Given the grey, budgetary realities that surround a typical state university, these numbers will boggle the mind. According to USA Today, salaries of new head football coaches at the 120 bowl-eligible schools increased by 35 percent in 2011. The average pay has now ballooned to $1.5 million annually. That’s an increase from $1.1 million. Over the last six seasons, football coach salaries have risen by an astonishing 55 percent. Think about that. In an era of stagnating and falling wages nationally, compensation for coaching a college football team traces a trend line that rises like a booster’s adrenaline during bowl season. It doesn’t matter how bad the tuition hikes, the furloughs or the layoffs might be: the dynamic of paying football coaches more continues unabated. The question is, "How?" Not just, “How is this possible given the stark economic realities of most institutions?” But how are schools this shameless, given the horrific season of scandal the NCAA football world just endured?
A constant refrain by the yipping heads of the SportsWorld is that the NCAA is on a toboggan ride toward change. Scandals at the most high-profile institutions in the land—Ohio State, Miami and Penn State—have shown, supposedly, that the time has come for reform. Change, they say to us, in on the march. Revenue producing sports, we are told, can no longer function in their current form. An NCAA report showed that just fourteen of the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision schools made money from campus athletics in the 2009 fiscal year, down from just twenty-five the year before. Public universities, particularly in an era of austerity, preach, with a catch in their throat, that the revenue just isn’t there.
The rise in coaching salaries reveal all this soul-searching to be a fraud. College presidents still treat football like a prize pig to be protected at all costs despite the fact that more than three-fourths of them don’t “believe that big-time intercollegiate athletics are sustainable in their current form.”
The proof, however, is in their actions. Ohio State University, one of the schools so touched by scandal, landed the biggest free-agent fish, hiring former Florida head coach Urban Meyer for $24 million over six years. At Penn State, after the hiring of New England Patriots assistant Bill O’Brien to replace Joe Paterno, O’Brien fired more than a half-dozen assistants and now the public state college will be paying $4.4 million in severance. This number doesn’t include what will be paid to Paterno or to quarterbacks coach Mike McQueary, who is currently on “administrative leave” as a prosecutorial witness against former assistant/accused child predator Jerry Sandusky. But Ohio State and Penn State, for all the slathered scandal across their campuses, have football programs that propel athletic departments toward positive total revenue. For most schools, this isn’t close to the case. Instead, you get the University of Maryland paying former Coach Ralph Friedgen $2 million to go home and not coach, while cutting numerous teams from the athletic department. But whether a school is generating revenue or taking an awful bath, the coaching arms race continues. Penn State emeritus professor John Nichols, chair of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, a faculty group advocating for athletics reform, said of the head coaching wage hikes, “This just shows…the difficulty of bringing (football) into the right proportion, the right balance with the academic mission.”
For the college presidents crying poor while continuing to pay these salaries, the complaints are pathetic. The comparisons to Wall Street are also obvious and unflattering. After numerous bubbles burst, we were told that the Financial Titans were “re-examining priorities.” Politicians fulminated against executive pay while raking in contributions from these same investment-casinos. When the entire economy almost imploded in 2008, and, as comedian Patton Oswalt said, “your money was on fire,” we were promised reform at the legislative level. Instead, Wall Street was bailed out, and their debt shifted onto our shoulders. But a discussion about Wall Street excess and corruption only became real when several hundred brave souls went to Zuccotti Park and proclaimed it Liberty Plaza. Change to the NCAA—whether it’s paying players, reigning in coaches salaries, or “bringing football into the right proportion” – will only happen if students, professors and players take this decision out of the hands of their school presidents and bring it into the campus square: a campus square they have chosen to occupy until the priorities of the university cease to revolve around being, first and foremost, a minor league for the NFL.
[Dave Zirin is the author of “The John Carlos Story” (Haymarket) and just made the new documentary “Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.]