Do college football coaches deserve their pay?

Does Steve Spurrier actually earn, in any moral sense, the more than $4 million he is paid as an ostensible public employee? Or is the $7.2 million that Alabama coach Nick Saban pulls down justified?

Mr. Saban’s biographer, Monte Burke, says yes in The Wall Street Journal. A portion of his argument:

Former Alabama President Robert Witt (now the chancellor of the Alabama university system), once told CBS’s “60 Minutes” that Mr. Saban was “the best financial investment this university has ever made.” He has a point.NickSaban_LSU-AL-07t

Mr. Saban had an immediate financial impact on Alabama. In 2007 the school was closing a $50 million capital campaign for its athletic department. After Mr. Saban arrived, the campaign exceeded its goal by $52 million. Alabama’s athletic-department revenue the year before Coach Saban showed up was $68 million. By 2013-14 it had risen to $153 million, a gain of 125%. (The athletic department kicked $9 million of that to the university.) Mr. Saban’s football program accounted for $95 million of that figure, and posted a profit of $53 million.

Mr. Witt said Mr. Saban also played a big role in the success of a $500 million capital campaign for the university (not merely the athletic department) that took place around the time the football coach was hired. Mr. Witt also credited his coach with helping grow Alabama’s enrollment—which stands at more than 36,000, an increase of 14,000 students since 2007. The university managed the neat trick of actually becoming more selective during that time. The year before Mr. Saban arrived, Alabama accepted 77% of its applicants. It now admits a little more than 50%. Mr. Saban’s three national titles at Alabama have helped the university create a winning brand….

Of course such an argument can be mounted for anyone whose hand rests on the money tap that is college football.

But in a larger sense, it’s completely absurd to say that anyone earns that much money supervising a bunch of ostensible students in doing something that has nothing to do with their studies — playing a game. When I say “larger sense,” I mean the view from 30,000 feet — the distance I try (unsuccessfully) to maintain from anything having to do with college football.

But hey, let’s keep it on a simple dollars-and-cents level (as if anyone counts cents any more): Who earns that money that flows into the program’s coffers? The coach or the players? In the NFL, top players make more than the coaches — which makes sense, when you consider who is actually out there courting brain damage and other forms of permanent injury. But am I arguing, as many do, that college players should be paid in accord with the profits they bring in?

No, I’m not. College kids getting paid millions to play a game is more or less as absurd as the coaches getting paid that much. In fact, I have no suggestions, because the problem is far too pervasive, complex and systemic to lend itself to any workable solution.

The problem isn’t that colleges are wasteful in paying coaches this much. The problem is that football brings in this much money. In other words, the problem is that we live in a society in which people value college football to a degree that is far beyond the power of the word “absurd.” And the result is, as the headline I reTweeted a week ago says:

Who is to blame? Pretty much everybody I see when I look around me, a fact borne in upon me at this time of year with all the subtlety of that trash compactor in the Death Star, its walls moving in to impartially crush Luke, Leia and Han.

Which reminds me. You know how much Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford are being paid to reprise their roles? Well, neither do I, but … Oh, never mind…

41 thoughts on “Do college football coaches deserve their pay?

  1. Doug Ross

    A person is worth whatever someone else is willing to pay him. No more, no less. The economic impact that a successful college football team can have on a school and the local economy is significant. People enjoy the experience of game day and watching world class athletes perform. It’s a shared community experience for many of us.

  2. Barry

    As a football fan, I think it’s pretty pathetic that football coaches make as much as they do.

    I think it’s pathetic that society focuses on 18-22 year old young men playing a game.

    I wouldn’t outlaw it. I wouldn’t ban it. I hope more people examine themselves a little.

    No, I am not talking about people who like to enjoy a game or use it as a chance to get with family and friends.

    I am talking about people that spend most of their waking hours focusing on it, reading about it, listening to sports talk radio, being consumed to the point of not liking other people based on the team they support.

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    I agree with everything that Doug and Barry said above.

    And I’m still saying that, as a society, we’re messed up, and the finances of college football provide ample evidence of that.

    1. Doug Ross

      Well, I think people who (insert X) and get paid (insert Y) are not worth their salaries.

      X = play the accordion, Y = $10
      X = create “art” like Picasso or Jackson Pollock, Y = millions
      X = work in high school guidance departments, Y = 75K
      X = take orders at McDonalds and can’t get it right, Y = $7.25/hr
      X = work for the Richland County Election Commission, Y = $70K

      but I’m not the market.

      1. Barry

        Well, maybe some guidance counselors- by the guidance person at my daughter’s school has been amazing to her and invaluable to me over the past 2 years.

  4. Mark Stewart

    Here’s the worst part: The coaches (and AD’s) are public employees. So when they “retire” they continue to earn pensions based on the salary that they were earning. For life.

    Perverse doesn’t even begin to get at it.

    1. Barry

      True- but head coaches like Spurrier don’t get millions from the state. He makes a good salary with the state, but the rest of his salary comes from the other sources (sponsors for his tv show, radio show appearances, shoe and clothing contracts).

      Assistant coaches are well paid – but most don’t make huge salaries for the hours they work. This time of year, an assistant coach at a university is working 90+ hours a week 6 and very often 7 days a week. Some actually sleep at in their offices and don’t go home except maybe a few times a week.

      and of course the hours are the same for assistant coaches at smaller schools- but their salaries are much, much less.

    2. Dave Crockett

      As a former public employee, I feel obliged to note that we can’t retire with FULL benefits until nearly thirty years of service and continuously contributing as much to the retirement system as we do to Social Security. Retiring at less than the full service period quickly diminishes the retirement payout. And even FULL benefits only come to about 55-60 percent of the salary we earned while working (before state and federal taxes are pulled out of them).

      I would note that most all of the athletics folks you refer to at larger schools (coaches and ADs) get salary supplements from their schools’ athletic and alumni associations that often effectively double their state salaries or more (before outside earnings from radio, TV and such), and those supplements and other outside income do NOT go into their state retirement calculations.

      1. Mark Stewart

        True, Dave. However, some have gamed the system so that all payments technically pass through the University, thereby inflating their pension payments. I believe this “loophole” has now been closed by the IRS.

        For an example see: Mike Bellotti ex Head Coach and AD at University of Oregon. Upshot is the future value of his pension exceeds $13 million – or about $600,000 per annum currently.

        1. Dave Crockett

          I’m only referring to public employees in this state. I can’t speak about other state systems.

  5. Bryan Caskey

    I’ll mention something that has not been touched upon yet. In looking at Saban (and Spurrier to a lesser extent), you’re looking at the absolute tip-top of the college football coaching market. They’re the 0.001%. There are lots of coaches who don’t make that much money. Lots.

    For example, a really good Division I-AA head football coach, Jimmeye Laycock, is the highest paid coach at William & Mary. They’re usually in the running for the championship of the FCS each year. In 2011 he was paid $225,000.

    Also, for every single coach (Saban included) will be fired if they have a bad season or two. Job security is non-existent. You’re only as good as your win-loss record that year. How would you like to have your job security depend upon the performance of seventy 18-22 year old boys?

    Take Will Muschamp for example. He was brought in to coach at Florida. After four years of poor performance, he got canned. He’s now an assistant coach at Auburn.

    If you like sky-high expectations, no job security, and moving around, maybe coaching is right for you. Oh, and you have to know how to motivate college boys to play football really well.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      But if you’re Saban, you just need one good year, then you don’t have to work for the rest of your life.

      Not many people would choose that, of course, as most of us want to be active doing something we’re good at.

      So I’ll recast that: If you’re Saban, you just need one good year, and for the rest of your life, it won’t matter what you’re paid.

      Unless, of course, you’re an idiot and spend all the money right way, on the assumption you’ll ALWAYS make that much…

      1. Doug Ross

        So you’re saying you just have to be “lucky” then to have that one good year? Check out the backgrounds of some of these guys and you’ll see they put in a lot of time as underpaid assistants before getting “lucky” enough to become a head coach. Here’s Saban’s resume:

        1972–1974 Kent State (GA)
        1975–1976 Kent State (D. Asst.)
        1977 Syracuse (D. Asst.)
        1978–1979 West Virginia (D. Asst.)
        1980–1981 Ohio State (DB)
        1982 Navy (D. Asst.)
        1983–1987 Michigan State (DB/DC)
        1988–1989 Houston Oilers (DB)
        1990 Toledo
        1991–1994 Cleveland Browns (DC)
        1995–1999 Michigan State
        2000–2004 LSU
        2005–2006 Miami Dolphins
        2007–present Alabama

        18 years working his way up the ladder before finally becoming a head coach at a small school, then another 14 years before winning a national championship. 32 years of luck. Followed by eight years of even more luck at Alabama, producing multiple national championships and 17 first round draft picks (each one a lucky millionaire).

        1. Bryan Caskey

          Doug gets the nuance here. Anyone who will use the word “lucky” in reference to Nick Saban doesn’t have the slightest idea about who Nick Saban is how much work he has put in over the years and how much he still puts in, even though he’s reached the pinnacle of success in his profession.

          Brad, I’m chalking that comment up to the fact that you’re not a football guy.

        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          No, actually I didn’t say that at all. I don’t even see how you think I said that. You must think I’m Bud.

          I meant just what I said.

          Bryan said the job security isn’t great, and I said that doesn’t matter, because you just need one season at such high pay. So they fire you at the end of that season. So what? You still have that one year at $7 million, and after that it doesn’t matter where you work or what you’re paid, because you’re set…

          1. Bryan Caskey

            Sure, for Saban, who’s at the pinnacle of his career after many years putting in countless hours as an assistant, sure. He’s set. He’s not even coaching for the money now. He’s set.

            And yeah, I kinda jumped on you there without carefully thinking about it. I piled on to Doug”s statement.

            Lo siento.

              1. Bryan Caskey

                I think it’s a “late hit”. I’ll take a 15 yard penalty and try to remember to pull up next time.

                This may be a dumb question, but when was the last time you went to a Gamecock football game?

                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  I’m thinking about 10 years ago. I had free tickets, and thought my Dad might enjoy it, so he and I went together. I nearly got into a fight with a loud, hostile drunk right behind us, after he slammed his rolled-up program down hard and furiously onto OUR bench, right between my Dad and me, and I stood up and told him to get control of himself. VERY tense, and it made me worry about my Dad’s heart condition.

                  That’s the sort of association I have with football games.

                  I went to TWO games that one semester I was a USC student, the fall of 1971.

                  I went to the first game because my uncle from Florence asked me to meet him there after the game. I did — walking there from the Honeycombs — and he and my aunt had brought me a ham, which was very welcome. My roommate and I lived off that ham for a week.

                  So then I went to the NEXT game, but nobody gave me a ham, so I didn’t go back.

  6. bud

    Here it is late August with a new college football season set to begin. The pageantry, excitement, anticipation of this most wondrous and uniquely American spectacle is unfolding before our very eyes, ears and other senses. I can smell the popcorn and boiled peanuts now. The many questions to be answered. How will Conner Mitch do with his very limited experience? Can Deshaun Watson stay healthy and at the top of his game? Will the woeful Gamecock defense return to the glory days of 2013? Can the SC State Bulldogs overcome their parent university’s problems and field a competitive team? These and many more plot lines are about to unfold before an eager band of football faithful who hang on every snap of the ball. It is an amazing time of year. A time that will bring joy and heartbreak to 10s of millions.

    So just in time for kickoff here comes ‘Buzzkill Warthen’ to throw this huge bucket of ice cold water on top of the proceedings. I find it incredible sad that Brad can’t appreciate just how incredible and wonderful this time of year is to so many. Yes, its expensive. Yes, just like with any human endeavor, there are problems, injustice, bad behavior and to some extent unjustified salaries. But my word the pleasure and excitement this provides is certainly worth a few problems. I’m sure Steve McQueen made plenty of money playing his role in the execrable “Great Escape”. But it would be a bit unseemly to question whether that money was wasted. After all, one mans pleasure is another mans hell.

    1. Bryan Caskey

      I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with everything Bud said in his first paragraph. (and it was a long one)

      Brad, you should like the fact that there is something that unites people such as bud and me; we’re completely at odds on most all political issues, and we can enjoy the same common sense of community on Saturdays.

      It’s a big part of the community you live in. For someone who’s big about “community”, you shouldn’t scoff so much.


      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        If you a) didn’t like football to begin with, and b) spent your first year working at The State running the newsroom on Saturdays, when the paper was literally in the shadow of the stadium, you would understand the negative associations I have with that sort of “community.”

        In the fall, it would sometimes take me an hour and a half to get to work. The anger that would build up in me standing still in traffic, the resentment of all those thousands of vehicles with their little flapping flags, was a powerful force.

        The thing that got me was, I HAD to be there; it was work. I wanted to be at home with my family on Saturday, instead of working from midday until past midnight. All those people in their garnet and black did NOT have to be there. They were only there for their love of football. So the love of football is not a topic that gives me warm and fuzzy feelings, because it has caused me a LOT of stress…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          My problem isn’t that I hate football qua football so much. Back when I covered prep games for the extinct Memphis Press-Scimitar, I actually enjoyed watching them.

          What gets me, what really ticks me off about it, is the IMPORTANCE people attach to it. If they enjoyed it on the detached level I did covering those games (“Hey, THAT was a nice play…”), I could understand.

          But society goes absolutely ape____ over it at this time of year, and it’s really, truly excessive. Again, the salaries are just an indication of what I’m talking about.

          But you know what? I might, just might, be able to take it graciously if it were ONLY at this time of year. But it dominates sports pages and conversation ALL YEAR LONG, drowning out consideration of superior, more sensible sports during THEIR seasons.

          If we didn’t have the salaries to indicate to us that we’ve gone over the edge, here’s another thing that indicated we’d totally lost our sense of perspective as a society: The moments that Draft Day and Signing Day became Major Events. No games are even being played! There is absolutely nothing to get excited about! But people just get really worked up about these non-events, and it’s completely ridiculous…

          1. Doug Ross

            “My problem isn’t that I hate football qua football so much. ”

            That “qua” there probably says all that needs to be said about your interest in football.

            I thought it was a new abbreviation for quaRTERBACK.

          2. Bryan Caskey

            “But it dominates sports pages and conversation ALL YEAR LONG, drowning out consideration of superior, more sensible sports during THEIR seasons.”

            Objection! Assuming facts not yet in evidence.

            Counsel, what sports exactly do you allege are “superior” and “more sensible”?

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Gimme a break! I conducted a seminar on blogging this morning with a roomful of lawyers!

              (Seriously, it was a fun experience, so just kidding there…)

              1. Bryan Caskey

                A seminar on blogging for lawyers? And you didn’t invite moi?

                /furiously updates Christmas Card list


                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  They were all in one firm that happens to be our client.

                  When YOUR firm hires us, I can do a seminar for YOU. Which reminds me; I have a portfolio I’ve been meaning to give you…

                  (How was that? Too strong? Not enough? I’m still trying to get the hang of this “sales” thing…)

  7. clark surratt

    College football — like pro sports, television, movies, pop concerts, etc.– is entertainment. The stars of entertainment get big money because people are willing to pay. Until I came to this simple realization, big coach and player salaries bothered me, too.
    I don’t not like state taxpayer subsidy of coaches pay with their state employee benefits. If not for that, however, I doubt if SC State could even field a team.

  8. Phillip

    “Mr. Witt also credited his coach with helping grow Alabama’s enrollment—which stands at more than 36,000, an increase of 14,000 students since 2007….Mr. Saban’s three national titles at Alabama have helped the university create a winning brand….”

    If Mr. Witt is right, we’re looking at this question backwards. If students are deciding where to attend college based upon the success and the “winning brand” of its football program, we as a nation and society have problems that go far deeper than the question of whether or not a coach deserves his high salary.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Oh, no question about it. We most certainly do “have problems that go far deeper than the question of whether or not a coach deserves his high salary.”

      Far deeper.

      To say again what I said above: I’m not saying we should pay Spurrier less, or that Alabama should pay Saban less. I’m not saying the Legislature or Congress should pass laws limiting coaches’ pay. I’m not saying players should be paid.

      There isn’t any one thing we can do, on the small or large scale, to address the problem.

      The problem is fundamental, pervasive, ubiquitous.

      The problem is US as a society, and what we value.

      The salaries are just a glaring sign of the problem.

      1. Doug Ross

        Talk to Dr. Pastides then. Ask him why they appear to be more interested in football and “user experience” than academic achievement. Ask if its in the best interest to keep expanding enrollment and building new off campus apartments. But before you do that, look at HIS salary (and perks) and realize he’s driven by the same profit motive that drives those coaches.

        1. Doug Ross

          “University of South Carolina trustees voted Friday to give president Harris Pastides a raise that would put his total compensation at more than $1 million by 2017.

          The board recommended the USC Foundation increase Pastides’ compensation, paid out of the foundation’s privately raised money, to $503,800 a year – a $108,800 increase.

          The foundation must give final approval to the pay increase. But that approval is little more than a formality.

          Pastides’ annual state-paid salary – $286,200 a year – will remain unchanged. However, his total base salary — including state and foundation money – would increase to $790,000, if the foundation approves the increase.”

          Read more here:

        2. Kathryn Fenner

          Why does the amount of Pastides’ salary necessarily allow us to draw a conclusion about his motivation?

          1. Doug Ross

            Well, do you think he’d do it for LESS? Would he do as Brad suggested and take the million and quit and live off that for ten years? Doubt it. I am pretty sure he knows what his counterparts make and came up with a list of reasons why he deserved a million.

            Apparently the concern over income inequality doesn’t extend to university presidents. And I don’t begrudge him trying to maximize his income. That’s what motivates many people, especially high performers.

          2. Kathryn Fenner

            That does not follow logically. My husband is not motivated by his salary. He loves his work. Proving some obscure theorem literally keeps him awake at night. However, if his salary were cut, he would not like it, and he might well seek alternative employment.

    2. Bryan Caskey

      “If students are deciding where to attend college based upon the success and the “winning brand” of its football program, we as a nation and society have problems that go far deeper than the question of whether or not a coach deserves his high salary.”

      And if the whole college system is guilty, then isn’t this an indictment of our educational institutions in general? I put it to you, Greg – isn’t this an indictment of our entire American society? Well, you can do whatever you want to us, but we’re not going to sit here and listen to you badmouth the United States of America. Gentlemen!

      [Leads the Deltas out of the blog, all humming the Star-Spangled Banner]

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