The Madness of College Basketball Coaches’ Salaries


As you pick your bracket for March Madness, stop for a moment and ponder what some might describe as the madness of the coaches’ salaries. According to U.S. News & World Report, the highest-paid 25 college basketball coaches earn between roughly $2 million and $6 million per year. Those figures don’t include generous perks, such as private jets and housing allowances, or severance packages. There are millions more in bonuses for coaches who take their teams to the championships. And coaches can supplement that income with private endorsement deals, speaking fees, and summer camps.

While million-dollar-plus salaries are commonplace in professional sports, they are highly unusual in the world of higher education, where adjunct faculty and tenured full professors earn between $20,000 to $126,000. The average college president brings in $475,403. In fact, coaches are the highest-paid public employees in several states, including Kentucky and Kansas.

More here.

27 thoughts on “The Madness of College Basketball Coaches’ Salaries

  1. Margaret Soltan has been very good over the years documenting the madness of college sports.

    Levels and levels of insanity.


  2. As the article notes, the high coaches’ salaries at public universities are very much the product of the democratic political process. Poll results suggesting that the public thinks coaches are overpaid are beside the point, since we don’t live in a system governed by plebescites, nor wish to.

    And the philosophy department does garner the benefits of the athletic program. Research indicates that successful athletic programs generate considerable notice among high school students; more awareness means more applications which means higher US News rankings which means better students which means, inter alia, a more rewarding teaching environment, and possibly higher professorial salaries.

    Obviously, there are successful schools that have avoided this particular marketing tool and the attendant drawbacks: Emory, Chicago, the Ivies, etc. But there’s no reason to advocate their approach as the best for everyone.


  3. Did I miss a reference to Taylor Branch’s article for The Atlantic? Because it’s definitive, unanswerable. I’m surprised that both you and your editor didn’t link.


    1. As I recall, Taylor Branch argued that college athletes were exploited and should be paid. That would hardly assuage critics who complain that the athletics department siphons resources away from academics.


  4. I read the Branch piece, but it didn’t quite fit into the very narrow focus of the article. The editor wanted the “why are coaches paid so much” angle. I answered that question pretty quickly and then slightly broadened it to talk about the impact of college sports on higher education.

    I actually learned a ton from writing this article. I did a lot of research that didn’t even make it into the article.

    I was surprised that this article didn’t do as well as others. The article on online gradebooks got a lot more traffic. But I thought the sports article was more important. Here in NJ, Rutgers has one of the highest in-state tuitions for public colleges in this country. With room and board, it costs nearly $30K for NJ kids to attend their public college. At least 2K of those costs go towards their losing sports program and the coaches. That’s really annoying.

    I’m very sympathetic to the “free college” people, but I think that for colleges to be free, they have to look at expenses and bring the costs down.

    re: Sports are a marketing tool argument. The guys that I spoke to for this piece said that there is no evidence that a good sports team increases the selectivity of applications for the school. So, philosophy doesn’t benefit from basketball. They said that universities have these sports programs, because the general public enjoys watching the games. Bread and circuses.

    Maybe the answer is to completely separate the sports programs from the university. If they can sustain themselves with profits from ticket sales and TV, then fine. But the university shouldn’t support them in any way.


    1. re: Sports are a marketing tool argument. The guys that I spoke to for this piece said that there is no evidence that a good sports team increases the selectivity of applications for the school.

      I’m not sure that disproves the effectiveness of sports as a marketing tool. I’d like to see the study on levels of state funding for universities and success of athletic programs. For example, I don’t think it is entirely coincidental that PA’s worst years for state support of higher education are also the years right after Sandusky was arrested.


    2. Well, Rutgers’ sports programs certainly aren’t boosting their applications! Seriously, I don’t have any empirical data on the efficacy of sports as a marketing pool, but I do know that colleges that are trying to improve their profile (e.g., Quinnipiac) often try to boost their athletic program as a major component of that process. Maybe they are deluding themselves as to how well it works. Maybe Jim Manzi (the blogger and consultant, not the Lotus founder) could investigate this issue.


      1. I think they are deluding themselves if they are just starting now. But I wonder about the established ones. Possibly because I have attended Nebraska and Ohio State.


  5. Well, MH has come up with an idea I hadn’t ever encountered. I have heard college sports defended as a useful tool for bringing in alumni donations, but here I think there has been empirical work which tended to debunk that theory. I have heard college sports defended as useful for increasing awareness among and therefore applications from high school students, and I think there might be something to that. But now there is a third rationale, college sports as useful for bringing in funding from the legislature. I have no idea whether that might be true.


    1. I think there’s something to that theory. One of the guys that I interviewed said that the president of univ if Alabama tried to close the program, because it cost too much with no obvious benefits for the school. The legislature wouldn’t let him do it.


  6. The paper, “College as Country Club: Do Colleges Cater to Students’ Preferences for Consumption?,” by Jacob, McCall, and Stange, is apropos. In short, applicants are sensitive to lots of things. They are sensitive to cost, but also to amenities. Only the very high performers are sensitive to increases in the college’s SAT.

    The appendixes are interesting. High SES is sensitive to cost, but does like amenities. High SAT math likes higher SAT scores.

    That fits with my impressions from visiting colleges. The very top colleges in selectivity aren’t generally top, top NCAA performers, especially in football and basketball. Dorm rooms aren’t often on the tour. Dining halls close. (Then again, most of them are in cities, or close to restaurants and minimarts.)

    I don’t recall any college student dying from starvation due to dining hall hours, but at some colleges, that was a Big Feature of the tour–and the parents certainly wanted to hear about dorm room delivery of junk food around the clock. The marketing centered around the college’s athletics was also remarkable, such as 10 foot tall banners of current lacrosse players decorating the dining halls or social areas.

    So I think part of the game is appealing to the full pay family. I have heard from multiple parents of high school students looking at colleges that High Point University is stunning. As the least selective branch of our state university system has better statistics, we did not visit High Point, and many other out of state colleges.

    The most interesting appendixes by far were 12 and 13, the # of colleges applied to, for the classes of 1992 and 2004. 1992 applied to 4 (and 98.8% applied to 3 and fewer.) 2004 applied to up to 10. Looking at the chart, it seemed that with applications to 7 colleges, about 100% of the applicants had been accepted to at least one college. As it’s gotten crazier in the last 12 years, I don’t know how many colleges a student should apply to, in order to have at least one acceptance.


    1. Kid 1 applied to seven and got into five, all state schools in VA. The two flagships (UVa and W&M) turned him down, everyone else said yes. He chose partly by which had the most attractive teams to go watch. So their investment in athletics got them at least this one full pay kid. Kid two has done nearly as well (five of six), and cares not at all about the athletics, will be going off to college in fall. Both have decent but not great grades, decent but not great SATs. Neither has started his own charity which got written up in the NY Times nor done original cancer research which was written up in Nature, nor gotten elected to County Board at 16.
      I think it is tougher for girls here – all the state schools except VA Tech are in the 55-60 percent girl range, and if it gets much higher girls won’t go. So there is – wait for it! – clear preference for boys in admission, to keep the numbers from getting worse.


  7. Oh, yeah. Affirmative action for boys has been going on for a long time.

    That college country club paper is interesting. Going to read it carefully in a minute. High Point college has been on my radar for a while. Do you know that every studetnt gets a free steak dinner every month? Your gov’t dollars at work.


  8. What are the numbers on male versus female SAT scores at places like U.Va.? I assume the colleges guard this information pretty fiercely, since I know it usually requires a lawsuit to obtain racial breakdowns of admissions data.


    1. I think a breakdown by gender might be misleading, especially at a large university.

      One pattern I think I see is that the technical/engineering schools draw far more male applicants than female applicants. RPI, for example, received 12,653 male applicants vs. 5,949 female applicants. RPI’s enrollment is 70% male.

      Many universities admit by major, as well, but the statistics are reported for the university as a whole. So a large university with an engineering school might draw many male applicants, but they won’t necessarily accept admission to Arts & Sciences if they aren’t admitted to the engineering school. They might be deciding between engineering schools.

      For example, Johns Hopkins has an extremely competitive biomedical engineering program. High school seniors apply to that program. You can’t enter later. When I looked, I couldn’t find a breakdown for that program’s admission rate. I know a brilliant girl who was not accepted to that program, thus decided to study biomedical engineering at Cornell instead. So her stats would have been in the accepted JHU student data, but she was really deciding between sub-programs at universities.

      Other programs I couldn’t find admissions data for: Carnegie Mellon’s computer science college, Wharton. If you don’t have those breakdowns, you don’t really know that much about the patterns.

      A university with a strong engineering program will draw strong students of both sexes, but the chances of retaining the strong students may not be predictable. A university without a strong engineering program may post lower SAT scores, but comparing the admissions pools between the university is like comparing cherry fruit cups to tropical fruit cups. There are a lot of elements in common, but they aren’t interchangeable.

      I have the impression that this generation of students is convinced STEM is the way to prosperity; all other fields are regarded as experiments in poverty.

      I do see an admissions preference for men at small, private liberal arts colleges. On the other hand, fewer men want to apply to SLACs in comparison to women. So a man who applies to several SLAC might be accepted to more than one, whereas a woman who is just as strong might not be accepted to any. (She might consider applying to RPI?)

      But then again, I’m not certain the relative “strength” would be found in the SAT scores. I suspect “strength” in a holistic system between men and women might be found in GPA (i.e. homework completion) and extracurricular participation such as French club. So a “weaker” male might do better than expected in college, especially in large lectures without daily homework than a “stronger’ female who was adept at getting extra credit for helping teachers.


      1. I didn’t mean to imply that SAT scores were the sole measure of ability; they have the benefit of being objective, easy to quantify, and nationally uniform. Do girls do better at more “holistic” measures, like extracurriculars? I feel like boys did more of that stuff when I was in high school, but my high school (Exeter) was VERY competitive, so it might not be exactly representative. (Plus that was a long time ago.)

        Anyway, I’m not convinced that there is a lot of affirmative action for boys. It probably depends on the school and maybe, as cranberry suggests, the program. Our daughter went to an all girl school, so I have no personal experience. On the other hand, I can certainly affirm that the preference for minority students is huge. (Laura probably won’t get to see this, in her son’s high school.)


      2. At the very top of the college chain, I would not say the preference is huge for minority students. If you look at the breakdown of SAT scores for Harvard, for example, only 3.5% of freshmen entering in 2013-14 scored under 600 on critical reading.

        The preferences ARE huge for recruited athletes, especially in helmet & revenue sports. (_Reclaiming the Game_, by Bowen and Levin, is worth reading.)

        The admissions advantage enjoyed by recruited athletes in the Ivies (51 percentage points for men and 56 points for women) was almost twice the admissions advantage enjoyed by minority students 926 percentage points for men and 31 for women). Recruited athletes, men and women alike, were admitted at higher rates than minority candidates at every SAT level (see Appendix Table 9.2, which also includes comparable data for other groups of schools.)

        The SAT scores of male minority students were, on average, 41 points higher than the SATs of recruited High Profile athletes but 26 points lower than the SATs of Lower profile male athletes; the SATs of female minority students were 44 points lower than the SATs of recruited women athletes.

        (1995 entering cohort) Location 4540, Reclaiming the game.

        Recently Ivy League colleges have won NCAA championships. Those dots aren’t hard to connect.

        Sports are an extracurricular activity. So is drinking and watching sports (admittedly, not an activity which shows up on an application.) Many students want the social scene that accompanies winning sports teams. Large state universities may seem virtuous in comparison to smaller schools because their athletes are a smaller proportion of the student body.

        Young men are more likely to fall prey to computer gaming, which eats up time that might be used for volunteering in hospitals.


  9. My daughter’s high school class only had one or two recruited athletes (and none in revenue sports, being all girls). I don’t know what the minority preference worked out to in SAT points, but it was equivalent to about two ability groups out of the four (i.e., the minority girls in the fourth group had admissions comparable to the white girls in the second group, which means Brown, Hopkins etc., and the minority girls in the third group had admissions comparable to the white girls in the top group, which means HYPS).


    1. y81, forgive me, but from your posts over the years your daughter’s high school seemed to be one of the high-pressure New York private schools with wealthy parents? And some (but not all) of the parents indulged in the high-pressure track of tutors (for classes and standardized tests)?

      Did the minority students generally come from families who could go all out on tutoring? Do you think tutoring can increase a student’s GPA and standardized test scores?

      Do you think the admissions officers might have been able to guesstimate (perhaps inaccurately) which applicant had more or less academic support?


      1. Most of the minority students came from the social classes as the other students (a mix, but mostly very rich), and the college admissions officers certainly did not favor the scholarship students over the richer students, much less favor the poor white or Asian students over the UMC black students. Some people have suggested that affirmative action should be class-based, but that is not the nature of current college programs.


      2. I’ve found it hard to determine how students will appear to admissions offices. I barely knew my own children’s grades and scores. I don’t think anyone really knows how other students do, unless they have a part time job in the college counseling office.

        Sometimes students cluster in the colleges they apply to. So, for example, some years lots of kids apply to Columbia, but no one applies to Cornell. And you can’t judge where students got in by the college they choose to attend. Naviance is very helpful for that. Of course, for a small school many colleges will be blocked off. As it was, I found my daughter could sometimes identify students by the GPA/SAT location on the chart. She then despaired, “Yes, someone got in, but it’s always the athletes!”

        For most colleges, with the exception of the truly need blind, you can’t really compare students who need financial aid to students who will pay full tuition. I don’t understand the logic of “gapping” a student. I know colleges do it, but I don’t understand why they do it.


  10. In a class of 50 girls who have gone to school together since kindergarten with sections broken down by ability: (i) the girls all know where everyone got in (not just where they matriculated), (ii) the girls all know what kind of grades everyone has, (iii) the parents all know what everyone makes, and (iv) the parents all know where the other parents went to college. As is often the case, the life of UMC families in northeastern cities is often more like a medieval village than the atomized individualistic existence portrayed by many sociology writings.

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  11. The underrepresented minorities at my kids’ schools are not wealthy and is a pretty good correlate for economic class, as well as the other marker schools are using — 1st generation college student.


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