College Coaching Salaries: A New Level of Absurdity

I’ve participated in, worked in, studied, researched and written about college athletics for over 40 years. It’s not often that I see something that makes me sit up, take notice and say “Are you kidding me?” Last week I had such a moment when LSU announced that it signed its’ defensive coordinator, Dave Aranda, to a four year, $10 million contract. All of it guaranteed. An assistant coach? Seriously?

For an educational institution? That’s absolutely absurd!

Of course, paying head football coaches exorbitantly is not new news. According to USA Today, in 2017, 78 college head football coaches and 41 head men’s basketball coaches earned at least $1.0 Million per year. Alabama’s Nick Saban heads the list at just over $11 Million and recently fired head basketball coach of Louisville, Rick Pitino, earned just over $7.7 Million. And in 2016, in 39 of the 50 states, the highest paid state employee was either a football or basketball head coach. (Business Insider, 9/26/16). 

Why does this matter? Why should we care whether LSU, Alabama or Penn State pays its football coach crazy money?

“I love my state and my state university and want them to be good in football,” is a common response. “It’s a point of state pride. And it’s far more fun and entertaining when they win. You need good coaches to win. Besides, the football program generates enough money to be able to afford it.” Others argue that this is simply an example of what the market will bear and that being able to have a quality coach is a sound investment.

But those who make these claims miss the larger point. American higher education is playing in a much bigger and infinitely more important “marketplace”. And spending that much money on a football coach undermines higher education’s ability to succeed in that larger marketplace.

That larger marketplace relates to higher education’s role in our society. From teaching to research from spurring economic development to being an agent for social change, the mission of higher education is many things to many people. But when you boil it down, it’s mission is to serve the public by helping to meet the many problems, needs and challenges that face society, including the role that sports plays in relation to education. And the effectiveness with which higher education responds to those needs will define it in the future.

It is no stretch to say that our country has lost perspective regarding the role of organized sport in our culture. We have come to glorify athletic accomplishment far more than academic achievement. Our colleges and universities, have, in large part, been responsible for allowing this culture to evolve. This is so, because in the case of the cultural subject matter of athletics, American higher education has failed in its public mission. Our colleges and universities have not provided the necessary leadership in establishing a healthy societal attitude regarding athletics. The result has been the grotesque distortion of educational priorities through the disproportionate resources and attention devoted to athletics. Aranda’s salary is simply the latest example of those skewed priorities.

While some may consider it a stretch, the fact is, the way colleges and universities conduct their athletic programs greatly influences higher education’s ability to fulfill its mission. Whether right or wrong, the fact is, major college athletics are the largest and clearest window through which the public views and interfaces with higher education. With such high visibility comes tremendous influence.

That being the case, as the public comes to view the hypocrisies and excesses of major college athletics with a more critical eye, higher education pays a price, specifically in the form of declining credibility, moral authority, and public trust. If universities cannot conduct their athletic programs in a way that makes it clear that while athletics are important, educational and academic excellence are paramount, how can it be expected that the public believe in its ability to effectively address issues such as poverty and illiteracy and to provide an education worthy of the twenty-first century?

Our colleges and universities can no longer afford to engage in practices that display for all to see, such skewed priorities. If there is any American institution that absolutely must stand up and demonstrate that academic and educational excellence are far more important than football or men’s basketball, it has to be our colleges and universities.

The values that are projected by college athletic programs are critical for another reason. What we do in our college athletic programs; the behaviors we condone, the messages we send and the “investments” we make, filter down to all levels of education. If our institutions of higher education tacitly endorse activities that undermine educational priorities and achievement in the name of athletic glory, it provides an example for all to emulate. In short, the public looks to higher education to provide educational leadership, including leadership regarding the role, importance, and purpose of sport in relation to education. Given its traditional role in our culture, it is clear that if we are ever going to begin the process of restoring our cultural consensus regarding the proper role of sport as it relates to education, it is up to the higher education community to initiate it.

It’s hard to see how paying $2.5 Million per year to an assistant football coach helps in that regard.

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