When college football's annual recruiting wars reach a crescendo with National Signing Day next month, the players signing on the dotted line will probably turn their attention to helping the rich get richer.
Sure, some may go pro some day, but, no matter what happens, all of the prospects on campus will help fill the wallets of a growing millionaires' club: college football coaches. Everything the players do, from winning conference championships to earning major bowl berths, even graduating, elevates the head coach and, in many cases, triggers a series of incentives aimed at keeping the headset crowd happy.
Major college programs, along with their ubiquitous gaggles of zealous boosters, alums and fans, celebrate the frenzied ritual of luring blue-chip high school players to their campuses just after the NFL's Super Bowl, kicking off another round of football chatter just as the season finally concludes. It happens every year on the first Wednesday in February (Feb. 7 this year). A slew of websites, national analysts, and other pundits assess the various classes in an attempt to discern which major powers did the best job of wooing 18-year-olds for a whole lot of football. But even as these amateur (read: unpaid) players assume an extracurricular activity that bears the rigor and responsibility of a full-time job, it is the coaches who receive the real rewards. Beyond big salaries, most receive housing, courtesy cars, and club memberships.
Earlier this month, Nick Saban, who led Louisiana State University to the college football national championship in 2003, left his job as head coach of the NFL's Miami Dolphins after two lackluster seasons. Saban wasn't fired for posting a 15-17 mark with the Dolphins. Instead, he reneged on the final three years of a lucrative contract in the NFL in favor of a staggering eight-year, $32 million deal – at the University of Alabama. That a college program can now bid as high, or higher, than some NFL teams sent shock waves through the football world, and beyond. Athletic directors at major universities shuddered, fearing the inevitable realignment of salaries.
"It's a level of stupidity by the [athletic directors] that is almost breathtaking," says Marc Ganis, an industry consultant at Sportscorp, a Chicago firm. "A salary at one school drives the market for dozens of coaches even though [college sports] offers you a management structure where collusion isn't prevented."
Translation: The schools have only themselves to blame. Indeed, a month before Saban's gargantuan deal was announced, NCAA President Myles Brand had already declared spiraling salaries for head coaches to be a major problem. Late last year, a USA Today survey found that at least 42 of the 119 Division I-A head coaches in football earned $1 million or more. The highest, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, earned $3.45 million, a figure now eclipsed by Alabama's contract with Saban. Opinions vary on whether such lucrative packages make sense.
An Associated Press study showed that Alabama football generated $44 million in revenue during 2006, funding the rest of its athletic programs with $27.7 million in gridiron profits. Others question the wisdom of the investment in a single coach, particularly when his salary dwarfs that of the university president nearly sevenfold.
Now Congress is taking a closer look. A spokeswoman for Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa says the US senator has been poring over tax exemptions for an array of organizations in recent months, and now has his sights set on college athletic departments. Current tax rules allow donors to deduct luxury suite lease payments, for example. And tax-free bonds are used to fund improvements in stadiums as well as weight rooms and locker rooms.
Saban's contract has fueled long-simmering debates among administrators and others about the role sports programs play at many colleges. But quick action is another matter and the love of touchdowns on fall Saturdays means the bidding war isn't likely to cease anytime soon.
"Look, Alabama has 90,000 seats to sell and they feel that Coach Saban will sell more tickets and increase donations," says Chuck Neinas, a frequent consultant to schools in their coaching searches. "[They] felt they had to reestablish themselves because of the history of excellence in their football program. That's what they did."