NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – The players at Texas and Alabama will compete Thursday night for the chance to be called national champions and for a beautiful crystal trophy to be placed outside their locker room.
Their coaches have even more at stake.
Mack Brown of Texas stands to make $450,000 if he leads the Longhorns past Alabama in the BCS championship game. If the Crimson Tide wins, Nick Saban would get $200,000 on top of the $200,000 he’s already earned by making it to the national title game.
All that is in addition to what Brown and Saban, two of the highest-paid coaches in the business, already receive. Brown recently had his salary permanently increased to $5.1 million a year. Saban signed an extension that makes his deal worth $4.7 million annually.
That’s nearly $10 million a year for two men to coach football. And even though they work on campuses where the sport is king, the staggering salaries put a laser point on a broader debate in academia: When the average college professor makes around $115,000 and not a single college player earns a paycheck, is a college football coach worth that kind of money?
“From a business standpoint, if you asked CEOs in the state of Texas, they’d agree with it,” Brown said Tuesday. “And if you ask other people, they might not, because when the football coach makes more than the university president, it’s hard to understand, and I get that.”
But UT’s president is one of the most unapologetic backers of Brown and the money he makes.
“In an era of budget cuts in higher education across the country, I am one of very few presidents who does not also have to bail out athletics with subsidies and loans,” Bill Powers recently wrote in his blog on the school Web site, justifying Brown’s raise.
The statement speaks to truths on both sides of the debate.
It’s true that, under Brown, Texas football revenues have increased from $21 million to $87.5 million in 12 years and that the program is not only self-sustaining, but has given $6.6 million back to the academic arm of the school in the past four years.
It’s also true that the football program’s contribution is only a tiny fraction of Texas’ approximately $1.3 billion academic operating budget, and that the country’s economic crisis has caused almost every UT department to cut costs.
Accounting professor Dr. Michael Granof, a member of the faculty council that recently passed a nonbinding resolution calling Brown’s salary “unseemly and inappropriate,” says the UT speech communications department recently had to cut $100,000 from its budget and the business department has laid off 16 staff employees.
“I think it’s criminal to have a university paying $5 million for a non-academic endeavor,” said Dr. Nathan Tublitz, an Oregon professor who leads the reform-minded Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, “especially when universities are cutting classes, putting faculty on furloughs, making life harder for students all across the board. It makes no sense.”
According to an NCAA study, 100 of the 119 athletic programs with Division I football lost money in fiscal 2006. Texas and Alabama are among the few who turned a profit.
Asked if a football coach is worth $5 million, Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds said: “Probably not, but it’s the marketplace.” He said the salary helps eliminate the risk of Brown leaving for a TV job or the NFL.
“I’ve been in the business for 32 years and I’ve been through good times, bad times, horrendous times,” Dodds said. “These are good times and $5 million is worth it.”
That’s also the general feeling at Alabama, where memories of coach Bear Bryant’s glory days endure and the faithful have been starving for a national title since 1992. In Tuscaloosa, Saban’s hiring and the subsequent raises in the past three years are widely seen as a good investment.
In the 12 months ending June 30 before this championship season even began the Tide football program brought in $38.2 million. That was a 40 percent increase over the year before Saban was hired, and compares favorably with the 27 percent decrease in corporate profits in the United States since 2006.
“That makes it pretty much an open-and-shut case,” Dr. James Cover, an economics professor at the university, said in a recent interview.
Saban said the critics of the high salaries often forget to mention how top coaches lived while working their way up the ladder, making $8,000 a year, eating grilled cheese and tomato soup for dinner and when “getting meatballs with your spaghetti was a big deal.”
“But regardless of all that, from a professional standpoint, I don’t approach anything differently now than I did then,” Saban said. “It’s about players, about teaching players, helping players develop and having a program that helps them develop in school and as players.”
Hardly anyone would argue these coaches don’t work hard for their money.
The recent travails of Florida’s Urban Meyer, who is on indefinite leave to deal with health problems, was a cautionary tale about coaches who burn the candle at both ends.
To be competitive, they have to. Recruiting is a year-round exercise, filled with trips to players’ homes, text messages and e-mails, and lots of coddling. There is the thick binder of NCAA rules to follow, summer camps to run, coaching staffs to fill. And that’s all before the grind of the season sets in, where coaches often spend 18-hour days working on game plans and running practices. Big money only adds to big pressure.
“It’s just tougher now,” said 80-year-old Bobby Bowden, who last week coached his final game at Florida State. “What if I was 40 years of age and went through what I just went through? I’d say, ‘Oh my goodness, what’s happening to my future? What am I going to do?'”
The players, meanwhile, get free tuition and some money for living expenses. That’s it, even though the fans pay to see them.
“All I ask is, throw us a little more money,” says All-American defensive end Derrick Morgan of Georgia Tech, whose coach, Paul Johnson, makes $2.3 million a year. “We’re the ones out there grinding. But that’s beating a dead horse.”
Some, like Morgan, are good bets to go on to successful and lucrative NFL careers. But only about 1.8 percent of college players get there.
Announcing big raises for coaches in this economic environment can be delicate.
Last summer, after Meyer led Florida to its second national title in three years, the Gators gave him a new contract worth $4 million a year and made him at the time the highest-paid coach in the Southeastern Conference. The school had recently announced $42 million in budget cuts and layoffs of nine faculty members and 49 staff employees.
But as was the case at Texas, Florida could say its athletic department paid for itself. And Meyer, 45, was an in-demand coach the Gators felt they needed to lock up.
Brown, on the other hand, turns 59 this year. His successor, defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, has already been named.
Critics insist Brown isn’t going anywhere, and the fact that they already have his successor under contract punches holes in the theory that Texas is merely paying the market price.
“If he does go anywhere, he’d be silly,” said Tom Palaima, UT’s representative on the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics. “So the question is, why does one have to crank up his salary by $2 million except for ego purposes? We could have avoided this whole thing.”
Associated Press writer Jay Reeves in Birmingham and AP Sports Writers John Zenor in Birmingham and Tim Reynolds and Steve Wine in Miami contributed to this report.