Turn on ESPN, read a paper, or listen to sports radio, and you'll likely find a discussion of coaches "on the hot seat." Even coaches with long-term contracts such as Texas A&M's Dennis Franchione make the list.

Because my experience with contracts is primarily limited to buying a house, sports contracts mystify me. I'm not entirely sure why they exist. On one side, you have a sports figure who makes great money and is guaranteed to get paid. On the other side, you have the team/school, which is assured of receiving that person's services for a specific period.

So it's binding.

Except when it isn't.

An example of contract nuttiness happened last week when Nebraska fired its athletic director. Firings happen. But jettisoning someone three months after giving him a five-year extension is weird. Now Nebraska owes Steve Pederson $2.2 million for services rendered, which figures out to $733,000 a month or almost $4,600 an hour.

Not bad for a guy whose football team narrowly beat Ball State and recently suffered its worst home loss in a half-century.

Now varying parties are lining up to decide whether Nebraska is obligated to pay off the contract and whether the school even had grounds to fire Pederson. All I can say is the person getting fired should probably be whoever gave him the contract extension.

Kind of makes you wonder whatever happened to the old-fashioned handshake agreement.

The last known handshake agreement might actually have been when Chuck Stobart was fired as Utah's football coach in 1984. After that season, then-athletic director Arnie Ferrin told the media he and Stobart had reached such an accord. Utah was supposed to look for a new coach, and Stobart was supposed to look for a new job. If neither succeeded, they said they'd revisit their arrangement and possibly team up again.

Looking back, it sounds a little like an Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton situation — bound to end in divorce no matter how many times they marry.

Turned out both Stobart and Utah found other options.

I think I understand the logic behind contracts. The idea is to protect both parties. Still, it seems pretty one-sided to me. In Nebraska's case, Pederson will probably get paid his millions, even if he failed at his job. Then there are those that get great results.

Almost every time a coach succeeds, he gets a raise — whether it's in his contract or not. If he loses and gets fired, they usually have to pay him a lot, too.

When Urban Meyer left Utah for Florida, he had five years left on his contract. Did that bind him to staying? Florida paid four times what he was making at Utah. While it may be technically true Meyer didn't break his contract — he had a $250,000 buyout clause — what did the contract guarantee the U.?

Sometimes it works the other way and the school terminates the contract. Then it only has itself to blame. Yet often the firee still gets a great deal. Gary Crowton had two years remaining on his contract with BYU when he was dismissed, so the university had to pay him approximately $500,000.

Seems contracts today are mostly to protect those who don't do the job they were hired to do. They either fail to win and get paid anyway, or leave early for a better job and get paid even more. Meanwhile, the school gets to look for a replacement and ends up spending even more money.

Contracts make sense when they're actually binding. Teachers, for example, sign contracts to make sure they do their job for the specified time period. But the same rules often don't apply in sports. The two most ineffectual words in the English language: guaranteed contract.

That win-win situation they set up in the first place? Awwww. That didn't really mean anything. That was just fancy talk.

E-mail: rock@desnews.com