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FIRST PLACE: ENTERPRISE
BERKELEY, Calif. – Jeff Tedford is a proven, program- building football coach who makes no apologies for the contract extension he landed – and the $2.8 million he's guaranteed to earn – at the University of California this season.
He's on board, too, with more than $430 million in planned improvements to Cal's venerable Memorial Stadium. They'll make the 86-year-old bowl more earthquake- resistant, and the upgrades should catch the eyes of football recruits. "So yeah," Tedford says, speaking over the clatter of construction outside his office, "it's a big deal."
But he allows that this is a time for sensitivity.
Higher education is in crisis, staggered by a depressed economy that has shrunk state appropriations, endowments and overall institutional budgets. The Berkeley campus has taken a near $150 million cut in state funding and is laying off faculty and staff, imposing furloughs, cutting back new enrollment and paring course offerings while hiking students' tuition.
Most sports programs, though, spend on. Starting with football coaches' salaries.
USA TODAY's latest study of compensation reveals that Tedford is one of at least 25 college head football coaches making $2 million or more this season, slightly more than double the number two years ago. The average pay for a head coach in the NCAA's top-level, 120-school Football Bowl Subdivision is up 28% in that time and up 46% in three years, to $1.36 million.
Furthermore, USA TODAY's first comprehensive look at the salaries of assistant coaches finds many approaching and even exceeding presidents' compensation and most eclipsing that of full professors. At the top: The $1.2 million Tennessee is paying defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, an NFL veteran who returned to college football to work for his son, head coach Lane Kiffin.
At least 66 football assistants, including more than two dozen in the Southeastern Conference, make $300,000 or more, and USA TODAY found that perks once reserved for head coaches are commonplace: multiyear and rollover deals, supplemental income from TV and radio, performance bonuses, retention bonuses, cars, complimentary tickets and country club memberships.
Tennessee's nine assistants earn an average of more than $369,000, Texas' better than $327,000.
By comparison, the American Association of University Professors put last year's average salary for full professors at public doctoral universities at $115,509. Two years ago, the most recent period covered by The Chronicle of Higher Education's annual survey of presidents' compensation, median pay and benefits for CEOs at public research institutions was $427,400. Nearly one in 10 pulled down less than $300,000.
As the coaches' numbers soar, so do concerns among the presidents. USA TODAY's findings come a little more than two weeks after the release of a survey of bowl-subdivision university presidents by the watchdog Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics in which 85% of the respondents said they felt football and basketball coaches' compensation "was excessive."
With schools making greater use of privately raised money to pay coaches, the presidents were pessimistic in the survey about their ability to slow the spiral. They saw coaches' salaries as "a key contributor to the (fiscal) 'arms race' in intercollegiate athletics" and "the greatest impediment to sustainability," the Knight Commission noted.
Big-ticket capital projects aren't drying up, either. Auburn is in the middle of building an $85 million basketball arena, and UCLA, another UC system flagship, is putting $185 million into the renovation of 44-year-old Pauley Pavilion. Arizona recently unveiled a plan to spend $378 million on facilities upgrades in every major sport in the next 20 years or so, starting with a new complex in the north end zone of Arizona Stadium that would house offices and locker rooms and incorporate 5,000 premium seats.
The spending "doesn't surprise me. It shocks me," says Hodding Carter, a former assistant Secretary of State for public affairs under Jimmy Carter who's now on the faculty at North Carolina and a member of the Knight Commission.
He points to the economy's ravages on education. "Here was a God-given opportunity in the forum of a true disaster," he says, "to step up to the issue and finally say, 'Look, I don't care where the money is coming from. It is unseemly for one institution on (a) campus to be acting as though these were happy days forever while everybody else is getting it in the chops.'
"It's just too bad. It calls into question the commitment of much of the institutional leadership in higher education."
Arizona's board of regents has launched a review of all of the system's intercollegiate athletics programs and whether the students, schools and the state see enough benefit to justify current levels of spending. Former U.S. senator Dennis DeConcini, who is on the board's capital committee, will lead the effort.
"I don't have an agenda," DeConcini says. He cast the lone dissenting vote on a raise that boosted football coach Mike Stoops' guaranteed pay to almost $1.3 million this season, though he says he has fewer problems with the flagship university's ambitious building plans.
"Reading it, much of it is justified," he says of the proposal. "On the other hand, it's a terrible time to be announcing $400 million in expenditures ... in the middle of a recession and raising tuition and furloughs and everything else."
At least 34 states, including Arizona, have cut assistance to public colleges and universities since the recession began, according to the non-profit, Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The center also tracks the schools' cost-cutting responses. Arizona State has eliminated 550 staff positions through attrition and layoffs and more than 200 faculty associate positions, imposed employee furloughs ranging from 10 to 15 days, closed about four dozen academic programs, merged others and limited enrollment in its nursing school. Florida will lay off more than 50 staff and faculty and eliminate 150 positions. The California State University system, whose 23 campuses include Fresno State and San Diego State, is cutting enrollment by 10,000 students.
Some athletics trimmed
Athletics hasn't been immune.
The Texas-based Division I-A Athletic Directors Association says a third of the schools responding to a survey this year had cut athletics staff in the last five years and about one in six had chopped at least one sport. This year, at least 15 schools have said they would eliminate a total of 32 teams.
In football and other sports, teams are being told to take fewer players on the road. Leagues are rethinking schedules and travel, downsizing postseason tournament fields and questioning the number of videographers and other once-unheard-of specialists who populate schools' athletic programs. Staff overgrowth is increasingly cited as a fiscal issue.
Anticipated savings are modest, however. Salaries take the single biggest bite out of athletics operating budgets in the top-tier Bowl Subdivision – a median 33.3%, according to the NCAA's most recent analysis. Coaches' compensation accounts for more than half that, and little whittling is going on there.
The argument is the same from Florida to Ohio State to Texas – that money paid to good coaches is a good investment, that their success equates to higher ticket sales and more marketing and sponsorship opportunities and that football's profits keep smaller sports afloat.
At California, athletics director Sandy Barbour points to a football renaissance in Tedford's eight seasons with the Golden Bears. A program that won a single game the season before he arrived is positioned for its seventh consecutive trip to a bowl. Crowds at Memorial Stadium have doubled to an average of almost 61,000. Players are graduating.
"If we let him go because we're not willing to pay market, we'll pay a huge price," Barbour says, "because I don't know that we can go out and find another coach with that combination of skills and (academic) emphasis."
The ceiling goes much higher. Southern California's Pete Carroll and Florida's Urban Meyer, whose teams have won or shared four of football's last six national championships, are among a trio earning $4 million or more, USA TODAY's study shows.
Carroll was at close to $4.4 million in 2007, the most recent year for which the private school's tax reportings are available. Meyer, whose No. 1-ranked Gators are chasing their third national title in four years, is making $4 million after agreeing to a new six-year, $24 million deal in August. His average annual raise: 23%.
Meyer tops the pay scale in the heavyweight SEC, which is saying something. Flush with revenue from new 15-year TV deals worth $3.1 billion with ESPN and CBS, the league boasts six of the nation's 15 best-paid head coaches and nine of the top 25. On average, its schools are paying their head coaches $2.64 million this season (counting all but Vanderbilt's Bobby Johnson, whose numbers aren't made public by the private institution).
Big 12 coaches average almost $2.1 million, led by Oklahoma's Bob Stoops at $4.3 million.
Those two conferences also are setting the bar for assistants' salaries, which are spiking nationwide as head coaches seek stability in their staffs and lean on schools to beef up pay and perks. Cal's Barbour calls it the next frontier in college athletics' spending arms race.
Of the 60-plus assistants USA TODAY found making $300,000 or more this season, 29 are in the SEC and 15 in the Big 12. Tennessee became a pacesetter, handing its head coaching job to Lane Kiffin, who in turn recruited a who's who staff of assistants and paid them accordingly.
"I really think you have to spend money to make money," the younger Kiffin says. "When you go out, get those coaches, that's going to translate into recruiting, winning, ticket sales, your team doing better, (and) I don't think you ever ask those questions again."
He cites Alabama's rise under Nick Saban, who is making $3.9 million this year. "When he was hired ... every article was, 'I can't believe how much we paid Nick Saban at Alabama,' " says Kiffin, earning $2 million this year. "Well, guess what? Nobody writes about it anymore because they win. So when we start winning, nobody is going to write about how much we pay our assistant coaches because, in turn, we're going to make a lot more money by them being there. I don't think it's a big deal."
He smiles. "And I took a lot less so we'd have money for them."
Meanwhile, the cash-strapped UT system warily eyes the expiration of federal stimulus money and the prospect of trimming 500 jobs in two years, two-thirds of them on its Knoxville campus. Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, chairman of the system's board of trustees, ex- pressed discomfort earlier this year, telling the Associated Press, "When your neighbor's enduring hard times is not the time to flash your Cadillac in the driveway."
The UT athletics department is one of the few able to give its university a financial lift, contributing $10.35 million to the school and university system in September and pledging $1 million a year for the next 15 years.
Still, budget figures show that while athletics salaries and benefits are expected to rise 12% this year, the money Tennessee will spend on academic salaries is projected to fall (from $127.68 million in 2008-09 to $127.18 million).
Sports budget backlash
At some schools outside the football-worshiping South, tolerance is wearing thinner as education budgets grow tighter.
California's faculty has taken aim at the university's annual seven-figure subsidization of athletics – $7.7 million a year ago, a projected $6 million in 2009-10 – and loans atop that to cover budget deficits. Last year's shortfall was $5.8 million. The school lent the money. Another athletics deficit of $6.4 million is projected for this year.
Fueling emotions on the campus is the discovery that the university forgave $31.4 million in athletics debts in 2007.
Cal's Academic Senate approved a resolution last week that, among other things, called on the chancellor to end the subsidies and draw up a plan for athletics to pay off its existing debt. The action "is not about whether or not we like athletics, nor is it about the football coach," says computer science professor Brian Barsky, who has taught at the school for 28 years. "It is about athletics living within it means."
Few do. Only 25 of 120 programs in the NCAA's Bowl Subdivision made more than they spent in 2007-08, the most recent year covered in studies by USA TODAY and the NCAA. Those analyses might undercount some expenses, particularly capital spending, critics say.
Where they were provided, USA TODAY found that the average public school subsidy for athletics was $8.8 million.
Those are indefensible outlays in these tight times, one analyst says. "To say it's a market (issue) is a copout," says Jane Wellman, who heads The Delta Project, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit agency that focuses on higher education spending. "There are choices at every institution about where to put subsidies, and … institutions are allowing more of their subsidies to go to revenue-pursuing activities and away from core academic purposes."
Pointing to Cal, she says, "They approved a student tuition increase of, what, 32%? They're cutting classes. ... I think they're sacrificing quality in the university. And when they're doing that, they shouldn't be subsidizing athletics."
Even before the faculty stirred, Cal's AD says she felt pressure to phase out its annual athletics subsidy. Barbour says she also has leaned on all of Cal's 40- some head and assistant coaches to participate in the systemwide furlough program even though contract employees are exempt. And by late last month, 29 coaches and senior administrators had said they would – including Tedford, who will accept a 10% reduction in his $225,000 base salary.
"I don't think we're exempt from shouldering some of the burden," he says.
Addressing her budget woes, Barbour has left eight athletics staff positions unfilled and eliminated four others and looked hard at travel. And she said she doesn't rule out trimming some of the school's 27 varsity sports.
Nonetheless, she defends her spending decisions.
"We compete for a living," Barbour says. "If we're going to compete on the field on Saturday, we want to have every advantage they have."
Comment by the judge, Kevin Sherrington: Wieberg's piece was clearly the top entry in the field. It takes on an obvious topic, the arms race in college athletics, but does more than just cite the numbers, as most stories do. It incorporates the current economy and its impact on the classroom, which doesn't seem to be having much effect on athletic spending. A wealth of data, sources and perspective, all woven into a seamless piece. Excellent.
• Second place: Brett McMurphy, FanHouse
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