Commentary

Pay coaches less and lower tuition

As cost of college increases, outsized football salaries get harder to justify

Updated: November 18, 2011, 5:50 PM ET
By LZ Granderson | ESPN.com

There was a two-year stretch in which one of my alma maters, Grand Valley State University, went 28-1, winning a couple of Division II national championships in the process.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
AP Photo/Ron LeifeldBrian Kelly won two national titles at Grand Valley State before moving on to jobs at bigger schools.

You can guess what happened next.

We lost our coach.

It's hard for a small school to keep a coach that is doing big things.

So we watched with pride as our former coach succeeded and then moved on to bigger school after bigger school, collecting bigger and bigger paychecks along the way. Today, Brian Kelly is the head coach of Notre Dame.

He has won everywhere he has been, so the Fighting Irish are hoping his magic continues. And if it does, they'll likely be ripping up his current five-year deal, which is believed to be paying him just shy of $3 million a year, for something better.

Or risk losing him to a program willing to pay a lot more.

This is the runaway train that is college football coaching salaries. Paychecks keep rising with no end in sight -- just like the tuition charged to the students that attend the schools. And while they are not always directly connected, some athletic programs are self-sufficient,together they provide a synopsis of how screwy our priorities have become.

USA Today ran a front-page story this week reporting that the average salary at the top schools is more than $1.47 million. I'm not sure how you feel about that, but I find that number a bit absurd. But then you look at the kind of dollars a successful coach can bring a school through ticket sales and broadcasting deals and then you see a talent like Kelly, and it all makes sense.

That number's not absurd at all.

We're just crazy.

"There was no way we could have afforded to keep him," said Tim Selgo, Grand Valley State's longtime athletic director. "That's not just a challenge for a Division II school like ours but I think every school, even the BCS football programs. There's always a concern that someone is going to look at your successful coach and try to take him away.

[+] EnlargeTexas
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesTexas fans have the highest-paid college football coach in the nation to cheer or boo.

"So when I see the salaries some of these guys are making, I do think we are paying way too much money. But then I also know this is what the market demands … our appetite for college and pro sports is insatiable and so these coaches demand and get these big-time salaries."

I don't begrudge a coach for trying to get all that he or she can. I don't resent a school feeling it needs to pay to keep top talent. I'm just afraid to think where all of this will end up because the overall impact seems to be stretching far beyond the scoreboard.

In a recent Pew Research Center poll, more than 86 percent of college graduates said they believe college is a good investment, but 75 percent of Americans said most people can't afford to go. It's not hard to see why. Between 1998 and 2008, tuition and fees for a public school increased by nearly 130 percent, while income for the middle class has pretty much been frozen. According to CNN, to keep pace with the rising cost of college in that time, the average American income would have had to climb to $77,000 per year. Instead it's $33,000.

In short, while the salaries for football coaches at major colleges place them comfortably in the top 1 percent of U.S. earners, the students at their schools are being squeezed for every last dime and their parents, for every red cent.

How long will a football program exist on a campus if or when people literally cannot afford to enroll?

The number of students on U.S. campuses has grown for decades, but the country's college graduation rate is horrid -- 38 percent. "When you ask students why they drop out, the response is overwhelmingly about money," said James Kvall, a U.S. Department of Education official.

This makes no sense to me.

Collectively college football made more than a $1.1 billion profit last year (if viewed separately from other programs in their athletic departments), according a CNNMoney analysis. Only one of the 68 schools that played in the six major conferences at the time -- Wake Forest -- reported a loss. Why are middle class students being squeezed out of college because of money, when college football brings in so much profit?

Clearly, there's a story of diverging fortunes here.

Mississippi, for example, has one of the worst education systems in the country. It has one of the highest unemployment rates among states and, not surprisingly, the highest poverty rate at nearly 22 percent. And yet Dan Mullen, the coach at Mississippi State, received a $1 million raise in December.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
AP Photo/ James CrispMississippi State raised Dan Mullen's salary last year to fight off interest from other schools.

I didn't say salary, I said raise.

His salary is now $2.5 million.

Does he, like Kelly, have the right to earn as much as he can doing what they both love?

Absolutely.

Is the system messed up?

Hell yeah.

But the system always has been messed up. Coaches can quit and start a new job the following year, whereas players who want to transfer must first sit a year out in most cases.

That's messed up.

Players are not paid, despite being the reason why schools are able to sell tickets, jerseys and TV rights.

That's messed up.

At least scholarship players don't have to worry about the ever-rising cost of tuition. With the country mired in economic quagmire, many others are struggling to pay that bill.

In the past, education has enabled people to move up in society. Now? Time has a cover story asking whether Americans still have economic mobility or whether they are stuck. Knowing what we know about the rising cost of college, and earning potential when students graduate, it's hard to see how a large number of students can see themselves moving up, and that's sad.

To add to the incongruity, in many states the highest paid employee -- a college coach -- works in entertainment (at the core, that's what the football really is).

What if the NCAA schools imposed a hard cap on salaries and athletic budgets, allowing administrators to re-direct surpluses to help keep costs down for students? If top coaches didn't like being capped at say $900,000 a year, I'm sure there would be younger versions of Kelly at the Grand Valley States who would love to take their places.

Education, after all, is supposed to be the purpose of a college, not entertainment.

As I said, I don't fault any coach for asking for the world.

I just think we're displacing our priorities when it gives it to him.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

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LZ Granderson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine