This past Monday, in the waning moments of Georgia’s upset victory in the college football national championship game, TV cameras panned to a frail old man in a stadium suite. The aged onlooker had a big grin on his face, as well he should. Just over four decades earlier, this smiling onlooker — the 89-year-old football legend Vince Dooley — had coached Georgia to its last national championship.
Dooley likely saw plenty of parallels on Monday night between his 1980 triumph and this year’s success of Georgia’s current coach, Kirby Smart. Both coaches had started their seasons off with only an outside shot at the national title. Both nurtured teams that showed grit and perseverance. Both now enjoy the adulation of an entire state.
And the differences between the two coaches? Only one stands out. Compensation.
For his championship-year labors, the current Georgia coach Kirby Smart will pocket $7.13 million. Vince Dooley’s annual pay never came anywhere remotely close to that.
Dooley started his Georgia coaching career in 1964, back in a time when big-time college coaches earned about the same as big-time college profs. The nation’s top celebrity college coach back then, Notre Dame’s Ara Parseghian, pocketed just $20,000 in salary, the equivalent of just under $180,000 in today’s dollars.
By the early 1980s, the dawning of the Reagan era, the coaching pay picture had begun to change. In 1982, Dooley was still basking in his national championship spotlight — and collecting $100,000 annually for his coaching prowess, about $288,000 today. Dooley retired from coaching in 1988. Seven years later, Florida State signed Bobby Bowden to a million-dollar annual guarantee.
The bottom line here: Even after adjusting for inflation, current Georgia coach Kirby Smart has earned significantly more just in the past year than Dooley made over the course of his entire 24-year Georgia coaching career. Even more remarkable: Kirby Smart has “cause” to feel underpaid. The long-term pay deal he signed with Georgia after the 2017 season has left him trailing his biggest coaching rivals.
In 2018, the year after Smart signed his current contract, Texas A & M okayed $75 million over 10 years to Jimbo Fisher. The next year, Clemson pledged $92 million for ten years of Dabo Swinney’s gridiron genius. This past year gave us a windfall trifecta: Michigan State inked its coach to $95 million over the next decade, Louisiana State University commited $100 million for the same span, and Southern Cal upped the college football ten-year ante to $110 million.
And, oh yes, LSU’s end-of-the-year wheeling and dealing just happened to include a $16.9-million severance package for the departing coach.
Kirby Smart’s paycheck at Georgia currently ranks as only the fifth-highest in his football conference, one of the ten conferences that compete in major college football. Overall, reports USA Today, 21 college football coaches now make at least $5 million a year, and 37 other sideline prowlers are grabbing more than $4 million.
“These days,” sums up Washington Post reporter Kent Babb, “every major college program has a corporate, win-now mentality while engaging in arms races for the biggest stadium, poshest locker room, richest coach.”
Defenders of this insanity consider successful college football coaches worth every penny in their paychecks. LSU’s national championship team two years ago, they point out, brought in $95 million in revenue and turned a profit over $53 million.
“I hear people say all the time, ‘Well, you make a lot of money,’” Alabama football coaching giant Nick Saban told the New York Times this past August. “Yeah, but I create a lot of value.”
Where’s all this “value” in college football going? Not into the desperately poor communities that ring many of college football’s biggest stadiums. Not far from LSU’s Tiger Stadium, in North Baton Rouge, the poverty-stricken streets have 46 payday lending offices and zero grocery stores. The state legislative district that includes North Baton Rouge has a median income of $24,865 a year. LSU’s new football coach, writes the Post’s Kent Babb, will be making “no less than $24,657 a day.”
The payoff from paying multiple millions to college football coaches also isn’t doing much to help the college students who most need help. The U.S. student debt burden, now nearing $2 trillion, continues to swell, soaring ever faster and higher than any punt.
Some big-time football universities, to be sure, are pumping “value” back into student affairs. One major state university, for instance, has spent big on student amenities like a “state-of-the-art recreation center with a climbing wall” and a campus dining hall with “steak cooked to order.” Amenities like these make state schools more attractive to out-of-state affluent families that can afford to pay higher tuition. This particular cook-to-order state school just happens to be Nick Saban’s Alabama.
But let’s not blame football for all this “enrollment management.” The concentration of wealth we see on our gridiron turf reflects a much broader concentration of wealth within higher education writ large.
“Increasingly, more and more universities operate like hedge funds, looking to maximize profit centers. And with executive salaries to match,” observes Brandeis economist and American Prospect co-editor Robert Kuttner, “What has suffered is teaching. The number of actual professors has scarcely grown. What has grown is armies of adjuncts, often not even making minimum wage.”
Football, to be sure, plays a key role within higher education’s widening internal economic divide. Outrageous coaching salaries, University of Colorado law prof Paul Campos argued earlier this week in the Chronicle of Higher Education, can serve to justify academe’s “administrative overpay.”
“By a kind of perverse psychological effect,” explains Campos, “paying a college football coach $10 million per year makes paying a university president $1.5 million, a provost $800,000, and various vice provosts and vice chancellors $500,000 each seem positively parsimonious by comparison.”
So what can we do to restore sanity not just to college football, but to the overall academic world? Kuttner has some thoughts. For starters, he notes, we could legislate some egalitarian “strings” into federal aid for higher education. We could, for instance, deny or limit federal support for universities with outrageously large pay gaps between their highest- and lowest-paid employees.
A college football coach making $10 million a year is making 500 times more than a $20,000-a-year university custodian. Back in the 1960s, only a handful of major U.S. corporate CEOs made over 30 times what their lowest-paid employees were making.
Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His latest books include The Case for a Maximum Wage and The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.