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College football boosters help fund ‘arms race’ for coaches. It's getting out of control.

From Alabama's Nick Saban to Clemson's Dabo Swinney to reigning champion Georgia's Kirby Smart, the one-upmanship continues unabated.

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Nick Saban’s path to the mountaintop of riches that universities are heaping upon college football coaches was charted by his distant predecessor at Alabama, Paul W. “Bear” Bryant. 

It was Bryant who 65 years ago opted to return home from Texas A&M for a multi-year contract paying $15,000 a year plus 1% in ticket sales, taking over a team that had just been spanked by Auburn, 40-0, in the Iron Bowl. 

Fiercely determined to construct a powerhouse program, Bryant crisscrossed the state, unveiling his intentions to businesspeople, securing donations he used for scholarships to retain needed talent. 

By nurturing a unique culture steeled by a frenzied and devout fan base and strengthened by his willingness to pursue financial backing, Bryant won an astounding six national championships from 1961 to 1979. 

More powerful, it could be argued, is the blueprint he left for the game’s continued growth. 

This year’s annual USA TODAY Sports examination of NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision head coaches’ pay reveals a 15.3% rise in average total compensation compared to last season’s, the greatest one-year spike since the current basic methodology was put in place for the 2009 survey. While that increase is measured against 2021 figures that still were being affected by pandemic-related pay reductions that began in 2020, if the reductions for the 2021 season are disregarded, the increase is 12.8%. 

A mighty base of the wealth drawn to fund this spiraling pay derives from boosters donating handsome sums. 

College football boosters have been cast as wealthy, reclusive types whose past emergence from the shadows was prodded only when reporters or NCAA investigators rooted out improper benefits or payments to players.

Now, they are in plain sight, and so is their involvement in getting the coach and helping fund the big-bucks deal.

“Coaches are the best fundraisers, because guys want to brag about being around them,” said Bryant’s son, Paul Bryant Jr. “The resources applied to this are emotional and financial. That’s important to understand.” 

The latest Alabama crescendo arrived in August when Bryant Jr.’s successors on the university’s board of trustees approved an eight-year contract awarding Saban the most lucrative average annual package of all: $11.7 million, with potential earnings of $93.6 million through February 2030, excluding bonuses. Saban has led Alabama to six titles.

It was a hardly subtle thumb of the nose to coach Kirby Smart and Georgia after the Bulldogs reacted to defeating the Crimson Tide in last season’s national title game by rewarding Smart a then-record $11.25 million average annual salary in July. 

“States with a whole lot more resources than us don’t come close to our success,” Bryant Jr. said. 

Helping to continue his father’s legacy through financial means – Bryant Jr. built Alabama’s largest family owned bank and became the Crimson Tide’s most powerful donor – is a deep source of pride. 

“I was trying to maintain what my father did,” he said.

One SEC booster labels this money-grab college football’s “arms race,” with boosters motivated by school and community pride, by tax write-offs and multi-level perks, giving them a powerful role in lifting the sport to this next level. 

Eighteen Power Five public schools – including Clemson (Dabo Swinney), Michigan (Jim Harbaugh), and Michigan State (Mel Tucker) – awarded their existing coaches raises of at least $1 million.

Adding in the expected – but undisclosed – increases that Southern California and Miami (Fla.) gave Lincoln Riley and Mario Cristobal, respectively, at least 21 of the 65 Power Five schools, basically one-third, are paying at least $1 million more than they were scheduled to pay last season.

The average pay for the 52 Power Five public school head coaches is just over $5.45 million this season, up from $4.66 million last season. 

A lot of those raises can also be explained by the game being awash in looming television cash. 

The Big Ten next season starts a seven-year, $7 billion deal with Fox, CBS and NBC, with new members USC and UCLA coming aboard in 2024. The SEC begins a 10-year contract with ESPN that will pay $300 million annually starting in 2024. And the Pac-12 is moving toward a new media rights deal in 2024. 

'Spiraling out of control'

While taxpayer-supported public schools and tax-advantaged private universities rely on corporate sponsorship, student-fee assessments and ticket revenue to shoulder some of the load, a still significant piece of the coaching money puzzle is filled by boosters.

The running theme among those giving is that the potential return on investment is too rich to shy away from. When the football team is successful, the university and the community shine. 

One of the most impactful foundations is the private nonprofit Tiger Athletic Foundation, a 20,000-plus-donor entity that supports LSU's athletic department and directed $40 million to athletics in the fiscal year ending in June.   

A review of the TAF audit showed its net assets for the year ending Dec. 31, 2021, at $271.2 million – including $133 million in "undesignated" net assets. 

Identifying its "primary objectives" as encouraging, supporting and raising funds for LSU, the foundation also helps maintain and improve athletic facilities and oversees the financing and management of premium seating areas and suites, including Tiger Stadium's Stadium Club and Tiger Den and the baseball field's Alex Box Suites, collecting revenue from those venues.

The TAF clarifies that it is not an agent for LSU, and emphasizes its funds are considered private.

College football head coach pay at Football Bowl Subdivision schools averages $1.3 million in 2009.

After adjustments to their contracts, Texas’ Mack Brown and Alabama’s Nick Saban become the first coaches to breach the $5 million mark.

After dipping below $5 million in 2011, Saban's annual pay steadily rises and in 2014 makes him the first to earn more than $7 million.

Jim Harbaugh leaves the NFL’s 49ers and signs a 7-year deal with Michigan. He gets over $7 million annually and a one-time jump to $9 million for 2016.

Clemson announces a new 8-year deal with Dabo Swinney. It starts with $6 million in regular pay, $1.5 million signing bonus, another $1 million one-time payment.

In December 2017, Texas A&M gives Jimbo Fisher a 10-year, $75 million contract with all of the money guaranteed if Fisher is fired without cause.

With help from boosters, Michigan State gives Mel Tucker a 10-year, $95 million contract that contributes to a 15% increase in average coaches pay, surpassing $3 million.

USA TODAY Sports began its current compilation of football head coaches’ pay at Bowl Subdivision schools in 2006. The chart, above, begins with 2009 because these data were not compiled in 2008. More about the chart 1

The audit showed the TAF fronted “a company” an interest-free loan of $780,000 in March, which a person familiar with the deal said was made in the package that lured coach Brian Kelly from Notre Dame to assist with Kelly's purchase of a Baton Rouge home. The person requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the deal publicly. 

Additionally, the TAF will pay $1 million annually toward Kelly’s compensation, which totals $9.81 million for this season.

"Every time you turn around, someone else is building a bigger, better coaching package ... it builds upon itself, and where is the end result? I don’t know,” said TAF member Gordon McKernan, a personal injury attorney who also supports Tigers players through a name, image and likeness program. “Things are somewhat spiraling out of control, but that’s the reality we’re living in right now.”  

U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) said he is "alarmed by the multimillion-dollar salaries and lavish benefits that state universities are doling out to athletic coaches while enjoying robust federal funding and tax exemptions," and Pascrell said he's certain his House Oversight Committee will address the situation. 

"This is a deeply dysfunctional arrangement," Pascrell told USA TODAY Sports in an e-mail. “Most Americans had no idea about this ... American taxpayers didn’t sign up to subsidize exorbitant college coaching contracts. Universities should prioritize investing in improving education, not winning football games. 

"The priorities of some of these schools are out of whack." 

Despite the hand-wringing, those who know the accounting and understand the majority of an athletic department’s revenue derives from football essentially scoff at critics of the gluttonous sums. 

“That (head coach) is going to be in charge of creating that revenue … if you look at other companies throughout the country that aren’t sports-related, how much are their CEOs getting paid?” said one booster club member who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the university did not authorize them to speak publicly on the matter.

“That’s where people look at it the wrong way. Because it’s college – because it’s football – they don’t think it should happen. But if you look at Apple or Google, no one’s worried about what their CEOs earn. It might not feel right, but it’s the major cog in the wheel that’s driving what we’re doing, and a multi-million-dollars enterprise is a big deal. If you don’t take it seriously and don’t invest in what you need to, you’re jeopardizing what you’re doing.” 

Boosters have bought in to that sentiment.  

Florida’s biggest athletic department donor, Gary Condron, has contributed more than $30 million to the Gators. Condron has leaned on the Florida education that made him the first college graduate in his family. He has become a powerful commercial construction developer whose company has built multiple Amazon distribution centers.  

The football team’s practice facility and baseball stadium are named for him; he funded a new health/nutrition center for all athletes, and he said he’ll provide support to the renovation of “The Swamp” – a project estimated to cost in the hundreds of millions. The Gators' football stadium is downsizing its overall attendance and adding suites. 

McKernan, the Baton Rouge personal injury attorney, has also displayed profound financial allegiance to his program. The fulfillment of McKernan’s donations was punctuated when his son, quarterback John Gordon McKernan, was rewarded with a preferred walk-on spot on the 2019 national title team.  

As the elder McKernan basked in the victory in his pricey Superdome seat, the son celebrated afterward near cigar-smoking QB Joe Burrow and locker room visitor Odell Beckham Jr.  

“It was important for myself and businessmen like me to bring it back to where (former LSU coach) Saban had brought it previously," Gordon McKernan said. "We longed for that again – top five every year – and it was great to do my little part.  

“… It was such a wonderful, satisfying moment as a father to a son who’s on the team you love. (John Gordon) was down the depth chart, basically holding the blocking and tackling dummies for (Burrow), and we had a little better insight into the team because of him.”  

One of Condron’s perks has been serving as an honorary head coach in the Gators’ annual “Orange and Blue” football game.  

A boss in his everyday work, Condron insists he’s content to yield to the head of the athletic department and not engage in the stereotypical behavior of powerful boosters wielding job-changing influence. He was disappointed by the work of former coach Dan Mullen last season but said he didn’t voice that displeasure until approached by Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin.  

“It was getting pretty ugly, and you could tell (Mullen) wasn't all in on the recruiting side of things, which is the heartbeat of any college football program,” Condron said. “ … (Stricklin) came to talk to me about it and told me things were not in a great direction.”  

Mullen’s firing without cause required a $12 million buyout, half of which was due within 30 days and the rest over six years. Florida’s hiring of Billy Napier from Louisiana-Lafayette necessitated a $3 million buyout of Napier’s contract. And while Napier is making about $300,000 less this season than Mullen would have made, the contract that Napier and Florida negotiated calls for him to annually have salary pools for the Gators’ 10 assistant coaches and the football support staff that are significantly greater than what Florida was spending under Mullen.

Last season, Florida was set to spend $5.96 million on assistants. Napier’s basic budget can be up to $7.5 million. This season, Florida is set to spend about $6.325 million on assistants. But Napier has the contractual discretion, in consultation with Stricklin, to re-allocate money from the assistants’ pool to a basic staff budget of up to $5 million – or vice-versa.

According to a Florida athletics department spokesman, Florida was scheduled to spend about $3.85 million on football-specific support staff for the 2021 season and it is set to spend about $6.2 million for the 2022 season.

In its opener Florida defeated Utah, then ranked No. 8 in the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll, and Condron is inspired by the promise of Napier’s hiring.   

“We've had national championships in the past with Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, and I see that in Billy Napier … he's smart, he’s passionate about the game, he's a leader, he's organized and he loves to recruit. We've got great things ahead for us.” 

Special arrangements

The repeating cycle of coaching turnover has caught the attention of one former distinguished head coach.   

“The great majority of these boosters and alumni think when they hire a coach that they’ve hired someone who can get them to the national championship,” said Gene Stallings, a former Bear Bryant player at Texas A&M who coached Alabama to the 1992 national championship.  

“They’re all paid like they’re going to win the national championship. And they all don’t do it.”  

In the case of Michigan State, the decision to present Tucker with an eye-popping 10-year, $95 million contract extension was a preemptive strike led by a booster when LSU and USC had openings at head coach. 

An alumni group, headed by former Spartans walk-on basketball player Mat Ishbia, helped fund Tucker’s staggering $4 million raise that arrived with the then 9-1 Spartans ranked No. 7 in the nation.  

Ishbia, chairman/CEO of Michigan-based mortgage lender UWM Holdings, said he was moved to give millions by wondering, “How do we make sure that when somebody wants to be loyal and be all-in with Michigan State, we financially take care of him? … I was happy to assist in helping bridge the gap, (to) take care of a good guy who’s all in for Michigan State. 

“That’s how we do it at Michigan (State),” Ishbia told USA TODAY Sports in a December interview. “We’re Midwestern. We’re about family.”

In an attempt to review Michigan State’s donor agreement between the university and donors Ishbia and Steve St. Andre, the Detroit Free Press in June sued Michigan State to reveal the conditions of the donation and to identify what sort of influence this arrangement provides the boosters. The case is pending.

Michigan State officials did not return requests for comment for this report. The Spartans are 2-4 this season.

Earlier last year, Texas A&M extended coach Jimbo Fisher’s contract for 10 years, paying him $9 million this year and peaking at $9.95 million in the final year when he was previously due $7.5 million annually.  Athletic director Ross Bjork explained, “We wanted to show that Texas A&M is here to stay.”  

Donor dollars at Texas A&M are processed through the general budget, Bjork said. “We believe that's a healthy arrangement,” he said.  

Bjork came to Texas A&M from Mississippi. There, in an arrangement dating to before Bjork’s time, the Ole Miss Athletics Foundation this season is providing close to $7 million of coach Lane Kiffin’s $7.25 million annual compensation, with the state paying just $290,000.

“I kept asking the question: ‘Why don’t we just have a fully university loaded contract? I don't understand why we're doing this through the athletic foundation,’ ” Bjork said. "That was the advice of legal counsel, to have a base salary with a university contract, and then what's called a supplemental salary contract with the athletic foundation. That was just something that was historical there at Ole Miss."

Ole Miss Athletics Foundation CEO Denson Hollis, who doubles as Mississippi's senior associate athletic director for development, said the university takes "tremendous pride in the contributions to the compensation of coaches at Ole Miss.

"Doing so has proven to be one of the most effective methods of supporting athletics at Ole Miss. Relying solely on available state funds without the support of outside contributions, like those of the Ole Miss Athletics Foundation, would make it difficult to attract and keep premier coaching talent. Simply put, the foundation’s contributions enable Ole Miss to stay competitive in the coaching market.”

At Mississippi State, the state pays $600,000 of coach Mike Leach’s annual compensation, and boosters who form the Bulldog Club contribute the remaining $4.9 million.

Mississippi and Mississippi State have similar arrangements with other prominent athletics department employees.

Athletic administrators understand that summoning booster dollars can foster entitlement from the contributors.

At Texas A&M, Fisher has drawn media criticism for the Aggies' rough start. In an interview before those recent losses, Bjork said he’s found it's helpful “to build proactive early relationships (with boosters) whenever you start a new job or whenever there's a transition.  

“So then if there is a bump in the road, then somebody doesn't have one agenda over here and the A.D. has their agenda and the president's office has this agenda. Everybody's on the same page.” 

'Is it sustainable?'

To pretend there’s not some considerable wealth-flexing among boosters who are used to exerting their power in the business world is a foolish undertaking.  

“There’s no question it’s an arms race. The question I have is, ‘Is it sustainable?’ Especially with the NIL. I don’t see it as being sustainable,” Florida’s Condron said.  

“At some point, it’s going to crack (and) the donors aren’t going to keep reaching,” LSU booster McKernan said. “I don’t know that we’ve reached the breaking point, but there does need to be a ceiling. It’s not healthy for college athletics for it to keep spiraling like it is.” 

While the increased television money has calmed administrators' fears on that topic, NIL is altering how donors give, shifting some of their money away from athletic facilities and coaches’ salary and buyouts, in favor of paying players to promote their companies.  

“You may have a company or donor interested in NIL, and they’re also interested in our athletic foundation. You have to be sensitive to the question of, ‘Does one cannibalize the other?’ ” Coastal Carolina athletic director Matt Hogue said. 

Jordan Acker, an elected member of the Michigan Board of Trustees, said donors want to provide the best facilities and help athletes. “What donors are going to care about,” he said, “is winning.” 

With corporate America also providing hundreds of millions in sponsorship money, the emphasis on hiring the perfect football coach has never been more vital to universities. And the considerable booster influence and major pay raises are not just a Power Five phenomenon.  

The University of Texas at San Antonio only began playing football in 2011, then moved to the FBS two years later. It hasn't taken the Roadrunners long to figure out the game.

They rewarded coach Jeff Traylor handsomely for his 12-win, 2021 Conference USA title campaign with a 10-year contract that more than tripled his compensation – from $830,000 to $2.5 million this season – as UTSA prepares for a move to the American Athletic Conference next season.

Traylor’s pay increase was the most substantial, by percentage, given to any incumbent college football coach at a public school this season. And it was a greater hike than what Cincinnati gave Luke Fickell ($1.65 million more) after the Bearcats reached the College Football Playoff semifinals.

Traylor’s deal was the latest bold move to expand the university’s success backed by Roadrunner Foundation board head Gene Dawson, who runs San Antonio’s largest civil engineering firm. In unveiling UTSA’s $40.4 million, 95,000-square-foot athletics center last year, Dawson also promised a $5 million investment to cover the practice field.  

Dawson declined an interview request from USA TODAY Sports.   

Texas-San Antonio athletic director Lisa Campos declined to specify what Dawson contributed to Traylor’s raise, explaining she pulled from an operating budget filled by buckets from athletic department revenue, conference dollars, donor funds and ticket sales.  

“What’s really amazing about Gene is that he’s not a UTSA alum, but he cares about San Antonio, and when you look at a lot of our donors who’ve made a difference, a lot of them did not have a connection to UTSA until we started football,” Campos said. “The motto here has always been, ‘What’s good for UTSA is what’s good for San Antonio.’ ”  

She said no one is better than Traylor to spread that message in the football-crazed state.  

“When I can hire someone like Coach Traylor, who genuinely cares about his students, who wants them to grow and become great, productive citizens in the communities they choose to live in … I know that’s what Jeff is all about,” Campos said.  

“He ignites a spark into every group he talks to. Our fans realize we are going to continue asking of them, but when you have someone special like (Traylor), we know they’ll want to sustain that winning culture.”  

That same model worked for Bear Bryant.  

So why change now? 

Contributing: David Jesse of the Detroit Free Press and Brent Schrotenboer and Tom Schad of USA TODAY.

Footnotes

1 More about the chart
The methodology and pay categories implemented in 2009 differ from those used in 2006 and 2007. The averages shown have not been adjusted for inflation. The averages for the 2020 and 2021 seasons took into account voluntary or mandatory pay reductions for – and/or donations made by – public-school coaches in connection with financial conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Like various forms of compensation, the reduction amounts were calculated based on the coaches’ respective contract years and the reduction terms as they existed at the time the pay surveys were published each October. The number of schools on which the annual averages are based has varied over time. This is due to changes in the Bowl Subdivision’s membership, which has grown from 120 in 2009 to 131 in 2022, and to fluctuations in the number of schools for which compensation figures could be obtained in any given year.
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