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January 4, 2019 Oliver Loutsenko

Top 5 Highest Paid Head Coaches in the NCAA

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The NCAA reported that college football revenues were reaching $1.1 billion for the 2017 fiscal year; the first time they’ve ever cleared $1 billion (Berkowitz, USA Today). It’s also imperative to keep in mind the NCAA doesn’t generate any revenues from the College Football Playoff, as they have their separate operations, which similarly generate very high revenues (Unnamed Writer, USA Today). Since the NCAA is a non-profit organization, they essentially have to expense (spend) the money they’ve generated. Schools with nationally recognized athletic programs typically invest in their training facilities, coaching staffs, equipment, home field stadium upgrades, student-athlete scholarships, and more. Over the years, that’s lead many people to question whether or not college student-athletes are fairly and adequately compensated.

To shed more light on this topic, we wanted to share a list of the Top 5 highest paid coaches in NCAA sports for the 2018-19 season. While athletes do get perks that regular students attending the same university don’t get, like scholarships and stipends in some cases, the amount of money some players generate for their athletic program is ridiculously incomparable. A 2013 study conducted by the National College Players Association and Drexel University, using many quantitative and qualitative factors, projected how much college athletes in particular sports would be worth on the open market (Manfred, Business Insider). The conclusions were; the fair market value for the average FBS player was $137,357, and the fair market value for the average NCAA basketball player was $289,031 (Manfred, Business Insider). During the same 2013 stretch the study was conducted, in each of those respective sports, the average player earned just $23,204 in scholarship money (Manfred, Business Insider). Plainly put, the numbers don’t seem to indicate college athletes are receiving just compensation. To many, this debate becomes even more frustrating when you look at the higher-profile head coach annual salaries; many of them are the highest paid public employees in their respective state (Gibson, ESPN). With that being said, here’s LRT Sports Top 5 List of Highest Paid Coaches for the 2018-19 Season:

#5: Urban Meyer, Ohio State University Football – $6,431,240

Starting at #5 is Urban Meyer, head coach of the Ohio State University (OSU) Buckeyes football team. Prior to accepting his coaching position at OSU, Meyer was the head football coach at the University of Florida, the University of Utah, and Bowling Green State University. Given that he’s lead his teams to three national titles over his head coaching years (2 with Florida and one at OSU), not many people would be surprised to find Meyer on this list. In fact, Meyer is only one of three head coaches in NCAA football history to lead multiple programs to a national title; the other two being college football icons Nick Saban and Pop Warner (Exner, Cleveland.com).

In addition to bringing tremendous success to several different college football programs, Meyer’s compounded an impressive collection of personal accolades over the years. He was named the Sports Illustrated Coach of the Decade in 2009, The Sporting News National Coach of the Year in 2003, and won both the George Munger Award and Woody Hayes Trophy in 2004 (Unnamed Writer, The Quad). The $6,431,240 he sets to make this coming season seems particularly reasonable given how much money the Ohio State football program generates for the school, as well as the general pattern spending of Ohio State University’s Athletic Department. Of the total $166.8 million the OSU Athletic Department spent during the 2015-16 season, $30.3 million went to “coaching pay and benefits” (Exner, Cleveland.com).

#4: Jim Harbaugh, University of Michigan Football – $7,004,000

The fourth highest paid college head coach for the 2018-19 season is Jim Harbaugh; a former NFL head coach who’s currently the head coach of the University of Michigan Wolverines football team. Before joining Michigan in 2015, Harbaugh was the head coach of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers from 2011-2014. Before he became a head coach, Harbaugh was a highly talented player. His position on the University of Michigan’s football team is fitting, as he spent a five-year college football career (he was redshirted in 1982) at quarterback for the Michigan Wolverines before graduating in 1986 (Markus, Chicago Tribune). In the 1987 NFL Draft Harbaugh wound up being selected in the first round by the Chicago Bears; he even made the Pro Bowl in 1995 (Markus, Chicago Tribune).

Right after retiring as an NFL player in 2001, finishing his career as a backup quarterback for the Carolina Panthers, Harbaugh’s passion for coaching became clear as he took on a job as the quarterback’s coach for the NFL’s Oakland Raiders for the upcoming 2002 NFL season (Brown, San Jose Mercury News). After just two years as the QB coach in Oakland, Harbaugh began his head-coaching career in 2004 when the University of San Diego named him their football team’s next head coach. Harbaugh’s tenure at the University of San Diego wasn’t long, lasting only three years, but that was likely because those three seasons highlighted Harbaugh’s unique ability to improve a team in short time drastically. When he took over for the 2004 season, the Toreros went 7-4, winning the final five games of the season (Unnamed Writer, GoStanford.com). The following two seasons were breakthrough years for the University of San Diego’s football program, as in both the 2005 and 2006 seasons, Harbaugh led the Toreros to two consecutive 11-1 seasons and won the Pioneer Football League title in each of those years (Unnamed Writer, GoStanford.com). It was pretty clear it was the right time for Harbaugh to actively look to take on a leading role at a top-tier program; one that had a real chance to compete for an NCAA Championship. In December of 2016, Stanford University named their new head coach for the Cardinals 2007 NCAA season: Jim Harbaugh (Press Release, Stanford University).

Number wise, Harbaugh’s years as the Stanford University football head coach from 2007-2010 were generally mediocre. That gives Harbaugh a 58.0% winning percentage as the Cardinals head coach. Additionally, during Harbaugh’s 2007-2010 stretch, the Cardinals held a very unimpressive on-paper 1-1 record in bowl games (Peters, ESPN). The numbers don’t paint the full picture, but in breaking down each of the Cardinals seasons under Harbaugh, his unique ability to transform teams so significantly in such a short time was again exemplified. In 2007 the Cardinals finished 4-8, tied for 7th in the Pac-10 Conference; in 2008 they finished 5-7, tied for 6th in the Pac-10 (Forde, ESPN). Stanford’s clear and drastic improvements came in the 2009 and 2010 seasons under Harbaugh, when they finished 8-5 in 2009, also finishing tied for 2nd in the Pac-10 and earning an invitation to the Sun Bowl – where they’d narrowly lose to the Oklahoma Sooners 31-27 (Unnamed Writer, mgoblue.com). Harbaugh’s last year at Stanford in 2010 is probably the most significant reason he’s regarded so highly as a head coach today. He led the Cardinals to an 11-1 record, including a blowout 40-12 victory against Virginia Tech in the BCS Orange Bowl; this was the Cardinal’s first bowl win since 1996 and their first BCS bowl win in program history (Marecic, CBS Sports). After the stunning 2010 season, a culmination of his time as the Stanford football head coach, Harbaugh was viewed as the complete package. He could drastically improve teams – largely irrespective of their rosters, an apparent desire to win, and the experience to succeed at the biggest stages. Harbaugh’s success landed him an NFL head coach position with the San Francisco 49ers, though it wouldn’t be long before he returned to collegiate coach football after just four seasons with the 49ers (Bien, SB Nation).

While Harbaugh’s true feelings on his departure from San Francisco are subject to a lot of debate and speculation, he found himself a perfect home at his former alma mater, The University of Michigan Wolverines. Since he started there in 2015, Harbaugh’s struggled to turn the Wolverines into a fearsome national championship contender. After finishing 10-3, 10-3, and 8-5 in his first three seasons – including a 1-1 record in bowl games – Harbaugh’s well known competitive spirit is surely aching to take the Wolverines to the next level of collegiate football. While the results are no doubt impressive, they aren’t amongst the very, very top of college football head coaches in the country. But with the resume Harbaugh carries, including an NFL Coach of the Year Award and a Woody Hayes Trophy, plus his name recognition and uniquely strong recruiting ability, it’s not at all surprising to find Harbaugh in this LRT Sports Top 5 list (Sando, ESPN).

#3: John Calipari, University of Kentucky Men’s Basketball – $7,140,000

The third highest paid head coach in college sports for the upcoming 2018-19 season is John Calipari, head coach of the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team. Calipari is the only college basketball head coach to be featured on this list, despite there being plenty of another big name, high earning coaches in college basketball (Mike Krzyzewski of Duke, Roy Williams of UNC, etc.). While there’s a solid debate to be had regarding whether either of those coaches – as well as others not mentioned – actually provide greater value to their team than Calipari, few (if any) have a comparable resume. Calipari had a brief stint as an NBA head coach with the New Jersey Nets for four years, before soon transitioning back to NCAA basketball, joining the Memphis Grizzlies men’s basketball team in 2000.

Throughout his nine years as the head coach of the Memphis Tigers men’s basketball head coach, Calipari compiled an exceptional list of accolades. Before the 2008 season getting vacated due to NCAA rules infractions, Calipari had won 214 games, led the Tigers to seven consecutive 20-win seasons plus the eighth season in his final year, as well as an NCAA record four straight 30-win seasons (Unnamed Writer, Sports Illustrated). Calipari led the 2007-08 Tigers to 38 victories, setting a new Division 1 men’s basketball record for most wins in a single season – through the 2007-08 season is the one that was later vacated by the NCAA (Veazey, Memphis Commercial-Appeal). Perhaps most impressively, Calipari guided Memphis to a No. 1 national ranking in a 2008 AP Poll; only the second time in school history the Memphis Tigers men’s basketball team accomplished this feat (stats.ncaa.org). Due to his stunning success, Calipari was named a 4x Conference USA Coach of the Year, additionally winning the coveted Naismith College Coach of the Year in 2008, as well as being named the Sports Illustrated College Coach of the Year in 2009 (Unnamed Writer, Sports Illustrated). If not for the vacated 2008 season, Calipari would have the most wins as head coach in Memphis Tigers men’s basketball history with 252 wins, leaving Larry Finch second with 220 (Unnamed Writer, Sports Illustrated). While Calipari has become known in recent years for some shady recruiting techniques, the vacated season had little or nothing to do with him. Memphis superstar basketball player and future NBA star Derrick Rose was ruled to have cheated on his SAT, making him ineligible for the 2008 season, thus vacating the Memphis Tigers historical season. To this day, Rose vehemently denies cheating on the exam.

About four days after Memphis’ 2009 season ended with an NCAA Tournament loss to Missouri, multiple credible sources reported Calipari would be the next men’s basketball head coach at the University of Kentucky, replacing the fired Billy Gillispie. The official announcement came shortly after. While it took Calipari a couple of years to adjust to his head-coaching role at Kentucky, his 5-6 most recent years, in particular, prove why he deserves a spot on this list. Since joining Kentucky, Calipari has led the Wildcats to 4 NCAA Tournament Final Four appearances in just five years – including a National Title in 2012, won 5 SEC regular seasons for the Wildcats to go along with 6 SEC tournament victories (Taylor, Sports Illustrated). During his dominant streak at Kentucky, Calipari won another Naismith College Coach of the Year Award, an AP Coach of the Year Award, another Basketball Times Coach of the Year Award, and was 3x named the SEC Coach of the Year (Taylor, Sports Illustrated). We wanted to save the undisputed best for last; in 2015 Calipari was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and as of the 2015-16 season, he was only one of six active coaches enshrined in the Hall (Rutherford, SB Nation). So looking back on everything Coach Calipari’s been able to achieve at two different heavyweight NCAA DI men’s basketball programs, it isn’t all that surprising at all to find his name in this list.

#2: Dabo Swinney, Clemson University Football – $8,504,600

At #2, the second highest paid head coach in NCAA college sports for the 2018-19 season is Dabo Swinney, head coach of the Clemson University football team. While it’s hard to assess someone’s overall “name recognition,” few would argue that Dabo Swinney likely has the least of the five head coaches on this list. That’s mostly attributed to lengthier coaching careers by the other head coaches featured on this list — additionally, Swinney’s success with an ACC college football program that didn’t have anywhere close to the reputation of primetime SEC or PAC-12 schools like USC, Alabama, LSU, Texas Tech, etc. Nevertheless, few would argue that at the end of the day Dabo’s well worth his salary to the Clemson Tigers football squad and then some, particularly given the results the team has shown the last few years under him.

Swinney’s name is on this list for several reasons; one of the most noteworthy is because his current role as head coach of Clemson football was his first head-coaching gig ever. Swinney played a few years of college football at the University of Alabama, graduating in 1992 (Solomon, The Birmingham News). Immediately after graduating from Alabama, it became abundantly clear Swinney wanted to pursue a career coaching football as he worked as a graduate assistant on the University of Alabama football team from 1993-1995 (Solomon, The Birmingham News). Between 1996-2000 Swinney bounced around between Tight End position coach and Wide Receiver position coach for the Crimson Tide, before briefly leaving football to work for AIG Baker Real Estate in Alabama from 2001 up until very early in 2003 (Solomon, The Birmingham News). Seemingly feeling out of place away from college football, Dabo agreed to a Wide Receiver position coach job at Clemson University in 2002 for the upcoming 2003 season (Solomon, The Birmingham News). Perhaps he was overshadowed by big name coaches and players at Alabama, but regardless of the reason, Coach Swinney made an immediate positive impact on the Clemson Tigers football team. Swinney, by virtually all accounts, was an exceptional Wide Receivers coach at Clemson, as well as an extremely talented recruiting coordinator (Strelow, Rivals). In fact, in 2007 Swinney was honored as one of the Top 25 recruiters in the country by Rivals.com (Williams, Rivals).

After putting in four really solid and consistent years with the Tigers as their Wide Receiver coach, the resignation of Clemson’s then head coach – Tommy Bowden – allowed Dabo the opportunity to compete for the head coaching position at an NCAA DI powerhouse football program. Coach Swinney took that opportunity very seriously because, in a very short period of time, Dabo was climbing the ranks of Clemson University football coaching staff. After serving as Clemson’s Wide Receiver coach from 2003-06, Dabo served as Assistant Head Coach and Interim Head Coach from 2007-08, while continuing to function in his Wide Receiver coach role with the Tigers (Unnamed Writer, ClemsonTigers.com). Against many college football expert predictions, as well as against the wishes of many Clemson University football fans, on December 1, 2008 Clemson Athletic Director, Terry Don Phillips, gained enough confidence from Swinney’s work as the interim head coach to officially name him the 27th coach of Clemson University’s football team (Duffy, The Big Lead). Despite the first year or two being somewhat rocky – which started with Dabo immediately firing offensive coordinator Rob Spence – it didn’t take Coach Swinney long at all to prove his merits as one of the best coaches in college football. By 2011 Dabo led Clemson to a 10-3 record, an ACC Championship, and an appearance in the Orange Bowl; Clemson’s first major bowl game appearance since their 1981 NCAA Championship game appearance (Hoffman, NY Times).

The Tigers success would continue on an upward trajectory for the 2012 season; Coach Swinney led Clemson to their first 11-win season since that 1981 NCAA Championship game appearance, including an upset victory over #8 LSU in the season-ending Chick-fil-A-Bowl (Unnamed Writer, ESPN). With Clemson’s final season record standing at 11-2, Swinney was nominated for the third time in his career for the Liberty Mutual National Coach of the Year Award (Unnamed Writer, ESPN). As it turns out, that record-breaking season was just the start of a tremendous amount of success Dabo Swinney would have had with the Clemson Tigers football team over the next few seasons. In 2013 the Tigers completed a consecutive 11-win season, capping it off by beating the Buckeyes in the Orange Bowl 40-35 (Dinich, ESPN). After what was now considered – by Clemson football standards under Dabo Swinney – an average 2014 season, finishing with ten wins and a bowl game victory against the Sooners in the Russell Athletic Bowl, the Tigers took the college football world by storm in 2015. The Tigers finished the regular season undefeated, earning them a No. 1 seed in the 2015 College Football Playoff Semi-Final. The 1st seed Clemson Tigers went on to beat the 4th seeded Oklahoma Sooners by 20 points to advance to the College Football Championship Game (Hoffman, NY Times). Though Clemson came into the game as the undisputed No. 1 ranked team in the country and had a lead going into the fourth quarter of the National Championship, ultimately their brutally tough opponent, the Alabama Crimson Tides found a way to eke out a 45-40 win (Hoffman, NY Times). The 2016 season speaks volumes about Dabo’s coaching ability; the Clemson Tigers rebounded to win the College Football National Championship in memorable fashion, beating the Alabama Crimson Tide 35-31 in the National Title game (Hoffman, NY Times). Concerning Clemson’s 2016 season, it’s also worth noting they beat the No. Three ranked Ohio State Buckeyes by an impressive 31-0 score in the Fiesta Bowl (a National Championship Semi-Finals Bowl Game). In 2017, Clemson again headed into the Sugar Bowl, a National Championship Semi-Finals Bowl Game, as the No. 1 ranked team in the country. They went on the losing streak to the Crimson Tide 24-6 in that year’s Sugar Bowl, in what was a rough game for the Tigers. However, this was now the third straight year the Tigers made the National Championship Semi-Finals Bowl Game, coming in as the No. 1 ranked team in the country to two of the three (Unnamed Writer, ClemsonTigers.com). With the 2018 college football season right at about its halfway point right now, Clemson’s undefeated with a record of 7-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country in most consensus polls, trailing Alabama, who is currently undefeated as well at 8-0 (NCAA.com). The way things look, the Clemson Tigers are in excellent shape to make their fourth consecutive National Championship Semi-Finals Bowl Game with Dabo Swinney as head coach. You can’t argue with the amount of success Dabo has achieved at Clemson, so there’s no surprise he’s one of the highest paid coaches in the country for this coming 2018-19 season.

#1: Nick Saban, University of Alabama Football – $11,132,000

The highest paid head coach in college sports today is Nick Saban, head coach of the University of Alabama football team. Saban’s been the head coach of the Crimson Tide since 2007; the $11,132,000 he’ll earn for the 2018-19 season is backed by an incredible history of delivering results, almost exclusively for the Crimson Tide. Prior to his current position at Alabama, Saban was the head coach of the Louisiana State University (LSU) football team and the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, where he lasted just two seasons and led the Dolphins to records of 9-7 and 6-10; his time with the Dolphins can be described as “average at best”. But when Alabama fired Mike Shula after the 2006 season, they had a specific guy in mind they wanted for their football head-coaching job; today, ten years later, we know that guy was Nick Saban. After a brief period where Joe Kines served as Alabama’s Interim Head Coach, Saban was officially announced as the next Alabama Crimson Tide football head coach (Fiorvanti, ESPN).

Saban’s first National Championship victory with the Crimson Tides came in 2009, where they finished an undefeated 14-0 season beating the Texas Longhorns. Not counting 2007, as that was a season when Joe Kines served the first part as Alabama’s Interim Head Coach, Saban’s first full season with the Crimsons came in 2008. That season didn’t yield a National Title, but it was still an excellent 12-2 record season, where the lost to an undefeated Utah Utes team in the Sugar Bowl (NCAA.com). The Tides didn’t repeat a National title in 2010 either; instead, they finished 10-3, what they’d consider to be average, though they ended the season by beating the Michigan State Spartans in a 48-7 blowout, they went back to winning national championships. In 2011, the Crimson Tides finished 12-1, winning the National Title against their rival LSU Tigers and by shutting them out 21-0 (Feldman, CBS Sports). Alabama won a repeat National Championship with Nick Saban in 2012, where they finished with a 13-1 record. They beat the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 42-14 in the final; it’s worth noting that Notre Dame came into the National Championship Game undefeated and they were considered the undisputed No. 1 ranked team in the country, making the National Championship win that much more impressive for Alabama (Feldman, CBS Sports). After those consecutive National Championship victories, in the 2013 and 2014 season, the Crimsons certainly didn’t repeat that level of success. While both seasons would be impressive for the vast majority of NCAA D1 college football programs, the Alabama Crimson Tides became accustomed to being disappointed with anything short of a National Championship under Saban. In 2013 and 2014 the Crimson Tide football squad went 11-2 and 12-2, respectively, also losing in the Sugar Bowl both years (Unnamed Writer, ESPN). From thereon, Saban’s team made the College Football National Championships for the following three years; winning it in 2015, but lost in the final in 2016, before taking home another National Title in 2017 (Berkowitz, USA Today). In each of those three seasons, the Crimson Tides finished with only one loss; in 2015 and 2016 they went 14-1, while in 2017 they finished 13-1 (NCAA.com). Ironically, Alabama entered the College Football National Championship game undefeated in the 2016 season, which was the only one of three seasons they didn’t finish as the National Champions after losing by just 4 points to Dabo Swinney’s Clemson Tigers. If Saban and the Crimson Tides weren’t planning on returning to a fourth consecutive National Championship game, they certainly haven’t shown any signs of it in the 2018-19 season. Alabama’s football team is currently enjoying a consensus No. 1 national ranking, backed off their tremendous 8-0 start to the college football season (Unnamed Writer, RollTide.com).

Quite frankly, the only surprise would be if Nick Saban wasn’t the highest paid head coach in all of college sports. His coaching resume, highlighted by leading teams he was the head coach of two 6 National Championships – five with the Crimson Tide and one with the LSU Tigers – is second-to-none in college sports today. Saban has  been recognized as the SEC Coach of the Year on four different occasions; an extremely impressive accolade which shows how competitive SEC football has become. He’s been named the Associated Press College Football Coach of the Year on two separate occasions; once for his effort in leading LSU to a National Title and once during his early days as the Crimson Tide’s head coach in 2008 (Dodd, CBS Sports). The incredible part about Saban’s legacy is while there’s no debating his stats put him in the conversation for the greatest college coaches in history, there’s much more to him than his job as the head coach of the nation’s No. 1 ranked football team. Saban has been heavily involved in philanthropic work, as well as being a very active participant in other events primarily in the low-income Alabama communities (Reiter, Kansas City Star). In recent years Saban’s become increasingly politically active, voicing support for Democrats and speaking out about issues like gun violence, systemic racism, the general struggles of growing up in poverty in the inner cities, and more (Reiter, Kansas City Star). Saban is known for displaying the same determined but understanding, highly professional but also sensitive, and demanding but compassionate both on and off the field (Reiter, Kansas City Star). The one unique part of Saban’s character that he reserves for the football field only is his brilliant and competitive coaching style; it seems to mirror the general style he approaches SEC college football with. Saban’s been praised by countless former players, including Heisman Trophy winners, NFL Pro Bowlers, Super Bowl Champions, and other Alabama Football legends for what he brings to a college football team as a head coach. It’s very unsurprising he clearly effortlessly commands the respect of every current player on the Alabama football roster; not only are altercations between Saban and Alabama football players never reported because they just don’t happen, but furthermore anyone who’s played competitive sports would likely understand how genuinely humbling it would feel, even for NCAA D1 college football’s biggest stars, to play for Coach Saban.

The roughly $11,132,000 Coach Saban will make in the 2018-19 season truly pales in comparison to what his value is to all of college football, Alabama Crimson Tide football, and the state of Alabama as a whole. There’s been a fair share of criticism over the years related to Saban’s salary, which he became even more susceptible to after he involved himself in politics. In debates about paying NCAA college football athletes, you’ll often hear sports commentators bring up pretty incredible statistics to put added emphasis on how much the head coaches are making. Two of the most frequently used statistics are that Saban is the highest paid public employee in Alabama by a significant margin and the second is one year of Saban’s annual salary is higher than that of all 50 US Governors, combined (Burke, Forbes). Both of those are true, and perhaps in a conversation about paying NCAA D1 student-athletes, it’s a relevant point. But in general, when you think about the totality of the positive impact to Alabama during Saban’s tenure as the Crimson Tide football head coach, it’s a tiny percentage if you factor in how much good he’s done for the entire schools athletics program and the entire state.

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