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NCAA Coaching Salaries and Contracts: Hiring, Firing, and Paying College Coaches

Many Gopher coaches have finalized contract extensions recently, and we all know about the mess in Champaign. These events bring up the questions, "What factors should go into hiring and firing a coach and how much should college coaches be paid?"

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If you were an athletic director, how would you choose to pay your coaches? What factors would you prioritize in your decisions on hiring, extending, and firing coaches? How would your priorities change when making decisions for non-revenue sports?

The cliche answer from most ADs would likely be a variation of, "We want coaches who will run a clean program that is successful on and off the field. We want to win and set our student athletes up for success in the classroom and in their lives after graduation." That is great and all, but, much like both Republican and Democrats can agree on end goals for our nation and vehemently disagree over the details on how to get there, canned answers don't provide a clear definition on how much "winning" is enough, what "clean programs" look like, or just how important "success in the classroom" really is.

Factors to weigh:

Every athletic department should prioritize compliance with NCAA and core University principles. Not only is there no excuse for missteps in today's information-based society, but missteps are also increasingly costly with the presence of social media and public scrutiny on numerous social issues. From that foundation there are many directions departments can take.

How much weight would you put on success on the field? I identify with Herm Edwards on this issue. Athletic departments pay coaches to win games. This may be an easy stance when it comes to revenue sports,  but should winning have the same weight in non-revenue sports? Take a hypothetical men's soccer program that is perfectly average on the field over a number of years, has a great reputation for community service, and the coach is respected throughout high schools in the state. Players do well in class and graduate on time. Does that coach eventually get fired for a lack of a breakthrough year? I would hold on to that men's soccer coach, but if it was a football coach with the same story, I would not have a choice but to fire him. Call me a hypocrite, but stagnant revenue sports are deadly to both revenue and alumni support.

Factors like recruiting success and academic excellence as tangential issues that coaches are responsible for, but that do not directly affect their job or base pay. There will always be APR bonuses, but athlete eligibility and scholarship retention is the main motivation for coaches to hold their players responsible for academic excellence. When it comes to recruiting ADs should not care less about how my coach's class rank against Iowa or Wisconsin, as long as that coach beats Iowa and Wisconsin. It is the coach's responsibility to find the talent that will help him or her win, ADs should stay out of that evaluation.

One factor that I would probably weigh more than others is how well a coach manages a game. If I have to sit with boosters while a Brewster can't stop shaping his hands into a "T" with 14:49 left in the 3rd Quarter, that coach and I are going to have problems.

To summarize my factors of a good coach: 1) Keeps clean of any major violations of NCAA and University policy with no repeated minor offenses; 2) Maintains an upward trajectory of on-field success, with more leeway for non-revenue sports; and 3) Has the ability to manage the actual game in a way that indicates the coach is in control.

How much to pay:

How much is too much for a winning football coach? There is no doubt that the answer to that question varies from one school to the next based on revenue, fan base, and booster support. After all, Alabama and Troy will never be on equal footing in this regard. A big question to answer here is how much of a University's budget should go to support its Athletic program. Completely unsubsidized athletic departments make sense in today's economy but this is not realistic for all schools. The follow-up to that is how much of the Athletic Department's budget can be allocated to salaries of its coaches. The economic shell game of collegiate athletics is hard to navigate, and I would love to hear from someone with some actual knowledge on this issue.

Therefore, it is best to frame the conversation is to ask what percentage of your school's salary pool would you allocate toward coaches of 22 different NCAA Division I sports. For argument's sake, let's say that two of these sports, football and men's basketball, generate revenue at a profit. How much would your school allocate for the football staff? Schools can quickly compromise their ability to attract and retain quality coaches by spreading money around quasi-equitably rather than heavily favoring a football staff. There is also the question of sacrificing the success of track or rowing for success in football. However, a successful football program dramatically raises the regional and national profile of a university while exciting an alumni base and generating revenue in and around campus. All things being equal, my athletic department would spend between 25% and 33% of my school's coaches salary pool on the football staff. Of the remaining money, what do you put toward men's basketball? I would be very tempted to go for a home run here and spend another 25% on that staff. Would I be wrong to do that? Many swimming and baseball supporters would be justified in criticizing me for only caring about revenue sports. Should that change my decision making? I don't think it should, but I should definitely be held accountable for making that sacrifice AND choosing the wrong people to lead those two programs. Perhaps that why we have seen ADs go with the safer option of spreading money around more equitably.

Minneosta Perspective:

The U sits at an interesting point both in view of its own trajectory and in respect to its position in regional and national competition for athletic success. Without hard numbers to back me up, all evidence seems to point that the Gopher fan base is more excited than it has ever been about Golden Gopher athletics. Therefore, you would think the budget for salaries would also be at an all-time high. This USA Today database on NCAA Finances claims that the U's athletic department generates just over $106m annually, good for the 15th most revenue nationally, and 5th most in the Big Ten. The USA Today used data from 2014 in their database, making those figures pretty current and relevant. Given those impressive figures, my athletic department would spend around $15m on the coaching staffs for football and men's basketball. These figures mesh with the actual athletic department's overall eagerness to extend and raise Coach Kill and Coach Pitino, even though the latter staff has shown only limited on-curt success. The football staff currently sits at a total earnings of around $5.5m, but money will have to continue to be spent in order to keep this coaching staff in tact. Overall, I would expect that staff to be earning upwards of $8m in the next few years. That number would allow the U to maintain a quality coaching staff and build the national and regional profile of our favorite institution of higher learning.

What are your thoughts? At what point would a football coach's salary be too much for you? More importantly, how would you balance the salaries if you were running an athletic department?