March Madness: Should Coaches Earn More Than College Presidents?

Posted By Terri Williams on March 17, 2017 at 9:05 am
March Madness: Should Coaches Earn More Than College Presidents?

This week marked the beginning of March Madness, when 68 teams kicked off the chase for a college basketball national championship. However, some critics argue that the “madness” of collegiate athletics extends beyond the month of March or the confines of the basketball court. At issue: should college coaches earn more than college presidents?

According to USA Today data, these are the highest paid coaches in the NCAA (these amounts do not include bonuses, and other type of payments):

Basketball Coach School Pay Football Coach School Pay
Mike Krzyzewski, Duke $7,299,666 Jim Harbaugh, Michigan $9,004,000
John Calipari, Kentucky $6,580,000 Nick Saban, Alabama $6,939,395
Sean Miller, Arizona $4,535,664 Urban Meyer, Ohio State $6,003,000
Bill Self, Kansas $4,478,776 Bob Stoops, Oklahoma $5,550,000
Tom Izzo, Michigan State $3,525,359 Jimbo Fisher, Florida State $5,250,000
Bob Huggins, West Virginia $3,325,000 Charlie Strong, ex-Texas $5,000,000
Jamie Dixon, Pittsburgh $3,234,437 Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M $4,725,000
Tom Crean, Indiana $3,152,867 Gus Malzahn, Auburn $4,700,000
Gregg Marshall, Wichita State $3,000,000 Hugh Freeze, Mississippi $4,500,000
Kevin Ollie, Connecticut $3,100,000 Kirk Ferentz, Iowa $4,500,000


The highest-paid college president at a private institution, Jack Varsalona of Wilmington University, earns $5,449,405. The rest of the salaries in the top 10 range from $4,185,866 to $1,618,328. The highest-paid college president at a public institution is Michael Gottfredson of the University of Oregon, who earns $1,215,142.

The bottom line: Many college coaches earn more than their “bosses” – college presidents.

Win at all costs?

So why do some college coaches earn more than college presidents? Does it depend on the size of the school and the success of the academic program? David Welch Suggs Jr., Ph.D., an associate professor in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia and author of A Place on the Team: The Triumph and Tragedy of Title IX, doesn’t think so.

Suggs tells GoodCall®, “It’s more a function of the prominence and competitiveness of the athletic program.” Suggs notes that this practice is more prevalent in some conferences than others. “Many football and basketball coaches in the Big Ten, SEC, and other ‘Power 5’ conferences earn more than university presidents –  you can find some at prominent programs outside the Power 5, but not many.”

The average person can probably name more college coaches than college presidents. But does this mean that some coaches actually add more value to the school than the president? If so, does this higher visibility mean it’s OK that coaches earn more? Suggs warns against assuming that salaries reflect what someone does for a school. “Salaries reflect the realities of the marketplace – and boosters, fans, and others place tremendous pressure on major sports programs to hire coaches who will win big and win fast.”

Suggs says coaches are fortunate enough to be in a job market where some schools will pay whatever it takes to hire and keep “a hot coach.” However, he says that college presidents also reap the rewards of this type of trend. “The Chronicle of Higher Education, where I used to work, found that 39 private college presidents earned more than $1 million in the last year available.” And while that’s less than a high-profile coach would earn, Suggs says being a college president is also less risky.

However, Andrew Zimbalist doesn’t think coaches should use the “marketplace” excuse. Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College and the author of Unwinding Madness: What Went Wrong with College Sports and How to Fix It, tells GoodCall®, “In the FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision), it is common for college coaches to earn 5 to 10 times as much as the college president.”

Zimbalist can think of several reasons why he thinks coaches shouldn’t try to defend their salaries by saying the marketplace determines the amount. “It is an artificial market: the players aren’t paid, athletic departments benefit from numerous tax preferences, teams receive handsome subsidies from the college and state, and athletic directors seek to maximize wins, not profits, among other factors.”

Even if they win championships on a consistent basis, does that really justify it when coaches earn more than the school’s president?  Howard Bunsis, a professor of accounting at Eastern Michigan University and executive committee member and chair of the American Association of University Professors Collective Bargaining Congress, tells GoodCall® it’s an issue of misplaced priorities.

“Many universities have lost their way, as the core academic function of a university is the academic success of our students, but many universities believe that athletics is the ‘front porch’ or the ‘window’ to the university, and therefore any expense or emphasis placed on athletics is OK.”

Often, Bunsis says that presidents are actually in favor of paying astronomical salaries to coaches. “Presidents are administrators who answer to Boards of Trustees, and these Boards are populated by corporate interests that believe sports is more important than academics.”

And instead of comparing the salaries of presidents and coaches, he believes it is more appropriate to compare the change in salaries between coaches and faculty.

Bunsis has written extensively on this topic and says, “The evidence is clear that there is too much of an emphasis placed on athletics, as the spending at many universities has far outpaced the change in spending on academics.” While a handful of schools earn enough money to support paying large athletic salaries, Bunsis notes that many Division I institutions have to subsidize their athletic programs. Many critics question if college fees are essential or unnecessary, especially when they’re used to fund athletics.

The real issue isn’t that coaches earn more

However, Bunsis says that college presidents also earn an astronomical amount. “At many institutions, the salaries of the president are in the 7-figure range, and the increases in presidents’ salaries over the last several decades are as out of line as the increases in coaches’ salaries.”

Even if a school can afford it when coaches earn more, should it spend the money? “The exorbitant compensation for coaches, when compared to those who teach and do research, is completely out of line at most of our institutions.”

And what happens when a school can’t afford an athletic department?  Bunsis teaches at Eastern Michigan University, and in 2015, he says the athletic department had a $27 million deficit. “We are only 6 miles from the University of Michigan, where the athletic department broke even,” Bunsis explains. “However, we try and compete in the same market and division (Division I football), and it has the effect of schools like Eastern Michigan overpaying for coaches and other athletic costs.”

Although Bunsis is an avid sports fan and attends college sports events, he says, “We called for Eastern Michigan to drop Division I football, as the diversion of resources away from academics costs each student $1,227.”

For him, it’s about more than having a team to cheer for or competing with other schools. “The spending on college sports has gotten out of control, and the focus of universities needs to go back to the students and their families.”

The cost of tuition has caused college students to turn to alternative sources of funding. Many students are struggling to balance their studies with at least one job. Also, some students are considering income-share agreements, while other students are turning to GoFundMe.

“We need to do everything we can to give our students the chance to succeed, and one way to do this is to lower tuition and to increase the support for student success.”

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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