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Clemson University football coach Dabo Swinney received $400,000 last season after directing his team to a third consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference championship and a third consecutive appearance in the College Football Playoff.
After steering his team to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, Clemson coach Brad Brownell received $80,000. In the previous season, University of South Carolina coach Frank Martin received $272,000 after leading the Gamecocks to the Final Four.
Those figures would be impressive salaries for most folks. But those were not salaries. They were bonuses.
College athletics is a multibillion-dollar industry. Television rights contracts. Ticket sales. Merchandising. Donations. Several revenue streams gush into these public entities, and then flood coaches' pockets.
According to figures compiled by ESPN senior researcher Charlotte Gibson, the highest-paid public employee in 39 states is either a college football or basketball coach. In the remaining 11 states, the highest-paid public officials include seven higher education administrators, a school district superintendent, an anesthesiologist, a neurosurgeon and a president of a gas line development corporation.
Gibson's findings illuminate a perplexing dichotomy on college campuses between education and an entertainment enterprise that often diminishes education to an ancillary affiliation. Administrators may desire to redistribute the funds, but strict guidelines keep academic and athletic revenue streams separated.
The pressure to keep pace and the allure of prestige perpetuate these swelling salaries. Administrators contend little short of legislative reform can prevent this market from spiraling out of control.
"Depending on your perspective, some people might say it already is out of control," said Dr. Mark Nagel, a professor in the USC Department of Sport and Entertainment Management and associate director of the College Sport Research Institute.
"We have a round peg in a square hole," Nagel said. "We've been trying, really for the last hundred years, this weird marriage of big-time sport and education. You have two things that are really distinct in what their mission and goals are, but they're asked to co-exist and function together.
"The two have always been in conflict. Over the last five, 10 years, that conflict has become more pronounced because the money involved has become so large."
Swinney, Martin, Brownell, USC football coach Will Muschamp, USC women's basketball coach Dawn Staley and Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables are the only public employees in South Carolina with a salary that exceeds $1 million.
According to the state department of administration, the highest-paid state employee outside of coaching is USC senior vice president Ed Walton. His salary is merely $9,520 more than what Swinney earned in bonuses last year. The lowest-paid assistant football coach at Clemson and USC each earned at least twice more than Gov. Henry McMaster's salary of $106,078.
In August, Swinney signed an eight-year, $54 million contract. Including his $1.5 million signing bonus, in 2017, Swinney was paid $1.45 million more than all 50 United States governors combined. Swinney would be the highest-paid public employee in 49 states, behind only University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban, who received $11.1 million last year.
One does not need to be a head coach to climb the ledgers. Last year, Clemson offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott and USC defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson each earned at least $100,000 more than the combined salaries of USC president Harris Pastides and Clemson president Jim Clements.
In South Carolina, where public school teacher wages trail national averages and the primary road system is crumbling, many people struggle to reconcile a public entity spending prodigiously on sports.
"I cannot justify it," Pastides said. "I speak to citizens all the time or I get emails, 'How can that coach earn so much - many, many times what professors make, and many, many, many, many times what average university employees, not to mention state workers, make?' I think it's a system that is not in control, not balanced, not in accord with our values even."
Halting the trend is not as simple as saying, "Enough is enough!" Many dollars flow into the athletic department with instructions. Boosters can specify to what team or what project their donations must go. Schools can contribute portions of revenues to the university, but they cannot reallocate state funds earmarked for athletic expenditures.
"Athletics controls a big part of our social fabric in this country, and there's a lot of people who couldn't care less about what's going on in the library or what's going on in the biology lab," Nagel said. "But, 'By God, if our basketball team needs a new facility, I'll cut a check for it right now, because I want to make sure we can win.'
"It sometimes creates these almost crazy scenarios, where we build a brand new athletic training center one block away from the library that's closing early each night to save on the power bill. It's because we have two different pots of money, and we have two different sources of revenue feeding each of those pots."
According to figures compiled by USA TODAY Sports, in 2016, at least 64 percent of athletic budgets were subsidized by institutional or state funds at each of South Carolina's smaller NCAA Division I schools - The Citadel, College of Charleston, Coastal Carolina, South Carolina State and USC Upstate. Clemson reported a 4.42 percent subsidy. Among the 230 programs included in the compilation, USC was one of 13 that operated with no subsidy.
"The university sends not one dollar to athletics," Pastides said. "Everything that they see from coaches' salaries and students' grant-in-aid to new football operations centers and tennis facilities is paid for by athletic revenue. On top of that, at my university, athletics makes an annual contribution to the academic side of the house."
In 2016, USC ranked 17th among Division I programs with $122.3 million in total revenue. That included $30.3 million in contributions and $47.7 million from rights and licensing contracts. That year, the athletic department sent $3.23 million to the university.
Most athletic programs are not positioned to offer that same support. According to USA TODAY Sports, in 2016, merely 41 of 230 public school athletic programs transferred funds to their universities.
In addition to the allocation stipulations, federal antitrust laws prevent university presidents and athletic directors from colluding to reduce salaries.
"It's the same thing that will not allow corporations to get together to say, 'Let's agree not to pay our CEOs more than $1 million a year,'" Pastides said, "If it is to be stopped, it really will come out of, I believe, some congressional debate or mandate, to say, 'This is an unusual category of employment, and we've got to do something about it.'
"The universities themselves can't really stop the madness on our own."
Pastides contended that accounting restrictions still are not enough to rationalize the soaring salaries.
"That still doesn't mean they should do whatever they want and pay coaches whatever they can, because they could do other things with that money," Pastides said. "If coaches weren't making millions of dollars, that money could be used in other ways to support student-athletes."
Re-order in the court
NCAA regulations restrict schools from compensating players beyond the standard scholarship package, but many schools invest in athletes through academic and career development programs, upgraded facilities, apparel and nutritionists. Marlon Kimpson, a state senator from Charleston, asserts that schools can reconfigure their budgets to offer players a more direct benefit.
In 2014, Kimpson filed a bill that would force schools to pay athletes a weekly stipend and allocate $5,000 each year for each athlete's trust fund. The bill was never voted upon, and Kimpson filed it again last year.
"I'm using this bill as an opportunity to talk about the gross unfairness of a multibillion-dollar cartel that does not have the best welfare of the student-athletes at heart," Kimpson said. "This whole conversation is about bringing economic justice to the field. We've got to rethink this archaic dinosaur of the NCAA, who pays coaches more than corporate CEOs in any state.
"If we weren't paying those large salaries or helping to subsidize those large salaries, we could be using our money for other things, like increasing teacher pay. In other words, let the universities use that money derived from the private sources to make capital repairs on the science building. That would be less of a burden on the state."
In 2009, Swinney's first full season as head coach, Clemson paid him $816,850. In 2017, he received $7.5 million. In 2015, the NCAA passed legislation that expanded the compensation package for players beyond tuition, room and board. Scholarships can now include the full cost of attendance. Players are awarded a stipend to cover additional fees, books and travel expenses. The increase signaled significant progress, but it is far from the 818 percent raise Swinney has enjoyed.
"A guy like coach Swinney who can bring in those top-level recruits and coach them, that's worth a lot of money," Clemson economics professor Dr. Raymond Sauer said. "But the players are the ones that make the biggest difference. In my view, they ought to get paid more. They are getting paid more than they were 10 years ago, but we've still got a long way to go."
Sauer estimates that, during Clemson's run to the 2016 national championship, star quarterback Deshaun Watson's value as a revenue generator and marketing agent for the university exceeded $5 million.
"There's no system of rules that's going to pay him what he was worth," Sauer said. "But substantially more than what he got I think is feasible."
Former Clemson football player Martin Jenkins is the lead plaintiff in a federal law suit against the NCAA that challenges the longstanding premise of amateurism. If the plaintiffs win the trial, which is scheduled to resume in December, a competitive market will control the value of a scholarship, instead a set of regulations the NCAA endorses to protect its lucrative model.
"The NCAA puts on this thing to say, 'We need the student part of the athlete for that demand to be there, and if we took it away, demand is going to go away,'" Sauer said. "The courts are knocking that back now. The evidence is knocking that back.
"Now, we're paying athletes stipends, which are non-trivial and it's not changing anything. The popularity is still there. The demand is still there. I think incrementally if we moved substantially further in that direction toward paying players closer to their worth, things will be fine."
Cost of competition
No law forces schools to renew coaches' contracts nearly every year, even after moderate achievement. There is no mandate that requires exorbitant incentive packages. Coaches, and their agents, thrust this trend forward.
Within the context of the industry, Swinney's seemingly excessive salary compares reasonably with the other three active head coaches who have won a national championship. Alabama's Nick Saban, Ohio State's Urban Meyer and Texas A&M's Jimbo Fisher each earn at least $7 million per year.
"It's driven by the law of the market really, not legislation," Sauer said. "If you're going to be competitive in athletics, and everybody wants to be competitive in athletics, then you're going to have to spend at the same level or higher than other people are. So, athletic departments are expected to spend what they bring in."
Individual schools can choose not to participate in the salary sweepstakes. But, in South Carolina, where tailgate traditions bind communities and passionate rivalries have no offseason, many people struggle to reconcile the threat of slipping out of contention.
"At some point, given that you cannot restrain it, the question then becomes, 'Well, do you want to be the university that decides to toe the line, and probably see your competitiveness suffer?'" Pastides said. "That's a very hard thing for universities, boards of trustees and even fans to countenance."
In NCAA Division III, athletes are not awarded scholarships, and players' practice time is reduced. According to the NCAA, in 2014, the median total coaching staff salary for Division III football program was $258,900. That year, the median for Division I bowl subdivision staffs was $4,734,000.
"In Division III, the model works very, very well with education and athletics being incorporated together," Nagel said. "Coaches and athletic directors are paid very similarly to department chairs and deans. You're not seeing coaches getting on private jets to recruit players all over the country. You're not seeing the football team travel to play in Hawaii or play in Miami or wherever."
The non-scholarship model reverts the revenue model closer to reason, but in Division I, the financial incentive is too enticing for universities to reject. In 2014, the median total revenue for Division III programs was $3.59 million. For Division I bowl subdivision programs, it was $44.5 million.
Division III events do not attract weekly national television audiences. Conversely, ESPN paid $7.3 billion for the television rights to the College Football Playoff. CBS and Turner paid $8.8 billion to broadcast the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
Clemson's frequent appearances in the Playoff and Carolina's repeated runs to the women's Final Four provided invaluable national exposure for their respective universities.
"It's very, very difficult to see how big-time college sports can work on a campus that's designed primarily to be educational," Nagel said, "but a lot of educators don't understand that the athletic departments on a lot of campuses are the most valuable marketing tool that those schools can put forth. When you look at it as a commercial enterprise, this is what the market will bear."
— Greenville News
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