High-Paid, Winning College Football Coaches Are Worth Every Million

Nothing sells a school like a successful team.

PSU football coach Bill O'Brien is the highest-paid PA state employee.

Last week, Deadspin published an infographic revealing that the highest-paid state employees in 80 percent of the U.S. are college football and basketball coaches. That includes Penn State football boss Bill O’Brien.

Cue the hysteria.

America is teetering on the brink of disaster because of our misplaced priorities regarding athletics. Institutions of higher education have sold their souls to whistle-wearing despots who rake in millions for fun and games. Meanwhile, chemistry students must make do with Bunsen burners from the 1950s, and future English scholars are forced to consult dog-eared copies of Hamlet. Offensive tackles can be found feasting on foie-gras-coated Chateaubriand. No wonder the Chinese own half our country.

Settle down, everyone. Believe it or not, most of these guys earn their keep. That’s right. Say what you want about the inequity of Nick Saban’s $5.3 million annual salary when universities are cutting programs and relying more and more on less-expensive adjuncts to educate America’s youth, but Saban is worth every penny. So are LSU’s Les Miles, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Texas’ Mack Brown, all of whom receive hefty seven-figure stipends every year.

First off, remember that we’re not dealing with Harvard and Yale here. For the most part, the big earners are at large, state schools whose missions are to provide a broad-based experience to tens of thousands of students. They are also major employers, centers of community activity, and sources of pride for their towns and states. Ask someone from rural Oklahoma if he knows that the University of Oklahoma is in the top 10 nationally in the graduation of Rhodes Scholars, and it’s unlikely he’ll answer in the affirmative. Ask him how the Sooners have done against Texas on the gridiron the past three years, and he’ll no doubt report that OU has won each time, and he might even remember that the combined score is 146-58. Is that necessarily a good thing? No. But it demonstrates the impact that Bob Stoops and the program he has built have on the state.

The primary roles football and basketball programs play for universities are in the marketing and promotion areas. Nothing sells a school like a successful team. And that can’t be refuted. In 2007, a year after George Mason reached the Final Four in men’s basketball, GMU professor Robert Baker conducted a study that revealed the school received an estimated $677 million in free advertising, thanks to that performance. Admissions inquiries increased 350 percent, and there was a 40 percent growth in out-of-state applications. Those numbers are staggering, and they don’t take into account increased donations and the surge in alumni activity and pride that accompanied the Patriots’ on-court success. Nothing—and I mean NOTHING—else the school could do would come close to that kind of payoff.

When Florida Gulf Coast University reached the Sweet 16 this past March, it received hundreds of millions of dollars in free publicity, and the nation learned about a school that had previously been unknown outside of the Sunshine State. If you don’t think administrators were thanking coach Andy Enfield (who subsequently took a job at USC), then you have limited cranial capabilities.

A packed house on a Saturday afternoon and a national TV audience do more for a university than the best promotional materials ever could. You may consider Saban’s huge compensation package grotesque, but consider that the only reason a college counselor at a northeastern prep school is mentioning Alabama to a junior is that the Crimson Tide have won three of the last four national college football titles, and the Tuscaloosa school is becoming attractive to candidates outside the Yellowhammer State.

These fat paydays come with a high cost. Coaches must win and win quickly, or they are out. They must be responsible for their players’ academic performances and behavior at all times. They must recruit, fund-raise and serve as the primary spokesmen for their schools. And, for the most part, their salaries come from athletic department revenues and donations, not the universities’ general funds. Granted, there are plenty of schools that lose money chasing the big-time college sports magic. But that is often counterbalanced by the significant awareness benefits that come from playing games on TV. Do you actually think anybody outside of the Garden State would know Rutgers is the state university of New Jersey if it weren’t for the school’s football and basketball teams? Please.

So, rail away, athletic critics, but remember a few things. First, I am an adjunct professor at three local universities (Neumann, Saint Joseph’s and Villanova) and have no problem with the fact that I am modestly compensated, while the basketball coaches at two of the schools make seven-figure salaries. Second, realize that no matter what it says about society, there is no way to ignore the impact of athletics on a university’s reputation. Villanova was a small school with a limited pool of applicants, until it won the college basketball national championship in 1985. Now, it draws from New England to Virginia and out to Chicago. Thank you, Rollie Massimino. Finally, look closely at the money that is pouring in to college football and basketball from TV networks dying to broadcast the only programming that is viewed exclusively in real time. It would be asinine not to want a part of that pie and the attendant notice that comes with it.

You’re angry that Bill O’Brien is the highest-paid state employee in Pennsylvania, are you? Given what he has meant to Penn State in the past year-plus, the man is probably due a raise.

It’s reality. Deal with it.