SOMEWHERE HIGH ABOVE Mississippi, the super agent some call the most powerful man in college football is simultaneously clutching his knee with his left hand and an armrest with his right. His eyes are tightly closed.
Jimmy Sexton is riding in a King Air 200, which bounces like a yo-yo through heavy turbulence from a slow-moving thunderstorm. He opens his eyes and shouts at the two pilots in the cockpit.
"Hey, guys, is it going to be like this [the] whole way?" Sexton asks them.
"We hope not," one of them says. "We're trying to climb higher to get above it."
"How long have we been in the air?" Sexton asks out loud to no one in particular.
It had been only 14 minutes.
"Great," Sexton says. "This is going to be great for your story. The guy who controls everything is freaking out at 18,000 feet."
Indeed, the short flight from Oxford, Mississippi, to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in the late afternoon on Nov. 7 is one of the rare occasions in which Sexton, the agent behind the careers of many of college football's most successful coaches, doesn't seem completely in control.
BEFORE THIS COLLEGE football regular season ended, there were more than a dozen head-coaching openings, including Power 5 jobs at schools such as Miami, Missouri, South Carolina, USC and Virginia Tech. A handful of other jobs opened as soon as the regular season ended, including Georgia, Rutgers and Virginia, in what might be the most active firing-and-hiring season in recent college football history.
While there's uneasiness at football offices from coast to coast, the one certainty is that the decision-makers at many of them will have Sexton on speed dial. He's the go-between for many coaches and the athletic directors who want to hire them.
In many ways, Sexton drives the marketplace when it comes to college football coaches. With a roster so deep, there's a good chance some of his clients are going to be fired and others are going to be hired -- sometimes for the same job.
Sexton is the co-head of the football division of Creative Artists Agency, which represents more than 100 professional players and more than 50 FBS coaches. He personally reps more than a dozen FBS coaches, including Alabama's Nick Saban, Auburn's Gus Malzahn, Florida State's Jimbo Fisher and UCLA's Jim Mora.
That's why he is considered one of the most powerful people in the sport, even if the 52-year-old single father of three sons doesn't like the label very much.
"I don't really understand it," Sexton said. "I don't try to be influential. I just try to build good relationships. In this business, it's all about the relationships you have with your clients and the people who are hiring them."
Earlier this year, Forbes estimated that Sexton has negotiated about $742.5 million in contracts for NFL players and college coaches, earning about $24.8 million in commissions (the industry average is about 3 to 4 percent). He recently negotiated huge deals for NFL clients including Philip Rivers, Ndamukong Suh and Julio Jones.
"He's never pissed anybody off," Saban said. "He's always done great for me, and I really appreciate it. Not once has somebody been upset about the negotiations. You really don't want to ruin relationships over those kinds of things."
Sexton always seems to be on top of everything happening in the coaching world, even if he is rarely in one place for very long. His iPhone is constantly in his hand and his voice mailbox always seems to be full when he doesn't answer. He has probably accumulated more than one million frequent-flyer miles since football season kicked off in early September.
"He doesn't slow down," Malzahn said. "The great thing about Jimmy is that he's wide awake if you call him at 6 a.m. and he's wide awake if you call him at 1 a.m. He's always there."
Last Saturday, Sexton had clients on opposite sidelines in three of the sport's biggest rivalries: Alabama (Saban) vs. Auburn (Malzahn), Florida (Jim McElwain) vs. Florida State (Fisher) and UCLA (Mora) vs. USC (Clay Helton).
In those games, Sexton says it's hard to cheer for one team.
"I think sometimes if you catch yourself rooting for a guy, you're rooting for the guy who needs it most," Sexton said. "It's hard. It's good for your business, but sometimes they're beating each other.
"In a perfect world for business, you'd want them all to win enough to where they'd get new deals, but it doesn't work out that way."
Sexton works closely with CAA agents Trace Armstrong -- who represents Ohio State's Urban Meyer, Notre Dame's Brian Kelly and Penn State's James Franklin -- and Walker Jones in managing the firm's college coaches. They oversee a handful of other junior agents and about 30 employees in offices in Atlanta, Memphis and Nashville.
As the dominoes started to fall in recent days, Sexton was right in the middle of the action, landing the two premier jobs for two of his clients. Helton, who has a 6-2 record in two stints as USC's interim coach, landed the Trojans' job, and Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart was tabbed by Georgia to replace Mark Richt, who was fired after 15 seasons. The two biggest openings in the country were filled by clients who had never before been permanent head coaches.
Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, another Sexton client who was fired as Florida's head coach last year, is a candidate for the South Carolina job.
"People talk about how we're going to make so much money because there are so many open jobs and we're going to move our people around," Sexton said. "I don't look at it like that. I look at it like there are going to be a bunch of schools open, and we're going to place our clients at the best places for them to succeed. That's really what it's all about."
Some of Sexton's clients are already trying to land the same jobs. For example, Indianapolis Colts associate head coach Rob Chudzinski is a candidate at Miami, along with former Rutgers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano and former Hurricanes coach Butch Davis, both Sexton clients.
In many ways, Sexton's role as adviser to so many coaches seems like a walking contradiction.
"If a job came open and another one of Jimmy's guys was up for it, I don't think he has the power to tell an athletics director, 'Here's your guy,'" said Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, who is represented by Sexton. "You have to think that he wouldn't push one over the other and would push both equally."
SOMETIMES, THE TOPSY-TURVY world of college football puts Sexton in uncomfortable situations. In some instances, he has been accused of having too much influence, as well as having the ability to pull too many strings behind the scenes.
Last year, for instance, Florida fired Muschamp, a Sexton client, and replaced him with McElwain, a Sexton client, then used Sexton's expertise in negotiating McElwain's $7 million buyout at Colorado State, a complicated process that included the scheduling of a future game between the schools as compensation. The Gators then paid Muschamp a $6.3 million buyout for the remaining four years on his contract and watched as Sexton landed Muschamp a deal as the defensive coordinator at Auburn for $1.6 million a year, making him the highest-paid assistant in the country.
"Obviously, Jimmy was Will's agent and he's Mac's agent, but he didn't push Jim McElwain on us," Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said. "It's our job to find the coaches. It's not Jimmy Sexton's job. The University of Florida is hiring its coaches, and if they work out great or don't work out, it's on us. It's on nobody else. It's on me.
"In my dealings with Jimmy, the bottom line is I find him trustable. When he tells you something, it's the truth. Obviously, he's an agent and he does what he does. ... He's been a straight shooter and I respect him for that."
But that wasn't the extent of Sexton's involvement.
Freeze was also one of the Gators' top targets -- until he signed a four-year contract extension that boosted his salary from $3 million to $4.5 million annually to stay with the Rebels.
Another example of Sexton's clout: In 2013, with Mack Brown on the hot seat at Texas, Sexton took a 45-minute phone call with former Texas Regent Tom Hicks and current Regent Wallace Hall Jr. about Saban's interest in replacing Brown. According to e-mails obtained by the Associated Press in November of that year, Sexton told the Texas officials that Saban would consider leaving Alabama for Texas and that coaching the Crimson Tide had put Saban under "special pressure."
"I don't hire the coach. I've never hired a coach. Contrary to what people might believe, I never hired a coach at Tennessee." Agent Jimmy Sexton, a Tennessee alum.
Saban, who said he was unaware of the meeting, dismissed the idea that he'd leave Alabama and joked that he was too old to start over at another school.
But even so, when Texas eventually fired Brown, Sexton was able to negotiate new contracts for Saban, Fisher, Malzahn and Mora at their current schools after they were linked as potential candidates to coach the Longhorns.
At one point, Tennessee (Sexton's alma mater) hired three of his clients consecutively. Sexton represented former Volunteers coach Phillip Fulmer, who guided UT to a 1998 national championship and was fired after the 2008 season. Then-UT athletics director Mike Hamilton hired Kiffin to replace Fulmer. Hamilton then hired Derek Dooley when Kiffin bolted for USC after only one season with the Volunteers in 2009.
"I don't hire the coach. I've never hired a coach," Sexton said. "Contrary to what people might believe, I never hired a coach at Tennessee.
"I remember the Lane Kiffin deal like it was yesterday. They let Fulmer go and there was a two- or three-week gap in between. Mike Hamilton called me and said, 'I need to go talk to somebody. I can't go talk to anybody for two or three more weeks because everybody is still playing. Who can I go talk to?' I told him to fly Lane Kiffin to Atlanta and talk to him there. They hired him and the rest is history."
While Sexton has some influence in which coaches are hired, he doesn't have much say in whether they'll succeed. Some of his clients, such as Saban, have been wildly successful, while others such as Dooley and recently fired Rutgers coach Kyle Flood struggled.
"Bill Parcells used to say to me that they don't sell insurance for this business," Sexton said. "In other words, you can't insure success. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't."
Because many of Sexton's clients compete against one another, he often toes a fine line in regards to what he divulges from his conversations with them. Some of the information his clients share with him might be considered state secrets.
For instance, Sexton was told earlier this season that quarterback Jake Coker wasn't going to start against Ole Miss on Sept. 19, a decision Saban didn't tell the media. When Sexton talked to Freeze later in the week, he couldn't tell him that Crimson Tide backup Cooper Bateman was going to start.
"I've been with the guy since 1997 and never once have I felt like I couldn't trust him with anything," Saban said. "Anything I've ever told him or asked him, even though he represents a lot of guys, I still think I can trust the guy. He never tells me anything about the other guys, and I never ask him. I never put him in that situation. He's never, ever told me something that I thought I shouldn't know about somebody else. That's why you can trust him."
In the end, both Crimson Tide quarterbacks played in a 43-37 loss to the Rebels, which was Alabama's only defeat of the regular season.
"I would never expect -- and nor would he -- ever cross that line," Freeze said. "I'm totally confident that he would protect anything that I share with him, as he would with his other clients."
ACTING LIKE SWITZERLAND in many of the sport's fiercest rivalries isn't exactly easy. On Nov. 6, the day before Sexton watched a pair of his coaches lead their teams in two of the biggest SEC games of the season, he flew home to Memphis after spending 10 consecutive days on the road.
When Sexton is away, a full-time nanny and assistant manage his house and help care for his two younger sons, Parker, 18, who is headed to the University of Texas on a golf scholarship, and Blake, 14. His oldest son, James III, 20, is a sophomore at Ole Miss.
Sexton is constantly juggling his sons' activities, along with the needs of his clients. This week, for instance, Sexton was working on job openings while also attending three of his youngest son's basketball games. When his sons were growing up, he often attended their Pop Warner football games in the morning, and then they jumped on a plane with him to attend a college football game.
"It's amazing how he juggles everything and cares for his boys," said Colorado's Mike MacIntyre, one of Sexton's clients. "That's what makes me feel good about him. I trust him a ton, but I even trust him more when I see how he is with his boys."
After returning from his extended business trip, Sexton planned to spend a rare night at home. He lives in the suburbs of Memphis on an expansive property he shares with the parents of former Alabama and current Chicago Bears offensive lineman Barrett Jones.
But while driving to a restaurant in Memphis, a friend of Sexton's called from Oxford and urged him to come there for dinner. Sexton had planned to drive to Ole Miss the next morning to watch the Rebels play Arkansas before flying to watch the Crimson Tide play.
After a five-minute phone call, Sexton pulled a U-turn on Poplar Avenue in his Range Rover and headed back to his house. After packing an overnight bag and calling his nanny to make sure she'd be there to care for his chocolate lab, Shaq, he made the 70-mile drive to Oxford.
Soon, Sexton was having dinner with a few close friends at a trendy new restaurant on the square. He mingled with Sean and Leigh Ann Tuohy, the Ole Miss grads made famous in the movie "The Blind Side." A few minutes later, Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, one of Sexton's most famous clients and a close friend, stopped by his table to say hello.
Early Saturday, Sexton attended parents' weekend at his son's Ole Miss fraternity, purchased a pullover jacket for his youngest son and even took a telephone call from a Power 5 athletic director looking for a new head coach.
He then spent a few hours in the Ole Miss football offices, where he watched Florida struggle to beat Vanderbilt 9-7 to win the SEC East, which, as part of McElwain's contract, earned the coach a $37,500 bonus in his first season. Then Sexton watched the Rebels play the Hogs from Freeze's suite at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Sexton kept one eye on the TV, watching Fisher's Florida State team stay close with No. 1 Clemson before the Tigers eventually won the game, 23-13.
Former NFL and USC defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, whose son, Chris, is the Rebels' defensive line coach, also watched the game from Freeze's suite. It was his first time watching the Rebels play in person. When Kiffin mentioned that he'd never watched Alabama play in person, either, Sexton offered him a seat on his plane and a chance to go watch Lane Kiffin, Monte's oldest son, as well as a return flight after the game.
On the phone before the game, Sexton had jokingly asked Freeze to make sure his team was ahead by three touchdowns at halftime so he wouldn't miss Alabama's kickoff. Instead, the Rebels and Razorbacks were tied at 17 at the half when he left the stadium. Once the plane landed in Tuscaloosa more than an hour later, the Hogs and Rebels were deadlocked at 31 heading into the fourth quarter.
After the plane landed on the rain-slicked runway at Tuscaloosa Regional Airport, Sexton and his party climbed into a pickup truck. His son Blake and his friend, who also attended the SEC doubleheader, noticed a gun rack -- complete with guns -- on the truck's ceiling.
"Don't worry," the driver told them. "They're not loaded."
Welcome to Tuscaloosa.
A few minutes later, Sexton was behind the wheel of a rental car, hoping to beat traffic to watch the end of the Ole Miss game. Sexton used several side streets to avoid the crowds on Paul W. Bryant Drive and pulled into a parking space adjacent to Bryant-Denny Stadium.
He was able to watch the end of the Ole Miss game in the North Field Suites. Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry caught a pass on fourth-and-25 and wildly lateraled over his head to tailback Alex Collins, who ran 31 yards for a first down. Meanwhile, Sexton's assistant, Autumn Clark, was hiding under a table, unable to watch the dramatic ending. Clark played basketball for Freeze in high school and also worked for him at Ole Miss until Sexton hired her.
She might have been the only person in Bryant-Denny Stadium who wasn't cheering when Arkansas upset Ole Miss 53-52 in overtime. The Razorbacks' victory meant Alabama would win the SEC West if it won its final three conference games.
Sexton spent the next three hours watching the Crimson Tide dismantle then-No. 2 LSU 30-16 from a luxury suite. He spent much of the night talking to Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, with whom he's worked on NFL deals in the past. Sexton also showed plenty of interest in a game on one of the TVs: Auburn and Malzahn were upsetting Texas A&M and Sumlin 26-10 on the road. The Tigers were coming off back-to-back losses and desperately needed a victory.
"We need a couple of our guys to rebound," Sexton said.
Just before midnight, Sexton made his way through the crowd to wait outside Alabama's locker room, where he greeted Kiffin and Smart as they made their way off the field. Sexton would have to wait a while to see Saban, who spent more than an hour mingling with recruits and filming his weekly TV show.
Sexton sometimes avoids seeing coaches after games, especially if two of his clients were coaching against each other.
"I don't love going to the games where I have both coaches," Sexton said.
SEXTON WASN'T EVEN an agent when he helped negotiate his first deal. He was a 20-year-old equipment manager at Tennessee in 1983, when Volunteers defensive end Reggie White was considered one of the premier prospects in the draft. During a walk-through practice at the Citrus Bowl, two men in trench coats approached Sexton. One of them was Pepper Rodgers, coach of the Memphis Showboats of the up-and-coming United States Football League, and the other was Robert Fraley, an agent. They knew Sexton and White were close friends and shared a dorm suite at UT.
"It was like a scene out of a movie," Sexton said.
"Do you know how much money Lawrence Taylor makes in the NFL?" Fraley asked Sexton.
"He's a great player," Sexton said. "How much does he make?"
"He makes $400,000," Fraley said. "He's the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL. We want you to go in there and tell Reggie White we're going to offer him $1.5 million as soon as the game is over tomorrow night."
Sexton ran into the locker room and found White.
"Big Dog, you're about ready to get paid," Sexton told him.
Later that night, Sexton and White discussed the deal in their hotel room. White told Sexton he'd been contacted by a few agents but didn't know any of them. He asked Sexton to represent him.
The next day, Sexton called his father, a dentist in Memphis.
"Whatever you do, you better be careful," his father told him.
After Tennessee defeated Maryland 30-23 in the Citrus Bowl, Rodgers and Fraley found Sexton on the sideline. They handed him a manila envelope that contained a USFL contract.
The next day, Sexton went home to Memphis for the Christmas holidays. Rodgers called him and asked him to invite White to the Liberty Bowl. White agreed to come to the game, but he wanted a date with actress Vanessa Williams, who was singing the national anthem. Their prospective romance ended after a short conversation in a skybox. The date never happened.
Rodgers and Fraley sent Sexton to the Hula Bowl, a college football all-star game in Hawaii, to keep a close eye on White. When Sexton arrived at his hotel, a man approached him in the lobby. The man told Sexton to leave White alone, which Sexton believed was a warning from the NFL.
Eventually, White decided to sign a five-year, $4 million contract with the Showboats, and Sexton had an attorney finalize the deal. White played two seasons in Memphis before the USFL collapsed in 1985, and then he signed a four-year, $1.85 million deal with the Philadelphia Eagles, who held his NFL rights.
"I started to think it was a viable business," Sexton said.
"Most of these guys can do anything. Nick Saban could run General Motors. He just happens to be a football coach." Jimmy Sexton
After finishing his final year at Tennessee in 1984, Sexton planned to attend law school. But Don Kessinger, a former MLB shortstop, and Kyle Rote Jr., a former pro soccer player, offered Sexton a position at their fledgling sports agency. One of Sexton's first clients was Scottie Pippen, a budding basketball star from Central Arkansas.
Sexton represented NBA players for about 10 years before transitioning to work full-time with NFL players and coaches. His first coaching client was then-Ole Miss coach Tommy Tuberville. He asked Sexton to examine his contract, and Sexton negotiated a clause into the deal that made it easier for Tuberville to leave if the school's chancellor or athletics director left. In 1999, Tuberville left for Auburn -- shortly after he said he'd leave Ole Miss in a "pine box" -- and had to pay the Rebels only a $100,000 buyout.
One of the biggest breaks in Sexton's career came amid tragedy in 1999. Fraley, who had approached Sexton at the Citrus Bowl more than 15 years earlier, died in the same plane accident that also killed PGA golfer Payne Stewart. Fraley represented New York Jets coach Bill Parcells, who soon hired Sexton as his agent. Parcells liked how Sexton negotiated contracts for a handful of players who signed with the Jets.
"Parcells had a huge impact on me, probably more than any other guy in the business," Sexton said. "He was very much a mentor to me as far as convincing me that this was a huge business. He would tell me, 'Jimmy, you don't get it. The players' business is great, but the coaching side is where nobody is and there's a huge need for it.' He really pushed me that way."
Sexton then landed another big client when Saban hired him to negotiate his contract when he left Michigan State for LSU after the 1999 season. Current NCAA president Mark Emmert, then the LSU chancellor, was on the other end of the negotiating table.
"I remember when I asked Mark Emmert for $1.2 million for Nick Saban in 1999," Sexton said. "It's all I could do to hold a straight face. It really was. When he said yes, I was like, 'Oh, my gosh!'
"That's not even competitive anymore."
At a Final Four press conference in 2009, the late Myles Brand, Emmert's predecessor as NCAA president, questioned schools' roles in skyrocketing salaries being offered to coaches.
"You have to ask some very hard questions, whether this is really in tune with the academic values, whether we've reached a point already that these high salaries and packages for coaches has really extended beyond what's expected within the academic community," Brand said.
But Sexton said the market is what has driven the rise in compensation.
"Most of these guys can do anything," Sexton said. "Nick Saban could run General Motors. He just happens to be a football coach."
This season, Saban is college football's highest-paid coach, earning more than $7 million in base salary and outside income.
Sexton negotiated that deal, of course, just like he did when he helped the Crimson Tide land Saban in January 2007. Two years after guiding LSU to the 2003 BCS national championship, Saban left to coach the Miami Dolphins. His two mediocre seasons in the NFL ramped up speculation that Saban would return to college football.
After repeatedly being asked about the Crimson Tide's opening, Saban famously told reporters, "I guess I have to say it: I'm not going to be the Alabama coach."
But Sexton had been talking to then-Alabama athletics director Mal Moore behind the scenes. When the Dolphins' season ended, Moore flew to South Florida. However, Saban refused to meet with him. After spending a couple of days in a hotel room a block from Saban's house, Moore called Sexton out of desperation.
"Jimmy, we've been talking about this for a month," Moore said. "He won't even meet with me. We've got to make this happen."
"Mal, just be patient with him," Sexton said. "You've got to hang in there. Do not get on that plane and go back to Tuscaloosa."
"Don't worry," Moore said. "I'm taking this plane to Cuba if Nick Saban isn't on it."
The next day, Saban met with Moore and agreed to take the Alabama job.
"Before I ever went to Miami, Jimmy told me, 'You've got to make a decision, man. Is your legacy going to be as a college coach or do you want to take the next step and take a challenge?'" Saban said. "I think he saw after I was in Miami for two years that I was a little frustrated."
Now in his ninth season at Alabama, Saban has won three national championships and has the Crimson Tide on the brink of reaching the College Football Playoff for the second straight year.
Sexton figures to have his hands in many of the high-profile decisions that are about to be made for schools hoping to land another coach who can be a difference-maker.
FANS WON'T SEE the man working the deals in the background, and Sexton wouldn't have it any other way.
"The people that think he desires attention or wants it don't know him at all," Freeze said. "He'd rather be in a corner unnoticed than to be talked about in that light."
Sexton is not out front in press conferences announcing the contracts he negotiated. Instead, he prefers for his clients to receive the attention. In fact, a Google images search returns few photographs of him.
"I try to stay back in the weeds," Sexton said. "Where I see coaches and players have problems is when the agent tries to become part of the show. You're an agent. You're only trying to facilitate something for your client, and that's your job. It's not to say, 'Hey, look, I'm Jimmy Sexton.' I think my clients like the fact that I don't try to find attention. I want to be the exact opposite of what the stereotype is of an agent."
But, like on that plane headed for Tuscaloosa, Sexton can't control everything. As his influence has been felt across the college landscape, his reputation precedes him.
After he wandered onto the field after Saban's Crimson Tide defeated Georgia 32-28 in the 2012 SEC championship game, fans celebrated the man who brought them the title. Or at least brought them the coach who delivered it.
A chant began to echo across the Alabama student section.
"Jim-my Sex-ton! Jim-my Sex-ton!"
He couldn't find an exit soon enough.