Magazine article The Washington Monthly

College Football Coaches, the Ultimate 1 Percent

Magazine article The Washington Monthly

College Football Coaches, the Ultimate 1 Percent

Article excerpt

More than a century ago, the very idea of paying coaches was up for debate. The arguments against it looked very similar to the arguments today against paying players.

In 1925, one of college football's biggest stars did the unthinkable. Harold "Red" Grange, described by the famous sportswriter Damon Runyan as "three or four men rolled into one for football purposes," decided to leave college early in order to play in the National Football League.

While no fan today would begrudge an All-American athlete for going pro without his diploma, things were different for Grange. The NFL was only a few years old, and his decision to take the money in the pros before finishing his degree at the University of Illinois was a controversial one. It was especially reviled by Robert Zuppke, his coach at Illinois.

As the story goes, Grange broke the news to Zuppke before promising to return to finish his degree. "If I have anything to do with it you won't come back here," Zuppke replied, furious that a respectable college man would drop out and try to make a living off playing a game. "But Coach," Grange said. "You make money off of football. Why can't I make money off of football?"

It's a question that has underscored the development of modern college football ever since. Aside from scholarships and (some) health insurance, the players remain unpaid. They are also subject to draconian National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules that banish them to hell for such sins as signing an autograph for cash or selling a jersey. Meanwhile their coaches enjoy ever-swelling salaries, bonuses, paid media appearances, and other perks like free housing. According to Newsday, the average compensation for the 108 football coaches in the NCAA's highest division is $1.75 million. That's up 75 percent since 2007. Alabama's Nick Saban, college football's highest-paid coach, will earn a guaranteed $55.2 million if he fulfills the eight-year term of his contract.

This widening chasm between coaches and players is creating a growing economic, moral, and public relations challenge for college football. A burgeoning chorus of critics is calling out the NCAA for its hypocrisy. Some want market rates for college players, while others want more incremental changes--a combination of stipends, guaranteed four-year scholarships, better medical care, and financial control for players over their likenesses. To those ends, the NCAA is staring down the barrel of multiple antitrust lawsuits and other litigation over concussion liability, while an attempt by football players at Northwestern University to unionize is awaiting a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board.

Since school athletic departments have to commit their revenue back into sports, money not spent on stipends and other direct benefits for athletes helps inflate those massive coaching salaries. But the difference wasn't always so stark. More than a century ago, the very idea of paying coaches was up for debate. The arguments against it looked very similar to the arguments against paying players, right down to the concern for the college game's amateur spirit.

But as football evolved, coaches were elevated above players, rising to become salaried employees, tenured professors, and, eventually, living legends who could demand millions to ply their trade. They broke down the walls of amateurism at the expense of athletes, whose own push for compensation hasn't gone much further than paid tuition.

In the nineteenth century, many football coaches weren't paid--or at least weren't paid specifically for football. Some were graduate volunteers, some were physical education professors or general athletic trainers. Either way, winning football games was not their primary job.

That began to change as the century turned, with more and more schools giving coaches salaries and keeping them around full time to focus on the football team. …

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