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Robert Witt was president of the University of Alabama in 2007 when the school signed Nick Saban to an eye-popping, eight-year, $32 million deal. Witt says that when he committed to that contract he had more in mind than improving the football program. Ten years later, Alabama has significantly boosted its enrollment and its academic profile.
Does that mean — to paraphrase a University of Oklahoma president of the 1950s — that Alabama has a university its football team can be proud of?
"I think we do," Witt says, offering a smile wide enough to embarrass the Cheshire cat.
Today Alabama's football team is No. 1 in the Amway Coaches Poll and its coach is tops too, at least as measured by the checks he cashes. Saban will make more than $11 million this season, including a $4 million bonus that the school prefers to call a "contract extension signing incentive." It's by far the most money a coach has made in a single year at a public school since USA TODAY Sports began tracking college athletics compensation in 2006. It also might well be among the greatest amounts ever paid to anyone in higher education or public service.
Is Saban worth such a princely price?
"Probably not," Saban says.
Just try to find anyone else in the state who'll agree with that assessment.
"Roll, Tide" is a salutation around here, like hello or goodbye elsewhere. And the university is on a roll every bit as much as its football team. In 2006, the year before Saban arrived, Alabama reports it had an incoming freshman class of 4,404 students (2,926 in-state, 1,478 out of state). This fall's incoming class, the school says, is 7,407 students (2,406 in-state, 5,001 out of state).
Alabama ensures the quality of much of its student body the same way that Saban ensures the competitiveness of his football team — with aggressive recruiting and liberal offers of scholarships. Alabama reports 41% of its incoming class scored 30 or higher on the ACT (versus 13% in 2006) while 34% had a GPA of 4.0 or higher in high school (versus 17% in 2006).
These results, of course, are a function of university strategies independent of Saban and the four national championships he's won here. Alabama has 45 recruiters in Alabama and across the country, many in markets where in generations past the university was simply not a consideration, such as California and Connecticut. Rick Funk, director of admissions for out-of-state recruitment, says his recruiters primarily sell the school's academic programs, though he concedes football inevitably comes up in conversation.
"It's the elephant in the room," Funk says — and he doesn't mean Big Al, Alabama's pachyderm mascot.
Alabama's push for growth began before Saban was hired. Still, Witt says signing him was a key portion of a master plan for expanding enrollment, though it's difficult to measure how much growth would have followed had someone else been hired as coach. And someone else nearly was: Witt says Alabama was "truly blessed" when Rich Rodriguez turned down the job after Alabama fired Mike Shula in 2006 and Saban at first rebuffed an Alabama offer.
Mal Moore, then Alabama's athletics director, at last pried Saban away from the NFL's Miami Dolphins and then told Witt to go explain the landmark deal to the school's board of trustees. The pitch Witt made, as he remembers it, was simply this: Think of Saban's salary as an investment rather than an expense -- "and that he was going to become an important part of our effort to turn the University of Alabama into a truly national university."
Since, Alabama will have paid Saban a total of at least $65 million through his 11 seasons, including this one, and that doesn't even count incentive bonuses and the value of other perks.
Saban's salary in 2007, his first year at Alabama, was $3.5 million; only Oklahoma's Bob Stoops made more that year. Adjusted for inflation, Saban's original salary would be $4.1 million today, which would be good for roughly 20th among today's coaches.
When USA TODAY Sports began its analyses of coaches' salaries in major-college football in 2006, the average salary was $950,000 — or $1.2 million in today's dollars. This season, among the same group of schools studied in 2006, the average salary has doubled to $2.4 million — and Saban is making nearly five times that average.
Alabama athletics director Greg Byrne figures that's fair. "He's separated himself from the market," Byrne says.
CEO of a corporation
Saban's base salary is $245,000. This season he gets nearly $10.9 million in other compensation. That includes a $4 million one-time signing bonus that Byrne says is a recognition of what Saban accomplished in his first 10 seasons at Alabama. It does not include bonuses that can max out at $700,000, depending on the team's performance on the field and in the classroom. Nor does it include Saban living in his home at no cost. The Crimson Tide Foundation bought it from him in 2013. The foundation paid the prorated property taxes on the home that year; there are no longer any property taxes because the foundation is part of the university.
"I think offering Coach Saban a compensation package that addresses all of his interests is in the best interest of the university," Witt says. "Whether that is his house, car, whatever."
Saban gets the use of two full-size cars for him and his immediate family; all operating expenses and insurance are paid by the university. The contract also specifies that for each contract year that Saban completes, the school will pay $100,000 to the Saban family's charity, the Nick's Kids Foundation, or another organization he can designate after conferring with the university.
The economic impacts on campus that administrators cite in justifying Saban's compensation compound the case being made in federal court and elsewhere that college athletes deserve more for playing their sports than the NCAA currently allows. Alabama President Stuart Bell and Witt say they are not in favor of paying college athletes. But they say they do favor consideration of ways to give athletes more generous benefits than the cost-of-attendance-based scholarships they receive now, including the possibility of paying for graduate school at an athlete's institution of choice.
"The smaller schools are so concerned about the expenses of their programs that they're opposed to anything that increases expenses," says Witt, who was Alabama president from 2003 to 2012 and then chancellor of the University of Alabama System until he retired in 2016. "I'd rather see the NCAA more focused on doing everything possible to support athletes academically than being fixated on head coaches' salaries."
Ozan Jaquette, an assistant professor of higher education at UCLA, thinks Alabama administrators are justified in making the case that Saban is worth the money he makes. Jaquette conducts research on public universities that try to attract more out-of-state students given shrinking state education budgets. He says Alabama has been among the most successful at increasing its number of out-of-state students — and probably the most successful at raising its academic profile at the same time.
He says Alabama's strategy would work at few other schools: "It's not something that, let's say, Middle Tennessee State could easily replicate. Not many can play that game."
88 new buildings, $2 billion spent since 2003
Bell spreads a large map of the campus across a table in his office, surveying it like a general before battle. Alabama's president is pointing to a bundle of buildings that have popped up in recent years, all to accommodate the expanding enrollment from 23,878 in 2006 to 38,563 today, an increase of 62%. (Undergraduate enrollment grew from 19,474 to 33,305, all numbers per the school.)
Other schools in the Southeastern Conference, most notably Arkansas and Mississippi, also have had robust enrollment increases during this time, although not as robust as Alabama's.
"We've invested $200 million in our residence halls — what you and I used to call dorms," Bell says. "And we're breaking ground on two more."
Alabama says its investment is more than $2 billion since 2003, including 88 new buildings and renovation of 59 others. Much of that is paid for by the higher tuition of all those out-of-state students; they pay $28,100 this school year versus $10,780 for in-state students.
The 85,000-square-foot Witt Student Activity Center that opened in 2014 boasts a 40-foot climbing wall and views of the Black Warrior River through floor-to-ceiling windows from the cardio floor.
"So, as you are driving around, if you think, 'Wow, this looks expensive,'" Bell says, "it is."
Laura Catherine Wallace, better known as L.C., is a chemical engineering major from Nashville who gives campus tours by golf cart. She wheels around the grounds showing off Alabama's array of red-brick buildings and stately white columns. That, she says, pointing at one, is the SEC. No, not the Southeastern Conference — the Science and Engineering Complex.
Wallace also considered Vanderbilt and Virginia but scored a scholarship to Alabama. "They really show they want you," she says. Though, truth to tell, she wasn't a hard sell: Her maternal grandparents met here and her mother went here too.
Connor Aycock, a civil engineering major who works at the climbing wall, tells a different story. He is from Denver and had no affinity for Alabama before he met recruiter Beth Hodge, who covers Colorado and Wyoming.
"Then I visited and fell in love with the place," Aycock says. "The housing, the campus, the football — everything aligned."
Aycock says he is a Presidential scholar, for students who score 33 to 36 on their ACT or 1490 to 1600 on their SAT, coupled with high GPAs in high school. He loved Denver Broncos football before he arrived on campus; now he loves Alabama football, too.
Are you worth it?
USA TODAY Sports asked to speak to Saban for this story. Josh Maxson, Alabama's assistant athletics director for football communications, said there'd be no chance for a one-on-one interview but invited USA TODAY Sports to ask a question at one of Saban's weekly news conferences. The question: You're making about $11.1 million this season. Are you worth it?
That's when Saban said probably not. "But I really don't do this for the money," he added, "never really have."
Saban talked about how he began his career as a graduate assistant more than 40 years ago and how he made $8,000 (nearly $38,000 in today's dollars) when he got his first full-time gig as an assistant. He began as a grad assistant at Kent State, his alma mater, and that's where he became linebackers coach in 1975.
"And that was after two years of being a graduate assistant and making nothing, going to graduate school and working, loading trucks at night and my wife worked in the registrar's office," Saban said. "We were happy when my dad brought us a case of peas, so we could have a side dish when we were eating. We worked hard through the years."
Saban's tone suggested that perhaps he considered the question an impertinence.
"I don't think it's up to me to determine what the value is or what the market is for coaches, or what value I have created for this institution or this place," Saban said. "I think those people" — school administrators, presumably — "made those decisions. We haven't asked for anything."
Surely his agent, Jimmy Sexton, asks for things. Byrne, the athletics director, confirms that Sexton has made asks in contract negotiations, but Byrne said Saban's most recent negotiation was an easy one. Saban, who turns 66 on Halloween, got a three-year extension in May. His current eight-year deal runs through Jan. 31, 2025. If Alabama were to fire Saban without cause while the deal has it least four years remaining, it would owe him $26.9 million, subject to offset from subsequent income.
Faculty fine with Saban salary?
The question stands: Is Saban worth $11.1 million in a single season?
"He's worth absolutely every penny," says Bell, who signs Saban's contracts.
"Of course he is," says Byrne, who negotiates Saban's contracts.
"Yes, definitely yes," says Witt, who signed Saban to that first deal.
If there are Alabamans who think not, "they'd probably never say so publicly," says George Rable, professor emeritus of history at Alabama.
Rable remembers his first faculty senate meeting at Alabama. The only complaint he heard about football was how hard it was to get tickets. Faculty on other campuses often chafe at the misguided priorities of American higher education as represented by the millions made by the nation's top football coaches.
"The faculty here," Rable says, "is very quiet about such things."
Alabama coaching legend Paul "Bear" Bryant insisted that he always make less than Alabama's president, even if only by a dollar, according to Bryant biographer Allen Barra in The Last Coach. Bell's compensation package totals $755,000; several of Saban's assistant coaches make more than that. Bell says he's fine with that. "If you're going to have the best," he says, you have to pay for the best.
Witt seconds that emotion. He recalls a meeting with Alabama's board of trustees before he became president.
"One of them looked at me and said, 'We want the University of Alabama to be as respected academically as it is athletically,'" Witt says. "And we wanted to be a national university and we wanted to grow."
Alabama reports its applications grew from 15,761 in 2006 to 43,735 for the current entering class.
Witt says Saban has been an engine for all of that. Even so, he can't resist a small joke about compensation and reincarnation.
"In my next life," Witt says, "I'm coming back as a football coach."
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