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January 15, 2011 - College coaches' salaries continue to soar

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an article about the rising compensation for football and men's basketball coaches in the NCAA's most competitive division, Division I. The salaries are growing at a rate that far surpasses salaries for academic administrators and professors.  The salaries are also growing at rates faster than the revenues pulled in by athletic departments.

"That's certainly not a trend that can continue," said Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, an independent organization that serves as a watchdog for the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

The individuals in charge of doling out those salaries largely agree.

More than 85 percent of university presidents at Division I-A schools said compensation was "excessive" for football and basketball coaches, according to a 2009 Knight Commission survey of 95 Division I-A university presidents. Most called escalating coaching salaries the "single largest contributing factor" to the unsustainable growth of athletic spending.

Whether soaring salaries pose a significant problem is in the eye of the beholder, said Duke University economist Charles Clotfelter, author of forthcoming book "Big-Time Sports in American Universities."

"If you're a university president or an athletic director, you're saying 'Oh my gosh,' " he said. "If you're a coach, you're feeling pretty good about it. You're saying, 'Finally my worth is being recognized.' "

The paper pointed out the salary for Todd Graham, recently hired as the new head football coach for the University of Pittsburgh.  Graham will earn nearly $2 million in total compensation each year under his current contract, according to sources, meaning Pitt is paying its football coach almost three times what it did in 2005. There are similarities to the salary for its men's basketball coach, Jamie Dixon.  Dixon will earn between $1.6 million and $1.8 million, according to sources, up from less than $700,000 in 2005.

Universities are ill-equipped to lasso in high salaries because, in large part, they created the dilemma. If they choose not to pay the going rate for coaches, they risk losing coaches to other schools that will pay the salaries. Conversely, if the institutions collude or create a salary cap for coaching, they run the risk of violating federal antitrust laws.

In a 2010 report on the state of college athletics, the Knight Commission advocated the need for greater transparency, saying it could help control costs. Ms. Perko said few fans realize the thin financial tightrope their favorite schools tiptoe every year. If fans did, she said, they might pressure schools to be more responsible.

"I don't think there's any easy fix," Dr. Clotfelter said. "If there was an easy fix, then it would have happened."

From 1986 through 2007, the average compensation of college head football coaches grew about 500 percent; for basketball coaches it was 400 percent, according to research compiled by Dr. Clotfelter. In that same period, compensation for university presidents grew 100 percent, and for tenured professors, 30 percent.