Sports Columns

December 18, 2013

Tom Lindley: Top coach worth the investment

So, after a week of rumors, Nick Saban is staying at the University of Alabama as its football coach. No surprise there. And the likable but embattled Mack Brown is out at Texas. Again, no surprise, but the parting was unnecessarily messy.

Saban was given a new, long-term contract that extends his employment in Tuscaloosa at a pay scale of about $7 million a year, perhaps a little more. Brown will have to get by on $500,000 annually, but he won’t have any pressing duties except to show up at some cocktail parties and make rich donors feel important.

There’ll be no recruiting, game planning or frequent interviews on The Longhorn Network for Brown. Not a bad gig. The coaching and its pressures will be left to someone else, who will get a staggering financial package like the one Saban’s agent engineered.

What’s one to make of skyrocketing coaching salaries? Break down Saban’s salary and it works out to about $600,000 a game. That seems like a bit much if the opponent is Georgia State. Then again, Alabama Chancellor Robert Witt can look around Bryant-Denny Stadium on game day, see nearly 102,000 seats filled and describe Saban as “the best financial investment the university has ever made.”

It’s hard to argue with that. Alabama’s return on investment — three national championships under Saban — has been quite handsome. Those who think Saban is overpaid should consider the Seattle Mariners’ recent deal with infielder Robinson Cano for $240 million over 10 years. Does anyone think Cano is three times more valuable than Saban? Hardly.

What’s fair, what’s reasonable and what’s sensible have become unanswerable questions.

Meanwhile, Brown and others at the top of the coaching game know that what can be given can also be taken away.

Brown was making $400,000 at North Carolina when Texas hired him for $750,000. Since 1997, he’s been treated quite well at Texas, where he earned a little less than $5.5 million in 2013. His salary was second only to Saban’s in college football, according to figures compiled by USA Today.

The sad truth is that even though Brown wanted to continue coaching, Texas wanted a change. College football is a business where winning trumps everything else — even friendships.

Money is not a problem in Austin. The University of Texas operates the best-funded sports program in the country. Revenue in 2012 was $163.3 million, according to the USA Today report last month, besting runner-up Ohio State by more than $20 million.

To put that in perspective, Texas’ annual revenue tops that of many other major schools by more than $100 million annually — universities that include Kansas State, Georgia Tech, Arizona State, Oregon State, Colorado, Missouri and Mississippi, just to name a few.

College sports is big business, and schools operate like professional organizations in every way except to when it comes to compensating those who actually play the games. Then the NCAA and its member universities revert to the quaint notion that players are students who, when not in the classroom, double as athletes.

The NCAA has made it clear that student-athletes won’t become paid players; scholarships are enough compensation. That issue’s off the table, at least for now.

But when revenues vary so widely among member institutions, it leads to a question about fair competition on athletic fields.

The athletics-generated incomes of about 14 schools are at or more than $100 million per year. Not surprisingly, those schools are the powers of the powerful — half are in the Southeastern Conference and the Big 10 claims four, followed by the Big 12 (with two) and the Atlantic Coast Conference (with one).

Money might not be enough to buy a championship, but it certainly brings your team into the discussion. Nick Saban has the rings to show how it’s done. The new hire at Texas will be expected to do the same.

If not, he’ll probably end up working the cocktail circuit alongside Mack Brown.

Tom Lindley is a national sports columnist for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. You can write him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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