The University of Alabama has lured Nick Saban away from the NFL's Miami Dolphins to be its new head football coach, reportedly signing him to an eight year, $32 million dollar deal. This salary, easily the most ever paid for a college coach, is raising some eyebrows.
For example, CNN ran an AP story under the headline "Alabama: 45th in helping kids, No. 1 in paying coach." It notes that, "The reported salary is more than most CEOs make in a state that ranks 46th in the country in household income, with a median of $37,502" and that it is "nearly seven times what the university's president, Robert E. Witt, earns."
UA Trustee Emeritus Garry Neil Drummond wonders, "What are we about as a university? Football is a big part of it, but paying the dollars we are talking about here is more than anyone else is getting." Peter Roby, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, agrees: "It's about the role of athletics on college campuses, and the trend suggests there is no limit to what universities are willing to do."
Coincidentally, Saban's hiring was announced at a press conference the same day Education Week ranked Alabama 45th nationally in "giving public schoolchildren a chance for success." Jim Carnes of Alabama Arise finds this contrast unconscionable, "You couldn't have a more stark picture of education priorities in the state of Alabama. We put that kind of money into a college football coach and leave our younger children at the mercy of inadequate schools and underpaid teachers. We strongly need a priority adjustment."
While the juxtaposition of low performance in education with enormous spending on athletics at institutions of higher learning makes for great headlines, it is a ridiculous apples to oranges comparison. The money comes from different sources, based on entirely different market forces that are hardly zero sum.
Saban's salary simply has no bearing whatever on what college presidents or CEOs are paid, much less how education is funded. His paycheck will come entirely from the University's $68.6 million athletic budget, which is derived from ticket sales and licensing agreements rather than taxes.
If Saban is able to return the Crimson Tide to its former glory, he'll more than pay for himself. Between July 1, 2005, and June 30, 2006, the football team alone brought in more than $44 million. Indeed, football at successful programs like Alabama's not only pays for itself, it helps pay for all the other sports programs on campus and pours millions into the school's academic scholarship funds.
To be sure, this is not the case at lower tier programs, which have difficulty sustaining the cost of competing at the Division I-A level. Then again, they do so in hopes of climbing to the top and gaining a share of the television bonanza or simply garnering more name recognition. I was on the faculty at Troy State (now, simply Troy) when they moved up from I-AA to I-A. Most of us thought it a silly notion in a state with 4.3 million people that already had two big-time sports programs in Alabama and Auburn. Not to mention having an on-campus student population of 5,000 and literally needing to sell more tickets to each game than lived in the county. While it's undoubtedly still a money loser on paper, it's been a huge boon in national publicity.
College football is a multi-billion dollar business and coaches command millions on the open market. Indeed, Saban actually took a pay cut when he came to Tuscaloosa. Because hiring a great coach is the fastest way to build credibility and aid recruiting, there is intense competition that spans the college and pro community. While Saban's salary in the neighborhood of $4 million is the highest in college, his nearest competitors are not having trouble meeting their mortgage payments, either:
Mack Brown - Texas - $2.66
As a former college professor, I won't deny that it's a little irritating that coaches make millions while faculty salaries average less than $50,000. Then again, there are only 119 Division I-A football programs and 32 NFL head coaches; only a handful of them make a million or more. By contrast, there are innumerable college teaching slots and each opening gets dozens if not hundreds of qualified applicants. And few teachers can bring the school a multi-million dollar windfall by being good at their job.
Finally, it should be noted that athletic competition and educational attainment are not zero sum. Paying coaches less would not mean we'd pay teachers more. Indeed if Saban helps Alabama win more football games, he'll generate millions more for the University's academic budget.
James H. Joyner, Jr. writes about public policy issues at Outside the Beltway. He is a 1995 PhD graduate of the University of Alabama's political science department and was a student there when the Tide won its most recent of twelve national football championships in 1992.