Why Michigan pays assistant football coaches $1 million each

The University of Michigan has the first state-run college football program with three assistant coaches earning more than $1 million a year.

The University of Michigan will become the first public educational institution to have three assistant football coaches earning salaries of over $1 million annually.

College football coaches – even assistant coaches – routinely make much more than college professors. Why?

State universities have long reported high salaries for employees of their athletic departments. In fact, according to information collected by 24/7 Wall Street, in 39 of the 50 states, the highest-paid public employee is either a football or basketball coach for a state university.

(Most salaries paid by tax dollars can be obtained with a Freedom of Information Act request, using a law established in the 1960s to boost government transparency.)

In 2016, the highest-paid employee of any local or state government in the country was Nick Saban, head coach of the University of Alabama’s football team, who earned more than $7 million annually. Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh was second at an even $7 million.

Annual salaries over $1 million have become normal for athletic coaches. Even Craig Bohle, the head football coach for the University of Wyoming – previously the lowest-paid coach on the list of highest-paid state employees – received a salary bump in 2017 to $1.4 million from $850,000, reported the Casper Star Tribune.

And while Michigan is reportedly the first public school to pay three assistant coaches million-dollar salaries, in 2016 Louisiana State University and the University of Alabama both had two assistant football coaches on payroll earning $1 million or more annually.

But coaching salaries can stir controversy, as in the decision to increase Coach Bohle’s salary in a year that saw the same university cut more than 100 faculty and staff positions.

The difference often lies, as universities are quick to explain, in the large sums of revenue generated by athletic programs – particularly when they win. The Wyoming athletic department told the school's trustees that they plan to cover Bohle's raise with "self-generated revenue," including ticket sales, television broadcast revenue, and concessions, reported the Star Tribune.

“I think there’s a whole bunch of ways we can generate additional revenue, and we are confident that we’ll be able to cover the cost of this investment in Wyoming football,” said athletic director Tom Burman.

College football is big business. The University of Michigan’s football program brought in around $92 million, of which $65 million was profit. Much of that comes from a TV deal in the Big Ten Conference, Forbes reported, but ticket sales at the 110,000-seat stadium don't hurt, bringing in $37 million over a total of six home games in 2015, not including fees from seat licensing or the 81 luxury boxes, according to Michigan Live.

So as far as the athletic department is concerned, paying $10 million over five years to three of the team’s assistant coaches is justified.

"In the sense of wanting to keep good people here, wanting them to know their value and the long-term stability on the staff with Jim [Harbaugh],” Michigan's athletic director Warde Manuel said to USA Today, "it was an investment we made."

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