College Coaches: Are They Worth The Big Money?

By Christopher Gabriel
Blog Harbor

Last week I was talking with a Tennessee Volunteers fan about, of all people, UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma.  The topic was Auriemma’s new contract that will pay him more than legendary Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt.  To suggest he was irate over this new development would be an understatement.  But his reason had nothing to do with Geno being paid more than Pat.  Rather, that he was being paid so much, period.

The argument of education vs. athletics – the perceived insanity of adults coaching young men and women playing games while being paid entirely too much – is nothing new among many college fans.  The going theory is that priorities are woefully out of whack.

I couldn’t disagree more.

And before moving forward, know this: I’m very much in favor of teachers at any level getting paid a small fortune’s-worth more than they receive now.  They are the most underpaid group of professionals in this nation doing arguably the most important work.  That said . . .

For those who truly believe great women’s coaches like Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma, or football coaches like Florida’s Urban Meyer, USC’s Pete Carroll and Texas’ Mack Brown are being paid too much, there is a good deal of evidence to suggest there is a decidedly different view from those who reside in the university penthouses.

Let’s use Tennessee as an example.  Knoxville is home to, arguably, the best hat trick of coaches in football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball at any school in America: Phillip Fulmer, Bruce Pearl and Pat Summitt.  Summitt has won eight national championships and her Lady Vols are routinely the biggest draw in women’s college basketball both at home and on the road; Fulmer has won one national championship while packing Neyland Stadium with more than 100,000 fans every home game; Pearl has turned the formerly dormant men’s basketball program into a national power averaging about 20,000 per game while being a regular participant in the NCAA tournament since his arrival in Knoxville three sesaons ago.

Now, go ask any member of the university’s administration or Board of Trustees if the money they spend on coaches Fulmer, Pearl and Summitt generate a commensurate, or increased, return on their investment.  I think you’ll find the answer is a resounding “yes.”

You’ll also find that to be the case at other major universities with massive sports budgets that typically compete for national championships in multiple sports.  Schools like Ohio State, Michigan, Texas, UCLA, USC and Florida, to name a few. 

While I agree paying to keep up with the Jones’ – or Auriemma’s, in the potential case of the Lady Vols – seems a bit ridiculous, it’s economic reality within the confines of remaining competitive athletically.  In fact it’s reality, period, irrespective of whether we’re discussing college coaches, private business or a major public corporation.  And make absolutely no mistake: Keeping a competitive athletic edge at a major university with a big-time athletic department means keeping top coaches at, or above, fair market value before one of their competitors opens the vault to lure them away when a contract is up.

Ultimately, the benefits are felt by an entire university community.  And the impact individuals like Phillip Fulmer, Bruce Pearl and Pat Summitt have on the financial side of Tennessee can indeed be measured – if what they’re paid doesn’t add up to benefit UT in dollars and cents/sense, sooner or later changes are made.  

And those changes, regardless of the university you’re talking about, tend to be expedited when influential donors are unhappy.  Either the coach in question voluntarily steps down, he steps down with a little nudging or he’s fired. 

It should be noted many Vols fans will make the argument, and it’s a fair one, that recent on-the-field results of Fulmer’s football program have not been in line with either what he’s being paid or where the expectation bar for championships is set.  This, while the program continues to pack Neyland Stadium, go to bowl games and make numerous appearances on national television.  It’s the debate within the debate: UT is winning and making money, but are they winning enough, not having won an SEC or national championship since 1998?  And are they bringing in as much money as they could . . . or should? 

It’s a debate that has played out at other schools, namely USC, Oklahoma, Florida and Notre Dame.  Coaching changes at SC, OU and Florida, which also meant paying more for the new and presumably better coach, ultimately led to national championships.  And those championships translate into revenue coming into a university from a variety of sources.  More revenue means lots of happy people on campus, starting with the university president right on down the line.

At Notre Dame, their change to current head coach Charlie Weis translated into the Irish winning 22 games in his first three years there.  He replaced Ty Willingham who, in his three years as head coach in South Bend, won 21 games.

At the end of the day, why shouldn’t coaches make as much as an employer is willing to pay them?  Major corporations will gladly pay up to get a top performer from a rival company to jump ship.  Doing so will increase their potential to . . . make money. 

In college athletics, winning translates into many things for a university community.  One of them is dollars.  Dollars from bowl wins, dollars from television appearances, dollars from donors and dollars from alumni. 

For those pounding their fists saying college athletics have too high a priority on their tree-lined campuses, and by extension those darned high-profile coaches who make entirely too much money, don’t be fooled by the hypocrisy: Those same folks know only too well the dollars flowing in thanks to athletic success do wonders for a university trying to remain competitive . . . academically.

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Filed Under: BaseballBasketballCollege BasketballCollege footballNCAASportsTennessee


About the Author: Christopher Gabriel is the host of the cleverly named Christopher Gabriel Program on AM 970 WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota. You can hear him weekdays from 9 to Noon. As a writer and humorist, his work has been been published online by the Chicago Sun-Times, Reuters and publications within the Sun-Times News Group.

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  1. Bill Rollins says:

    then why do only 19 of 119 Div IA programs operate in the black? where’s all of this so called ROI that comes from paying for these coaches?


  2. CGabriel says:

    100 Division 1 programs operating in the red means there are an awful lot of programs far from the limelight of ABC, CBS, ESPN and bowl games that need a serious reality check.

    The premise here is whether coaches like Urban Meyer, Mack Brown, Bob Stoops and Pete Carroll (and there are more) are i.e. “giving back” to their universities. Is the money these high-rent coaches make justified by the overall results of the program and the subsequent effect it has on their university beyond athletics.

    There are a significant array of factors that lead to a university athletic department’s bottom line that go well beyond the football program.


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