When Gus Malzahn bolted from Arkansas State University, which had given him his first head coaching job, about this time last year, he nearly tripled his $850,000 salary, generous by the standards of most Arkansans who work for a living.
One could hardly blame him, though; Auburn University offered a five-year deal worth about $2.3 million annually.
That move made a lot of ASU football fans angry. But college football has become a big business, especially for coaches who can deliver victories, and Malzahn obviously can. His second team will play for a national championship, and Auburn has already rewarded him with a new six-year contract worth about $3.85 million in the first year, with a built-in raise of $250,000 each year.
Meanwhile, ASU could lose its head football coach for the third straight year as Boise State University suddenly has an opening and a native son, Brian Harsin, is apparently one of the top candidates. To discourage that sort of thing, ASU built into Harsin’s $700,000 contract a buyout of $1.75 million for his first year, about $1 million more than Malzahn had.
Imagine that — a coach worth so much that another university might pay more than double his present salary just to hire him.
One organization that continues to do groundbreaking work on college athletic spending is the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, established in 1989 in response to a litany of scandals in college sports. Its work at least has caused the National Collegiate Athletic Association to adopt a rule that requires teams to try to graduate most of their players.
Last week, the commission announced a new online database that provides a wealth of information “to provide greater transparency for athletics finances and better measures to compare trends in academic and athletic spending.”
Its financial data came from reports collected by USA Today from about 220 public institutions classified as Division I by the NCAA. All have a legal obligation to release the data. Private institutions are not included, and a few public universities in Pennsylvania, plus the military academies, are exempt.
The data covers 2005-2011, with the year designation meaning the academic and fiscal year ending on June 30, rather than the calendar year. Thus, 2011 refers to the year from July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011. Data for 2012 will be added when NCAA reports are available.
A wealth of information is available on individual institutions, athletic conferences and Division I as a whole, broken down by Football Bowl Championship schools and those in the Football Championship Subdivision. The database allows you to obtain both standardized and customized reports, in either graph or table format.
For example, I set up a customized report to compare football coaching salaries per football player in the Southeastern Conference, where the University of Arkansas competes.
That median for all FBS schools has grown by 74 percent over the seven-year period — from $17,619 to $30,648. But in the SEC the median is much higher, $52,800, and has jumped by 117 percent.
Arkansas started out below average for its conference but has caught up and, in fact, now represents the mid-point for all schools. Yet its average is far behind Auburn’s $94,688 and Florida’s $81,017. SEC doormat Kentucky is at the bottom with $36,687, which perhaps says you get what you pay for.
A Knight Commission news release said that the growth of coaching salaries is a major factor in the overall growth of athletic spending, especially in the five richest conferences, including the SEC.
Of course, the cost of coaching salaries is just one part of athletic spending. I also did a chart to compare total athletic spending per athlete at UA and ASU. In that category for 2011, Arkansas again served as the conference median, $176,429, compared to $41,407 for ASU, which was in the bottom half of the Sun Belt Conference. The national median for all FBS schools was $96,948.
ASU’s average for coaching salaries per athlete was only $10,700 that year, but its football coaching salaries were upgraded considerably after that.
When comparing academic spending per FTE student, we find a huge discrepancy. The national median for FBS schools in 2011 was $13,736, an increase of 24 percent over seven years. UA was at $12,706, slightly below the SEC median, while ASU was at $7,111, well below its conference median.
After all, who wants to watch a college student work a trigonometry problem?
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.