It pains me to talk about my Iowa Hawkeyes football team's 2012 season. No post-season bowl game, a pathetic 9-6 home loss to rival Iowa State in September, and an impressive six-game losing streak to finish the season. With a 4-8 final record to show for the worst season in several years, our saving grace was cornerback Micah Hyde being taken 159th by the Green Bay Packers in the recent NFL Draft.
At least head coach Kirk Ferentz was able to wipe away his tears with his $3.7 million paycheck. This makes Ferentz the highest paid public employee in the state of Iowa, with Iowa State football coach Paul Rhoads coming in second at a paltry $1.4 million.
What I've learned so far? If you coach your state university's team to a losing record, but they're well-known enough to keep bringing fans to games, you'll still make the big bucks.
The reason for public universities' football (and basketball) coaches making so much money is simple to explain, but often difficult to digest. These two sports are easily the most popular around the country, with millions tuning in every year to watch football's BCS National Championship and basketball's National Championship Game — not to mention the thousands who attend regular-season games in person.
It's important to note that it's not state money alone that finances coaches' multimillion-dollar paychecks, but rather a combination of that and revenue from ticket sales, fundraising, television deals, and more. Ticket prices often increase by a few dollars every year to ensure that these revenue-generating programs keep making money, even if the team isn't doing so well. Iowa, for example, made $22.86 million from ticket sales alone in 2012, an over $1 million increase from 2011.
The problem here is that despite these sports programs doing so well economically, this money rarely makes it back to the university itself. Once a big chunk of it heads into the coaches' pockets, the rest generally goes toward renovating athletic department facilities and supporting sports that don't make money for the university. What, you thought the ones giving student-athletes their degrees might get some of the money? You thought wrong.
There's another point in there: the student-athletes themselves obviously see none of this money, except in scholarship form (sometimes). And while going to school for free or cheaply is great, the foremost thing on coaches' minds when an athlete commits to a school like Texas or Florida isn't the academic benefits they will receive — it's their sport. During their four years of eligibility, they go on to generate revenue for the university, and see their rewards in the form of improved facilities and free trips around the country for games. They're the ones who make the fans happy, but their coaches reap from their successes — or lack thereof, if you're Coach Ferentz.
Here's a handy infographic that will tell you if your state's highest-paid employee is a university athletic coach, or someone totally useless, like a med school dean:
The most surprising part about all of this? Only a handful of university athletics programs experience a "surplus" at all, once the season ends. And even these schools tend to receive subsidies from the academic institutions they represent, which comes in part from students' tuition.
Maybe — just maybe — we need to examine our college sports programs a little more closely if we want more millennials to be able to attend college. Do coaches of losing teams, or even winning teams, need that $3 million paycheck, or are we rewarding them simply for being a figurehead, a name that everyone knows? Might that money be better spent ensuring non-athletes can attend the university, or are we relying on the athletic department to do that by being flashy and popular?
I guess the only conclusion I can draw right now about the business of college sports is that I couldn't pick a better university athletic department — the University of Alabama, the 2013 BCS national champs — to be dipping into my tuition for the next two years. For some reason, that makes me feel a little better about this mess.