As athletic departments brace for financial blowback, college coaching salaries could take a hit

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Every now and again for decades, someone would decry the rise of college coaching salaries and wonder when it might end.

Ever since Jackie Sherrill helped break new ground in the 1980s, the salaries of coaches have been trending one direction and one direction only – up. Big TV contacts, along with hugely profitable proprietary networks in the game of the Big Ten and SEC, have funneled cash to athletic departments.

Now that steadily upward salary trend may be headed in a distinctly different direction, at least temporarily.

The impact of coronavirus on the U.S. economy in general and on the college sports subset in particular is impossible to ignore or avoid.

Barely three weeks after the NCAA canceled March Madness, coaches, athletic directors and conference commissioners are talking privately about the possibility of a shortened or altered 2020 college football season.

Contingency plans are being formulated. Imagine a conference-only slate or a schedule that’s pushed back or games without fans, just to make sure there is a season with FBS athletic departments heavily dependent on football revenue.

Yes it’s possible, if not desirable.

As Texas A&M AD Ross Bjork noted last month in an interview with the Morning News, “the whole model rises and falls based on football.”

The financial blowback is not just speculation either.

Iowa State, facing a $5 million shortfall from the cancellation of March Madness and the Big 12 basketball tournament, announced $3 million in one-year salary cuts to coaches. Additionally, coaching bonuses will be eliminated with an estimated savings of $1 million.

Athletic director Jamie Pollard likened the decision to the one to cancel the NCAA Tournament and acknowledged some people were wondering about the move.

“I would contest that a lot of those people are still in denial, much like they were in denial about the basketball tournament, much like many people were in denial three weeks ago about social distancing,” Pollard told reporters Thursday.

While Iowa State isn’t flush with cash like athletic departments such as Texas or Texas A&M or Oklahoma, it is in a power conference. And the Big 12 has been more financially healthy lately than either the ACC or the Pac-12.

That alone should get people’s attention, the Cyclone in the coal mine if you will.

“I would contest that at some point in the near future they’ll be other people doing what we did (Wednesday),” Pollard said.

So should a survey conducted by LEAD1, an association of athletic directors from FBS schools and obtained by The Associated Press. A total of 65% of ADs saw a situation where revenue could drop up to 20 percent, where even the Goliaths of the sport will be feeling the pain.

Another finding: 40% of the ADs responding approved or strongly approve, according to AP, of high earners volunteering to make a financial sacrifice.

With 31 head football coaches having made at least $4 million last season before bonuses according to the USA Today salary database, that’s an inviting target.

Even NCAA President Mark Emmert, who hasn’t exactly been ahead of the curve in terms of public relations, took a 20% cut on his $2.1 million salary.

If you’re a savvy football or basketball coach whose salary extends into seven figures, now might be the time to take a step back. Yes, it’s easy to tell other people to take a pay cut.

It’s worth noting that plenty of coaches, both publicly and privately, are giving back to COVID-19 relief with time and money.

If you talk to longtime coaches about their compensation, you’ll get plenty of stories about how little they made starting at the low rung of the ladder. A whole lot of assistants within the group of five aren’t exactly hitting the jackpot either.

Still, a whole lot of coaches have prospered beyond their wildest dreams. With college sports’ Gilded Age running into stark pandemic reality, change is coming.

“This probably should cause us all to ponder what’s really important in college athletics, and indeed our life beyond college athletics,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said last week when asked about coaches’ salaries on a media teleconference. “I think you’ll see budgets on campus flat and salary budgets flat.

“It’s not a time when we’re going to throw a lot of money around. We’re all going to have to be careful about our management of resources.”


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