Coaches run up the salary score

January 25, 2002|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF


Notre Dame disputes the fact that it pays Willingham as much as $2 million even though media sources indicate the coach's pay could reach that level with incentives. The university cites a quote (that the Sun published Jan. 2., 2002 in an AP story) by Willingham's agent that $1.5 million is a more credible figure.

Steve Spurrier's leap from college football's most highly paid coach to the NFL's most highly paid coach has sent tremors through collegiate athletics, renewing concerns about the cost of keeping up with the pros.

Spurrier, who led the University of Florida to the Orange Bowl this month, had been the first college coach to earn $2 million a year, a lofty plateau also occupied by the football coaches at Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Florida State. Last week, he signed a deal with the Washington Redskins that will pay him $5 million a year.

There is worry that a new round of salary hikes could be in store for America's universities, already straining to balance athletic department budgets in an age where barriers between collegiate and NFL coaches have fallen and the salaries of both are rising fast.

Critics say it is unseemly for institutions devoted to learning to pay their coaches 20 times what they pay their physicists and philosophers. The pressure to raise and spend money at levels once unimaginable also exacerbates the commercialization of campuses and could lead to fund-raising scandals. The rising cost of football could also hurt secondary sports such as wrestling and progress on gender equity.

But others see the higher pay for coaches as a consequence of the success of college football, a golden goose that brings in a third of the revenue of the average Division I-A athletic program.

"The more wins you acquire, the more money the program and conference make. Coaches are being paid for the wins they produce," said Ray Anderson, an Atlanta-based agent who represents collegiate and NFL coaches, including Ravens coach Brian Billick and Notre Dame's newly signed Tyrone Willingham.

Moving from a campus to the training camp of a pro team is hardly new. Paul Brown, after all, left Ohio State in 1945 for the fledgling Cleveland Browns. But Anderson said the two-way migration has increased in recent years as the pay gap has shrunk.

A coach who might have earned a few hundred thousand dollars five years ago at one of the 20 colleges that pay the most now earns an average of $1.5 million, the agent estimates.

An average head coach in the NFL, who might have earned $400,000 five years ago, now makes $1.5 million to $1.7 million, Anderson said. Top coaches, such as Spurrier, earn $4 million to $5 million.

Partly to blame is the salary cap negotiated with NFL players in 1993. With each team forced into parity on what it pays its players, teams scour their books for ways to gain an advantage over competitors. One is the still-unrestricted pay of coaches.

"Where do you get your edge? You get your edge with a head coach who can squeeze more wins out of a parity system," Anderson said.

Paying for results

Salary increases in the NFL have a ripple effect, affecting assistants and the college coaches who make up a common talent pool. To replace Spurrier, for example, Florida tapped the pool, hiring New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Ron Zook. His pay: $1.5 million.

"When you compete in intercollegiate athletics at these levels, there is a lot of money involved, and to compete, you've got to respond to the market," said Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley.

The consequences for a college that doesn't respond can be costly: slippage of ticket sales, booster club donations and alumni giving if losses mount.

But keeping up with the market can be costly, too. One result has been an accelerating "arms race" among colleges that pour money into facilities and coaches' paychecks to match or best rivals. By last season, the three most highly paid college coaches, as a group, were pulling in $5.6 million. That was nearly twice as much as the three highest-paid coaches made five years before.

Overall, compensation of head coaches has grown nearly 70 percent over the past five years, according to an annual survey by the Division I-A Athletic Directors Association, said a source familiar with the data.

At the University of Maryland, athletic director Deborah A. Yow moved decisively over the past year to keep up with the rising price of coaches. As the football team was on its way to a conference championship and the Orange Bowl, she upped the ante for coach Ralph Friedgen. He had attracted the attention of his previous employer, Georgia Tech. Friedgen's new deal at Maryland represented a 25 percent increase over the contract he had signed just a year before, and is reportedly worth about $1 million a year over 10 years.

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