Up, up and away: Gophers coaches' salaries are on the rise

  • Article by: DENNIS BRACKIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 7, 2012 - 6:06 AM

In the ultra-competitive world of college athletics, even salaries for coaches in nonrevenue sports are soaring, causing further strain on budgets.

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Gophers baseball coach John Anderson is dubious about the future of nonrevenue sports and the current money they command. “The next four, five years is going to be a real, real interesting time.”

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The term "arms race" has integrated itself into the college sports vernacular as football and men's basketball programs continue to try to outdo one another, be it in coaching, facilities or other amenities.

The race continues to expand, now to a sector that historically has been mostly ignored: nonrevenue sports. Coaching salaries for sports that, as the name implies, operate at a deficit have soared the past decade -- the University of Minnesota included -- along with the associated costs of running the programs.

A Star Tribune analysis of Gophers head coaching salaries reveals that in nonrevenue sports, average base salaries increased almost 43 percent, to slightly more than $103,000, between the 2003-04 and 2010-11 school years. Of 22 university head coaches, 20 had base salaries of at least $75,000 and total compensation packages of at least $100,000, plus perks that most often included a car and athletic tickets.

The wage of the average American worker increased only 22 percent between 2003 and 2010, according to the U.S. government's social security website.

The increases were, in many ways, inevitable. If Tubby Smith is worth more than $2 million, shouldn't John Anderson, the winningest baseball coach in Big Ten history, be worth, what, 10 percent of Smith's pay? Gophers administrators say yes, and Anderson knows why.

"My spikes in salary have been in the last 10 years, and that's when the arms race really started in all sports," Anderson said. "Everyone is trying to keep up."

Anderson earned $13,000 his first season as Gophers baseball coach in 1982, the job considered part-time despite the program having won three national titles. After threatening to resign, he became a full-time coach in 1986 at a salary of $25,000, which adjusting for inflation would be worth $52,525 in 2012.

The Gophers coach signed a new contract this year that has a base salary of $204,000, plus fringe benefits (health insurance and retirement), incentives, camp income and perks that include a car and season tickets to a variety of Gophers sports.

His compensation is still not at the top of Big Ten baseball coaches, and less than half of what a number of national coaches earn. That is causing him angst -- not over a perceived slight, but over just what this new arms race might do to nonrevenue sports if TV revenue streams, otherwise known as the Golden Goose, start to flatten.

"If you don't sell every ticket, fill your football stadium, maximize all your revenues, I don't know how this [financial] model is sustainable," Anderson said. "The next four, five years is going to be a real, real interesting time in intercollegiate athletics. Something's got to give."

Rising nonrevenue salaries are more dramatic at schools such as Florida, Texas and Ohio State, where coaches in volleyball, softball, track and field and lacrosse often earn well above $200,000; the average pay nationally for a lacrosse head coach is $197,000. That's nothing compared to the five baseball coaches in the SEC who each earn at least $500,000.

At the same time, the overall bottom line for college athletics remains bleak: Only 22 of 120 Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly I-A) athletic programs made money in 2010.

"Does it make sense economically, morally? No," economist Andrew Zimbalist said of the finances of college athletics. "Is it viable in the long run? No. It's not going to work. Something has to be done."

The marketplace

Outgoing Gophers athletic director Joel Maturi is in the midst of an annual contract review process. Several coaches, he said, are due raises and/or extensions; he will confer with incoming AD Norwood Teague before any new contracts are offered.

One of those coaches is Brad Frost, who this season led his women's hockey team to a national title while earning a base salary of $102,000. Maturi said several rival women's hockey coaches are paid double that.

"The answer is it's market-driven," Maturi said of the salaries. "When you have good coaches, you want to keep them, and you make sure you do that. And the other coaches you think are working hard and doing a good job, you try to at least make them competitive, so they're paid what their counterparts are paid."

Maturi said he takes pride in having done that while annually balancing the athletic budget, although an addendum is needed here. Minnesota is one of those FBS athletic programs that is not self-sufficient, requiring about $2.3 million in direct support from the university's central administration last year.

Minnesota's salary increases since 2003-04 are on a par with other Big Ten schools. Since 2003-04, the average head coaching salary for men's sports has doubled (includes football and men's basketball). In women's sports (all of them nonrevenue sports) it is up 47 percent.

Salary costs for the Gophers will take another jump with new contracts already signed by Anderson, wrestling coach J Robinson ($146,000 in base and supplemental) and volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon ($200,000 in base and supplemental). But Teague said he is not alarmed, with the incoming AD saying he believes nonrevenue spending to be "reasonably under control," a result of the competitive nature of college athletics.

"It's not on a high priority list as a concern," Teague said of his nonrevenue sports. "It's high on my list as a priority to grow them and be as aggressive as we can, whether that's in facilities or building the program."

Teague will face challenges. With attendance in football and men's basketball in decline, he will inherit a controversial, and pricey, preferred seating program for men's basketball and hockey season-ticket holders that goes into effect next season.

What's more, Minnesota has fallen behind its conference rivals in facilities. A new baseball stadium has yet to break ground, and will be modest compared to others in the Big Ten. A new track and field complex is needed, plus locker room upgrades for men's hockey, baseball and wrestling. And then there's basketball, with no practice facility and one of the oldest arenas in the country.

Even Maturi sounds uncertain about the future Teague inherits.

"Today it's still sustainable, I believe," he said. "I don't know about the future."

Anderson, the highest-paid nonrevenue coach among men's sports at the university, is more certain about what the future holds.

"If we continue to do what we're doing, we're going to be eliminated -- we're going to be contracted," he said. "It's just a matter of time, because our model, in my opinion, is not sustainable. We've got to find a way to generate more revenue."

Changes coming

Anderson has proposed a radical change -- moving Big Ten baseball to a summer league --as a means to generate larger crowds and extra revenue. He's hopeful other northern leagues would follow, and stage a postseason tournament separate from the NCAA's College World Series.

He believes every program has to look for its own ways to bring in new revenue. The alternative is cost reduction.

Zimbalist said a recent study comparing program expenses for the FBS (I-A) schools to FCS (I-AA) showed that on the average the FBS schools were spending $351,517 more per program -- and the difference was at least $250,000 in every sport. Baseball teams were spending an average of $830,000 more per school, women's rowing $707,573 and men's and women's track and field both more than $500,000 per sport.

Zimbalist said the numbers are evidence of the "extravagance across the board" in major college athletics, and he's not a lone voice.

"The same widening gulf one sees in football spending one now sees in nonrevenue sports," said Todd Diacon, former faculty athletics representative at Tennessee and now the Kent State provost. "I think this actually is sustainable in the SEC conferences of this world, but not elsewhere."

Still, even college reformers agree with Maturi and Teague that successful veteran nonrevenue coaches need to be paid a salary commensurate with their experience and skills. Zimbalist said it makes little sense to attack nonrevenue coaching salaries as long as no attempt is being made to cap salaries paid to football and men's basketball coaches.

But that's a philosophical debate that could take years to resolve. And the nonrevenue coaches whose financial health hinge largely on the continued revenue growth in football and men's basketball might not have years.

"Something's got to give," Anderson said. "I don't see how we're going to sustain this, with the national landscape what it is."

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