Episode 1: Let's talk crazy coaching salaries

Why skyrocketing coaching salaries matter, from Clemson to UConn

Hi, and thanks again for reading my new newsletter, Extra Points. It’s about college football history, business, politics, and all that other stuff that helps shape our college football world. There will also be jokes.

Today’s top story?

Clemson is now paying their football coach roughly a gazillion dollars

Ok, it’s not actually a gazillion. It’s a 10-year, $93 million deal, one that somehow outpaces the also ridiculous 10-year, $75 million deal Texas A&M contract the Aggies recently gave Jimbo Fisher. In terms of the total value of the contract, Dabo is the highest paid college coach in America.

This is interesting for a bunch of different reasons, even if you aren’t a Clemson fan.

1) As my colleagues at SBNation noted, one of the major reasons Clemson would want to lock up Dabo Swinney is out of fear that the coach could decide to take over at Alabama, once/if Nick Saban retires. Saban is 67 years old and just had hip replacement surgery, but he’s adamant he’s not going anywhere for a while.

But if he ever does, well, Swinney is now the most accomplished college coach outside of Saban, and Swinney won a national title as a player for Alabama and coached there for several years. So Clemson rewards the guy with a massive contract that just so happens to have a bigger buyout if he leaves specifically for Alabama.

As Alex Kirshner noted in the above piece:

If Swinney ever did decide he wanted to go back to his alma mater, the buyout kicker in his contract would be like trying to stop a charging lion with a Super Soaker.

Saban is in line to make about $9.3 million per year going forward at Bama, putting him right in line with Swinney’s new deal. As if Bama wouldn’t pay $15 million in the first year to hire Swinney if it wanted him.

I mean, I can’t really blame Clemson for trying to hang on to Dabo, and he may very well stay at Clemson for the next twenty years. But if he does, and Alabama tries to get him, it won’t be because of the money. Alabama will do whatever it takes to be the top bidder for a coach they want. If that means they have to sell off a few counties or something, well, nobody ever won the SEC without making tough sacrifices.

2) Swinney’s record clearly establishes him as near the very elite of college football. The dude is 116-30 over 11 seasons at Clemson, has two national titles, and dragged Clemson from one of the country’s biggest underachievers into the IT superpower at the moment. They will almost assuredly finish with the #1 recruiting class in the country this year.

But on paper, nothing about his background indicated that was likely. Unlike Saban, Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh, and others at elite programs, Swinney hadn’t been a head coach before. The only national title-winning coach in recent memory to come from a similar background was Jimbo Fisher (who would have been the head coach at UAB had Alabama’s board not killed the hire out of spite, a story I explored more here), and Jimbo’s status as an elite-elite coach is less secure in 2019.

He even famously took a few years off from coaching to sell real estate. His hiring at Clemson to replace Tommy Bowden didn’t exactly win national praise, and even now, he generally isn’t considered to be a schematic genius. He’s made excellent assistant hires (and the school has stepped up to handsomely pay to keep them), recruited as good as anybody in college football, and been a superior program manager. That’s not an insult! It’s just a very different narrative.

3) Speaking of narratives, Swinney has been particularly outspoken about not wanting to pay players, famously saying:

We try to teach our guys, use football to create the opportunities, take advantage of the platform and the brand and the marketing you have available to you. But as far as paying players, professionalizing college athletics, that's where you lose me. I’ll go do something else, because there's enough entitlement in this world as it is.

lmao get out of here with this bullshit.

This contract is also the most dramatic data point in a perhaps worrying trend. Coaching salaries are EXPLODING

From USA TODAY, which runs the ever-so-useful coaching salary databases:

Adjusting for inflation, the average salary for a head coach at an FBS school was a little more than $1.2 million in 2006, when USA TODAY began its pay surveys. Among the same group of schools studied in 2006, the average for the 2018 season was $2.6 million.

This is nuts.

It’s not like interest in college football has exactly risen by that much. Average attendance has actually decreased since 2006 (45,828 in 2006, 42,108 in 2017, although we’ve added a few new programs with tiny stadiums since then). Coaches haven’t somehow become twice as good, or even twice as important to the success of their individual programs.

We just had a lot more money in the college football ecosystem after a few massive TV rights deals. The rest of the costs of the sport continue to go up, but there’s no guarantee those rights deals will do the same…and if they do, we already know they won’t benefit everybody in college football equally. More on this soon.

Athletic departments generally aren’t as broke as they say they are, but even many of the ones turning a profit shouldn’t be throwing three million bucks on a coach that’s just replacement level. These skyrocketing salaries, which also include assistants, strength coaches, and some administrators, are more of a byproduct of search firms and agents jacking up the price of labor, and of a system where there’s a bunch of money coming in that can’t go to the players. You know, the ones doing the work.

A few coaches, like Dabo, Nick Saban, and perhaps a few others, may actually be worth more than this, when you consider the financial impact of a successful football program on college town. The deck Clemson presented their board makes a decent case that Dabo is, in fact, worth the money, given the school’s gains in out of state applications. But these deals are dragging the price up for some pretty average coaches, and I’m not sure schools can afford to do this forever.

I’m also not sure college administrators really understand how to evaluate the true financial value of a coach. How much success is just due to the historical floor of a program? Have the wins translated into ticket sales, or improved application numbers, or is the school relying on more nebulous factors, like, exposure? Better have a good idea if you’re going to drop three million bucks, no?

We’re at a point now where a top 70 football program will basically have to start the bidding at close to two million a year for a head football coach, plus another three to four for an assistant pool. Yikes.

And yeah, we’ve been arguing about coach pay since as long as we’ve been paying coaches

When Michigan hired Fielding Yost back in 1901, the school offered him the same salary as a full professor, $2,300, for just three months of work (per John U Bacon’s chapter in A Legacy of Champions, an arrangement that would rankle administrators across the Big Ten, and would become such a sticking point that the Wolverines would later temporarily leave the league.

A prevailing philosophy, not just among college administrators and journalists, but even among coaches, was shared by Harvard coach Bill Reid, who coached the Crimson in the early 1990s. He is quoted, in Hearst's International, as saying:

The man who coaches as a regular thing is likely to be a man of trifling ambition and small ideals, very often not a college graduate and presumably lacking in finer instincts.

I managed to get some footage of Dabo after reading that insult. He was pretty broken up over it tbh.

The schools couldn’t rein things back over a hundred years ago, capitulating to big money and alumni pride. They’re not going to do it now, at least not willingly. We’ll see if economics forces some downsizing in the near future.

But in the meantime, enjoy paying your coach $10 million bucks over four years to maybe win the Pinstripe Bowl or something.