College Coaches and Administrators Are Too Busy Paying Themselves to Pay Athletes

The people who run big-time college sports claim there simply isn't enough money to pay athletes. Totally coincidentally, they also give themselves large and ridiculous bonuses.

by Kevin Trahan
May 17 2016, 2:10pm

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

University athletic departments love to claim that they can't pay revenue sport college athletes because they don't make a "profit." But look deeper into their spending habits, and this claim quickly appears ridiculous. As non-profits, they engage in the process of gold-plating—that is, spending more money than is necessary on pricey things they don't need, like camps in Australia, simply because there's more cash on hand when television and marketing deals keep going up while the price of their on-field labor force remains fixed and minimal.

One of the biggest wastes of spending is coaches' salaries and bonuses. Just two decades ago, college football coaches didn't even make $1 million dollars per year. Now, 55 make at least $2 million per year; 16 coaches make at least $4 million per year. Then there are the booming salaries for support staff, but even more risible are the inexplicable bonuses.

Since schools aren't allowed to pay the athletes, they pay the coaches bonuses for things the athletes do, like meeting on-field objectives, and even more hilariously, meeting academic objectives.

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Iowa State has taken this bonus structure to a whole new level. The Des Moines Register found that the Cyclones will pay new coach Matt Campbell $500,000 for winning six games in a season. Half a million dollars for winning six games!

It is incredibly easy to win six games in college football. Last year, 77 of 128 teams did it. ISU schedules (what should be) two automatic wins each season—one against a Football Championship Subdivision team, and one against a small-conference team—and so it needs to win just four of its remaining 10 games to line Campbell's checking account. That's eminently doable. The Cyclones have a putrid football history, with zero January bowl game appearances, but even then, they've won at least six games in five of the past 12 seasons.

Campbell's bonus is an awful lot of money to pay for mediocrity. If Iowa State put that same cash toward its players, each of the 85 scholarship players on the team could get $5,882 for winning six games.

However, Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard, who makes $900,000 per year, can't think of a realistic way to pay athletes, among other things:

We have an idea, Jamie!

What's worse is that Pollard couldn't come up with a way to pay for cost of attendance stipends without big changes elsewhere.

"We'll have to pass those costs on to our fans," he said. "There's just no other way about it."

That must feel good for fans, knowing how Iowa State spends its money elsewhere.

Pollard isn't alone in this opinion. Many people in college sports making huge salaries, and paying out huge bonuses, can't figure out how to rejigger their budgets. So let's help them out.

Matt Campbell is five more fingers to a bonus! Photo by Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

The Academic Bonus

Louisville coach Bobby Petrino might have one of the most ridiculous bonuses in college football: he gets $500,000 every time Louisville's football team meets its Academic Progress Rate objective.

This bonus is essentially paid every year, because Louisville's APR bar (935) is ridiculously low, and barely above the NCAA minimum (930). (Not to mention that all the APR measures is whether Louisville's athletes are eligible to stay in school—not how well they are doing in their classes.)

So Petrino makes half a million dollars if his players do the bare minimum in the classroom. You might ask, "How on earth does that money not go to the players?" Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich is not so sure about that.

While Jurich would be OK with "some kind of stipend," he thinks all this spending could just get out of control, and that those upset about the payment structure right now will never be satisfied.

"If you pay somebody $100, somebody is going to want $200," he said. "Pay somebody $200, somebody (else) will offer $300. Agree that everyone gets $300, somebody will want $400. It's human nature. That won't change."

Jurich reportedly makes a little over $1.4 million a year. Phew, thank God we're not offering people ridiculous incentives already.

Winning More Than One SEC Game

It's tough to win games in the SEC, but Kentucky is so desperate for SEC relevance that it is willing to pay $100,000 per SEC win (after the first win). So despite going 5-7 overall in 2014 and 2-6 in the SEC, coach Mark Stoops made $100,000.

Stoops would like to give the athletes some of that money, he says, but it sounds hard.

"I realize it's very complicated. It's not as easy as just to say, 'Yeah, I'd like to pay the players,'" he said. "I mean, of course I'd like to give the players more, but I also realize that's a very complicated issue. You're getting into a lot of things that I don't have the answers for.

"So would I be in favor of giving the players a little bit more money? Sure. But I would have no idea about how to go about doing that, and I don't think a lot of people do."

TFW it's time to slow down and ponder the unfathomable complexity of paying anyone who isn't you. Photo by Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports


You know why I love Clemson coach Dabo Swinney? He only coaches for the love of the game. Obviously he has to make a salary, but there's nothing about winning that drives him besides what happens on the scoreboard.

At least, that's what Swinney wants you to believe. However, he made over $1 million in bonuses last season. Somehow, Swinney—or his agent, one of those exploitative "pimps" college athletes must be protected from—got that written into his contract while also going on a diatribe against "entitlement."

"We've got enough entitlement in this country as it is," Swinney said. "To say these guys get nothing totally devalues an education. It just blows my mind people don't even want to quantify an education.

"I didn't get into coaching to make money—coaches weren't making any money when I got into coaching. It's what I wanted to do with my life, and I was able to do it because of my education. That's what changed my life. That's what changes everybody's life."

The good news is that if athletes are ever allowed to be paid, Clemson can take the money out of Swinney's pocket. In fact, why don't they save some money and do that now? It's not like Swinney wants that money or anything, and besides, it's probably just making him entitled, which is the last thing America needs.

People Watched Maryland Football

Maryland fired Randy Edsall in 2015 because he is not a particularly good football coach. However, the Terrapins paid him $100,000 in 2014 because he presided over a 25 percent increase in attendance.

This is a ridiculous metric on a number of levels, first and foremost that the head football coach has less to do with attendance than the players or outside factors. It was Maryland's first year in the Big Ten in 2014, with home games against the large fan bases of Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan State, and West Virginia. It's far more likely that home slate affected Maryland's attendance than anything Edsall did.

However, Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson said athletes don't deserve to be paid like Edsall was.

"Some people say it's opportunity and some say that we're exploiting young people," Anderson said. "Well, if we give them every opportunity ... and if they do what we require them to do, they're going to leave here with a degree.... Tell me that there's not value in that."

That's an interesting thought, because there was already value in Edsall's contract before the bonuses. Why did he deserve to get more, especially for something he didn't do?

Weird logic.

Greeting all of the new fans who are there for you. Photo by Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Private Planes

Coaches have long used private airplanes for recruiting. A new phenomenon is coaches getting to use university planes for personal use.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz gets to use the University of Iowa's leased planes for 35 hours per year, just for fun. That's roughly two round-trips to Europe, on the house.

However, it is far too complicated for Iowa athletic director Gary Barta to figure out how to pay players.

"And I'll probably choose to do something else for a living if we ever had to go that route because it's so complex," he said. "Do you pay the Division III football player as an employee? Do you pay the tennis student-athlete as an employee?"

For the record, Barta would not choose to do something else for a living, since he makes over $450,000 per year. And it's really not that complex—simply spend the money you're spending on Ferentz's vacations on the players instead.

An AD Bonus for a Player's National Championship

When Ohio State wrestler Logan Stieber won his third national championship in 2014, he wasn't allowed to receive any payment or endorsements. However, Buckeyes athletic director Gene Smith made $18,000 off Stieber's accomplishment.

It's hard to even comprehend this level of insane. Not only does an athletic director have nothing to do with a team's success, this wasn't even a team championship. Smith made $18,000 off of one athlete. There's not even any abstract gray area where you can say, "Well, some people on the team are worth more than others, so we don't know their worth." One athlete's championship was worth $18,000 to Gene Smith.

Predictably, Smith isn't about to give up that not-at-all-earned money.

"I am not a proponent of creating an employer-employee relationship, which changes the whole dynamic," he said, adding, "I hope that we don't get to that point (where athletes are paid)."


Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre received $292,000 in bonuses two years ago for meeting the following three objectives:

● Program outreach, including activity in the community

● Academic progress

● Player welfare and development, including citizenship

What the hell do all of those buzzwords mean? No clue! But it doesn't matter, because they were handed out at the "athletic director's discretion." We have no idea what things MacIntyre, a coach at a public university, did to earn an extra $292,000, but we do know that athletic director Rick George is OK with them.

George has supported paying athletes before, as in he actually did it. He once paid a recruit $100 for a hotel room. He has since called that a "dumb mistake" and has been non-committal on the idea of college athlete unionization. If he ever wants to pay recruits again, though, he would have plenty of room to do so with his football coach's bonuses.

TFW you're not even sure why they are paying you extra money, but hell yeah! Photo by Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

College football bonuses are the clearest sign of an inefficient market. Universities want to attract the best athletes, but since they can't pay those athletes, they pay the coaches when the athletes do something right.

So before claiming that there's no money left in college sports, perhaps athletic directors and coaches should look at some of the contracts they already give out. There's plenty of waste to be cut.

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