisely got in before the salary boom.
"He saw it coming," Tuberville said. "That was his brainchild."
Sexton's most important professional coaching client came to him in the wake of tragedy. Bill Parcells' agent, Robert Fraley, died in a plane crash with golfer Payne Stewart in 1999. At the time, Parcells was in his final season as the New York Jets head coach and general manager. When he eventually began his search for a new agent, he looked at someone who had impressed him across the negotiating table.
Sexton represented three Jets players in the late 1990s: Aaron Glenn, Ray Mickens and Jason Ferguson. It struck Parcells that Sexton "knew that deals had to be good for both sides," a common theme over the years from those who worked closely with Sexton.
Parcells approached Sexton about representing him and encouraged Sexton to expend more energy in representing coaches. "At some point, you're going to get tired of chasing college players all over Mississippi," Parcells recalled telling Sexton. "You should really think about increasing your coaching business."
Sexton represented NBA players for about 10 years, and he even landed Scottie Pippen after a friend sent Sexton an article about Pippen from the Arkansas Democrat. But when Sexton first got married and started a family, he realized that working within the NFL and NBA offered him no offseason. He transitioned out of the NBA in the early 2000s and directed his energy toward coaching clients.
Sexton negotiated Parcells' deal when he went to the Dallas Cowboys in 2003. Parcells liked owner Jerry Jones and didn't want to haggle over money, so he didn't demand one of the top salaries in the NFL. Sexton never pushed Parcells off this stance, which has left a lifetime of goodwill with Jones for Parcells and Sexton.
"At the end of the day, the average person thinks this is about money," Sexton said. "But it's more about relationships."
That's something clients mention consistently -- how Sexton manages to avoid infuriating those on the other side of the table.
"The thing that's really good about him is that he doesn't upset the other side," Beamer said. "You don't want your AD and president upset with you, and he does a great job with that."
Sexton now represents four NFL coaches: Gus Bradley, Dennis Allen, Rex Ryan and Doug Marrone. (Recently fired Jim Schwartz and Rob Chudzinski are also clients.) Parcells encouraged that business, having previously seen Fraley create a niche in the 1980s with Buddy Ryan and Joe Gibbs.
"[Parcells] was the one who really helped me see that," Sexton said. "He said, 'There's a real business here representing coaches. You should do this.' That's how I got started."
Saban began to tell a story. He was attempting to illustrate how big a role Sexton plays in his life. Saban calls Sexton "one of my best friends," as Sexton's family vacations at Saban's lake house. Saban said he knows the latest scores of Parker Sexton, Jimmy's middle son, a top junior golfer.
"There's not many parts of your life you're 100 percent satisfied with," Saban said. "With this one, I'm about just about 100 percent satisfied."
To help explain why, Saban winds back to the end of the 1996 season, when he was still the coach at Michigan State. Saban said he had a chance to leave the Spartans to become the coach of the New York Giants. Saban told the Giants that he needed an answer by a Thursday night, as he had a critical recruiting weekend coming up. He promised his university president that he'd make a decision by 11 p.m.
Saban said Giants co-owner John Mara called to offer him the job on Friday morning. He said he turned it down because he had already informed Michigan State officials that he was staying. Saban blamed his agent at the time -- whom he declined to name -- for spreading word through the New York media that the Giants couldn't pay Saban enough.
"He wanted me to take the job because it was obviously better for him," Saban said. "And that was the moment when I decided Jimmy is just the opposite, and that's unique to most other people in this profession."
Saban and Sexton met in 1993 when Saban worked for the Cleveland Browns and Sexton was flying around with defensive end Reggie White, his first marquee client and the crown jewel of the first-ever NFL free agent class. When Saban accepted the job at Michigan State, he wanted to use an agent, but the university frowned upon the practice.
"That's probably ultimately the reason I left Michigan State," Saban said. "I always felt like I was getting the short end of the stick and had no one to represent me."
When Saban left Michigan State for LSU in November 1999, he used Sexton to negotiate his deal. He has been doing so ever since. Former Saban assistants such as Fisher, Derek Dooley, Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain all became Sexton clients. Saban said he didn't even have to give recommendations; they all saw first-hand how Sexton operated.
"That was one of the things that impressed me," Fisher said. "Nick totally trusted him. That first attracted me to him. In this business, when you get loyalty and honesty, you have to jump all over it."
The Sexton-Saban relationship became a season-long storyline this fall after a pair of Associated Press stories revealed that Sexton had a phone conversation with two University of Texas power brokers last year regarding the possibility of Saban replacing Brown. Saban brushed past a question about the Longhorns' situation in a phone interview this week. Sexton also declined to discuss his conversation, except to say that it was brief and "the whole thing got blown out of proportion." He said he didn't find any reason to even inform Saban of the call.
While the Texas situation led to some uncomfortable questions for Saban and Sexton this year, the inevitability of that job opening up has certainly been good for business. In the past month, Sexton secured raises of at least $1.4 million annually for Saban, Malzahn and Fisher, all of whom have been publicly linked to the vacancy. (UCLA's Mora got a two-year extension, too.)
While representing rival coaches like Saban and Malzahn may appear to be a conflict, none of the clients seem to mind. "He's real up front," Malzahn said. "It's not awkward at all."
Another potentially thorny notion comes from Sexton recruiting players from schools in which he represents the head coach. "If our players choose him, that's great," Malzahn said. "No pressure on either end. He's got his own reputation which is very good on that end."
Saban said there have been "no negatives." He's quick to point out that for most of his tenure at Alabama, Sexton has represented nearly half of the SEC coaches.
"He has a unique way of negotiating things for you without ever causing any road kill," Saban said. "Any time one of these things happens, where I'm staying here, everyone over there is upset because of what happened. That's an art in and of itself."
Lane Kiffin remembers sitting in his office at USC in January 2007 when his phone rang. Kiffin was the Trojans offensive coordinator at the time, and Sexton told him that Saban had interest in hiring him as an assistant for the Crimson Tide. Kiffin said he had never previously spoken to Sexton, but he knew of him because Sexton had worked as the agent for his father, Monte. All these years later, it stuck with Kiffin that Saban trusted Sexton enough bring him to Tuscaloosa for a few days to help him adapt and fill out his staff.
Kiffin eventually hired Sexton. In fact, the pair has grown so close that Kiffin's kids call the agent "Big Jimmy" whenever they see him. Kiffin said he wholeheartedly recommended Sexton to former USC quarterback Matt Barkley, who went with CAA. (He told Barkley, "This is someone that's going to be in your family for the rest of your life, which is unusual in that profession.") When the Trojans fired Kiffin in September, Sexton hopped on the first flight to Los Angeles. Kiffin said Sexton has made "hundreds" of check-in phone calls since.
"A lot of agents make sure they are there the day you get the job, but not many get on a plane and fly cross-country to be there the day you get fired," Kiffin said. He added: "If someone doesn't like Jimmy Sexton, something is wrong that person."
Others have similar sentiments. UCLA AD Dan Guerrero said he appreciates how Sexton has built a personal relationship with him, as they'll have lunch when Sexton is visiting CAA in Los Angeles and not talk about Mora. USC AD Pat Haden said he appreciated the way Sexton served as a "mentor" to Kiffin, while Mississippi State AD Scott Stricklin talked with Sexton for two hours in the parking lot of a Holiday Inn Express in Starkville the day they first met.
Sexton's personal relationships pay dividends, as Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart said he wouldn't have included coach Mark Stoops in last year's interview process if Sexton hadn't brought him forward. (Barnhart had no idea Stoops would be interested in the Wildcats head-coaching opening, but he consulted with Sexton, with whom he's been friends with for 20 years.)
In the coaching business, Sexton has evolved into a connector. Kiffin recently spent eight days in Alabama evaluating the Tide for Saban. Kiffin knows Saban, but he said Sexton was "in the middle of it."
The paths of coaches like Colorado's Mike MacIntyre, Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze and Houston Nutt all demonstrate how Sexton operates. MacIntyre met Sexton as an assistant at Ole Miss, and Sexton helped MacIntrye get an interview with Bill Parcells and the Cowboys. Sexton knew Freeze as a high school coach in Memphis, and when Freeze wanted to get out of Lambuth University, Sexton helped him land a spot on MacIntyre's San Jose State staff. Sexton didn't begin charging MacIntyre for his services until he became the head coach at San Jose State in 2009, just as he didn't start charging Freeze until he landed the head gig at Arkansas State in '11.
"He's been more of a friend along the way than an agent," MacIntyre said. "When you tell people Jimmy Sexton is your agent there's instant credibility. I wouldn't be where I am today without Jimmy."
When Sexton served as an equipment manager at Tennessee under coach Johnny Majors from 1982 to '85, he joked that he always felt the coaches were massively underpaid. Sexton recalls the assistants making around $30,000 at the time, a figure that didn't seem to match how hard they worked.
Sexton lived in the school's athletic dorms with the players, and the hallways unknowingly became his first recruiting grounds. Sexton lived on the same floor as White, the dominant defensive lineman who went on to become his first marquee client.
Before White's final game at Tennessee, the 1983 Citrus Bowl against Boomer Esiason and Maryland, two men approached Sexton on the field. They wanted to lure White to the USFL, and Sexton served as an intermediary. White signed with the Memphis Showboats, and when he left for the NFL in 1985, his agent took a front office job with the Philadelphia Eagles. White then turned to Sexton, who he knew since their days together in the dorms.
"I owe everything to a few people, and Reggie White is one of them," Sexton said. "There's no doubt, he had zero reason to believe in me back then and he did."
Sexton partnered early on with Kyle Rote Jr., a noted former soccer player in Memphis, and they built an empire after signing White. The seminal moment came when White signed with the Green Bay Packers in 1993, the first year of free agency. (A cub SI reporter named Peter King tagged along on Sexton and White's recruiting trip.) Sexton said he knew White would choose Green Bay after a dinner with future teammates at Red Lobster, and the four-year, $17-million contract changed the course of Green Bay's franchise. For Sexton, who was 29 at the time, it changed the path of his career.
"He was the type of guy who wanted to get a deal done," said then-Packers general manager Ron Wolf. "He didn't have any hidden parameters. He was a pleasure to deal with."
There are complications with Sexton, some real and some perceived, that have fueled the mythology around him. Nothing better sums the complex perceptions of Sexton than his relationship with Nutt.
As he does with many young coaches, Sexton looked over Nutt's contract for free when he took his first head-coaching jobs at Murray State and Boise State. When Nutt arrived at Arkansas before the 1998 season, then-Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles refused to negotiate with agents. Numerous old-school ADs held the same philosophy, so Sexton didn't take any money for his services.
"He didn't take any money from me for 15 years," Nutt said. "(My wife) Diana said, 'We need to send Jimmy cookies.'"
Sexton did collect fees from Nutt once he got the Ole Miss job in 2008, but by that point countless media reports had suggested Sexton kept getting Nutt raises for his own benefit. When Nutt did leave, he says he asked Broyles to initiate contact with Ole Miss to let administrators know of his interest in the job. Broyles obliged, and Sexton eventually negotiated the deal.
Nutt is no longer a Sexton client. South Carolina's Steve Spurrier isn't a client either, although he's been listed as one for years. Spurrier has used Sexton for a few endorsements and for help leaving the Washington Redskins in 2003 but does not pay annual fees.
Both effusively praise Sexton, Nutt particularly for Sexton's work in engineering his $4.35 million lump-sum buyout from Ole Miss last January. Nutt parted ways with Sexton because he had interest in recent openings at USF and Colorado. Those were filled by two other Sexton clients, Willie Taggart and MacIntyre.
"Now it's to the point where he has almost the whole world," Nutt said.
He added: "Jimmy and I are still good friends, though. He's given me much more than I've given him."
On Monday night, Sexton will be in the Rose Bowl with his three boys, James III (18), Parker (16) and Blake (12). He is divorced and raises his kids with the help of two nannies, and all were among the eight-person Sexton traveling party at the Sugar Bowl on Thursday. Sexton admits to lacking many hobbies outside of work and family, and he often gets bored toward the end of an off day.
The lengthiest interview for this story came late on New Year's Eve, as Sexton had no plans outside of fielding calls on coaching searches. Sexton insists his job doesn't feel like work.
"He is an absolutely unbelievably hard worker," Kentucky's Barnhart said, "probably to detriment to his own health."
As college football has shifted from the era of Bowden to Saban, the role of an agent has evolved from taboo to mainstream. Former Mississippi State and current Arizona AD Greg Byrne said he consulted with Sexton during the coaching searches that resulted in his hire of Rich Rodriguez in 2011, and Dan Mullen in '08. Sexton represents neither. Barnhart laughed at athletic directors who avoid agents -- often the people closest to coaches -- but pay search firms $75,000 or more. He said an agent such as Sexton can provide an athletic director with "valuable information" that search firms may not be able to.
"It's a really cool thing for an athletic director to say, 'I will not deal with an agent,'" Barnhart said dismissively. "I think those days are gone and are archaic. Times have changed, and you have to recognize change."
That changing environment puts Sexton squarely in the focus for the foreseeable future, with his power -- both real and perceived -- lingering over the sport.
Perhaps Sexton's current standing is best summed up by a recent Kiffin joke. When asked who he thinks will ultimately end up with the vacant Texas position, Kiffin laughed and said: "Whoever Jimmy wants."
Peter King contributed to this story.