If your image of a college coach was formed by old movies, you probably visualize a benign gent wearing a sweatshirt and a whistle around his neck, urging his boys to do or die for Old Siwash. His wife is a sweet-faced lady who, occasionally, invites team members to the couple’s modest campus home for milk and cookies. As my mom used to say, butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths.
Flash forward to the present and you get a quite-different picture. Mr. Big-Time-College-Basketball-or-Football Coach today holds forth in an office half as large as a football field and fronted by three or four secretaries. A half-dozen assistant coaches (a dozen in football) also scurry to do his bidding. He lives in a mansion, drives one or more luxury “courtesy cars” and belongs to a country club dues-free (the last two are typical perks of his job), and his wife knows Rodeo Drive better than the local malls. When butter enters his mouth it’s usually as an accompaniment to lobster tail.
Maybe better, his lordly aura allows him to escape responsibility for whatever mess his “program” makes; he’s likely to be a control freak, overseeing every facet of his players’ lives, but when something goes wrong he’s nowhere to be seen. Jim Calhoun, the long-time basketball head coach at the U. of Connecticut, sailed serenely into retirement despite his team’s record of NCAA rules violations and sub-normal graduation rates. Roy Williams of North Carolina and Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, other acclaimed “deans” of their profession, are following similar paths in the face of worse transgressions, Carolina’s involving almost two decades of organized academic fraud. (See my blog of July 15 for details.)
Joe Paterno, Penn State’s venerated “JoePa”, almost made it to retirement before it was revealed that his chief assistant coach had perpetrated a long-running, multi-victim child-sex-abuse scheme under his nose. Paterno was fired and died soon afterward, and his statue was yanked from the campus posthumously. Predictably, though, his cult has rallied. The NCAA has restored the gridiron victories it removed from his record, and look for the statue to be polished and reinstalled any day now.
The rise in college coaching salaries and status in recent years has been startling. Around the century’s turn, while I was still columnizing professionally, top annual contracts in the $500,000 area were beginning to raise eyebrows. In no time the average annual figure shot through $1 million. It now presses $2 million with no lid in sight as the elite conferences cash in big from their television networks.
Vexingly, that surge has come at a time when education in America—and especially public education—is under unprecedented financial stress. Thanks to the 2008 recession and the advent of small-government Republican administrations in many statehouses around the land, school budgets from kindergarten through college have been slashed just about everywhere. The crowning irony is that college football’s highest-paid head coach—Nick Saban of the U. of Alabama, who rakes in $7.1 million a year— is employed by the state that has cut school spending most enthusiastically since 2007, the year he was hired. The average teacher in Alabama earns about $45,000 a year, which means that Saban’s salary alone would equal the entire payroll of a good-sized school district in that benighted state.
Things aren’t much different in Arizona, where I live. School budgets there have been under relentless attack in the state legislature in recent years. While taxes are being cut, class sizes rise, “frill” courses such as music and art have been eliminated and many districts charge fees for student participation in extra-curricular activities such as band, theater and sports. Four-day school weeks are being discussed in some cities and school-bus safety is being compromised by the re-tread tires many districts are purchasing to cut costs.
Arizona school funding at the K-12 grades fell so low that in 2013 the state’ s supreme court ruled that it hadn’t been reaching minimum levels mandated by the state’s constitution and ordered that $1.6 billion in reparations be paid out over the next five years. That hasn’t happened; indeed, more education cuts have been instituted while statehouse leaders and the court “negotiate.”
Arizona’s four-year public universities—Arizona State U., the U. of Arizona and Northern Arizona U.—haven’t been spared, their state support declining by 32% between 2007 and last year, and by $99 million more, or about 14%, in the 2015-16 budget just enacted in Phoenix. Yearly in-state tuition at ASU was about $5,000 in 2007. It’s $9,300 now and surely will rise again next term.
Meantime, Arizona’s big-time coaches are doing just fine, thanks. The top-paid two are ASU football boss Todd Graham and U of A basketball coach Sean Miller, each at $2.3 million a year. Rich Rodriguez makes $1.5 million per to coach football at U of A and ASU’s basketball coach Herb Sendek made $1.2 million before he was fired last week. That last action wasn’t good news budgetwise, because Sendek reportedly is due to receive full pay for the remaining two years on his contract, and his successor probably will get a better deal than he did.
Those salary figures don’t include the value of the free cars and club memberships noted above, or, probably, the rent-free use of university facilities for the coaches’ summer camps or income from their booster-sponsored radio and TV shows. Each also gets six-figure annual raises and bonuses for exceeding certain victory totals or achieving post-season appearances. If chopping any of their checks was part of the recent budget discussions it escaped news-media attention.
And as the TV pitchmen say “Wait! There’s more!” ASU’s athletics department is raising $256 million to renovate Sun Devil Stadium, where the football team plays, and while tax money supposedly won’t be used for that purpose the private funds that will be might otherwise have gone elsewhere. After that project is done a similarly costly update is on deck for Wells Fargo Arena, the school’s basketball home.
Arizona kids may be sharing desks, and its families increasingly are buried in college debt, but nothing’s too good for our big-U jocks and their leaders, right? It’s all a matter of getting our priorities straight.