When you don’t have to pay the hired help a market wage, the rising tide will just have to lift somebody else’s boat.
In 2006, former Kentucky coach Tubby Smith made $2.6 million. In the decade that followed, as Kentucky athletics earnings climbed from $68 million to $132 million, pay for the leader of its flagship team skyrocketed. In 2016, John Calipari made $8.6 million, an amount Kentucky officials justify as fair market value for a coach whose team will generate tens of millions of dollars.
But as more money has surged into Kentucky athletics, records show, Calipari isn’t the only coach cashing in, as the athletes remain amateurs. From 2006 to 2016, pay for Kentucky’s track and field coach climbed from $108,000 to $429,000; men’s tennis coach pay jumped from $122,000 to $230,000; and gymnastics coach pay rose from $112,000 to $252,000. Every coach made more than the school’s average full professor’s salary. In a phenomenon playing out across the country, salaries are soaring for coaches of lower-profile college sports largely subsidized by lucrative football and men’s basketball, whose annual national tournament opens Tuesday.
At the University of Kansas, men’s golf coach pay jumped from $84,000 to $201,000 over the past decade. At the University of Virginia, pay for the women’s volleyball coach rose from $94,000 to $221,000. And at West Virginia University, men’s soccer coach pay jumped from $66,000 to $188,000.
(All 2006 figures in this story have been adjusted for inflation.)
Not bad work if you can get it.
“I certainly don’t think anyone’s overpaid; I think the salary has risen for that position,” said Sam Seemes, chief executive of the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. “If these schools weren’t bringing in the revenue that they are, the coaches wouldn’t be making as much money. . . . In the United States, the companies that do the best pay more. It’s just fundamental.”
For some, anyway.
The debate over whether the men’s basketball and football players who fuel all this spending and earning should be able to make some money for themselves — either through paychecks or endorsements — remains the subject of litigation that threatens to overturn the economic structure of college sports.
“It’s a system that takes money that should be rightfully going to athletes, many of whom are minorities from underprivileged backgrounds, and reallocates it to coaches and athletic directors, many of whom are middle-aged white men. . . . How can you call that just?” said Andy Schwarz, an economist who has consulted for several lawsuits against the NCAA and college conferences.
Kentucky Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart, whose salary rose from $480,000 to $695,000 in a decade, said the raises he has paid out reflect the market for good coaches in each of those sports. Kentucky athletics is one of the few self-sufficient departments in the country, and recently did something that may be unprecedented in American higher education: paid for a building that will not benefit athletics in any way. Kentucky athletics contributed $65 million for a new $112 million science building on campus.
“I get a bit disheartened when I find people who keep trying to find the bad in what we do,” said Barnhart. “I’m not a lawyer, I’m not an economist, I don’t know all of those pieces, but I know that what we do is good.”
In his heart, he knows he’s right. What else matters?