Cinderella Men

After an extraordinarily upset-laden National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I men’s basketball tournament, many colleges with Cinderella teams are scrambling to pony up the cash to hold on to their now in-demand head coaches.

April 7, 2010

After an extraordinarily upset-laden National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I men’s basketball tournament, many colleges with Cinderella teams are scrambling to pony up the cash to hold on to their now in-demand head coaches.

The day after Brad Stevens led Butler University to an improbable appearance in the national title game against Duke University, his name was already being thrown around by sports columnists as a potential candidate for the open head coaching position at the University of Oregon. Stevens made $396,602 this season at Butler – a salary that pales in comparison to the more than $4 million Mike Krzyzewksi made at Duke. A big-time athletics institution like Oregon, however, could pay Stevens a starting salary of around $1 million – the ending annual salary of its recently fired head coach, Ernie Kent.

Photo: Butler University

Brad Stevens

The reality is that Butler cannot afford to give Stevens that kind of pay raise. Still, that has not stopped its officials from talking about ways they can try to keep him in Indianapolis.

"There is [the salary], but there is also the opportunity to make the program better,” Barry Collier, Butler athletics director, told ESPN after Monday night’s title game. “The facilities, the operating, the staffing and all those things that can really get better. That's our mantra."

Some mid-major institutions have already decided to cough up the money to keep a head coach at home. Just days after the University of Northern Iowa beat the top-ranked University of Kansas in the tournament’s second round, the institution and its head coach, Ben Jacobson, agreed to a new 10-year deal featuring a significant pay raise. Jacobson’s old deal paid him $289,300 a year; the new one will pay him $450,000 starting next season, with annual raises of $25,000 for the duration.

Photo: U. of Northern Iowa

Ben Jacobson

Bidding Big Red Goodbye

Not every Cinderella team, however, was able to keep its head coach from the attractive call of big-time athletics programs. Wednesday, Boston College plans to introduce Cornell University's Steve Donahue as its new men’s basketball coach. Donahue led the Ivy League institution to the Sweet 16 with wins over Temple University and the University of Wisconsin before losing to the top-ranked University of Kentucky.

Donahue’s salary at Cornell has never been disclosed publicly, but The Boston Globe reported that Donahue recently turned down a $750,000 offer to coach at Hofstra University, a team from a mid-major conference. The Globe notes that Boston College’s offer topped Hofstra’s and “could be in the $900,000 per year range for as many as seven years.” The recently-fired coach Al Skinner – Boston College's winningest coach ever – made about $2.2 million annually.

Photo: Cornell University

Steve Donahue

Andy Noel, Cornell's athletics director, told Inside Higher Ed that Donahue’s departure from Cornell is “bittersweet.” Though Noel said he is “happy for” Donahue and the opportunity he now has to coach in the tradition-rich Atlantic Coast Conference, Noel also said he is sad to see “a terrific coach and person” leave Cornell.

He noted that Cornell never had the opportunity to make a counteroffer as Donahue never provided Cornell officials with details of Boston College's offer. Still, Noel said that Cornell limits what it pays its coaches, given that the institution does not offer athletics scholarships.

“I’ve been discussing compensation with Steve from time to time,” Noel said. “We don’t talk about this when he earns a trip to the Sweet 16 and plays Kentucky in the Carrier Dome. Those are conversations we’ve had for years. I mean, two years ago, when we went on a 14-0 run in the Ivy League, several schools called Steve with offers. He didn’t respond to them and didn’t tell us about them until after the fact. He never used those kinds of things to generate a counter from us. He knew we’d always do what we could afford, and knew how much we appreciated him. Suffice it to say, he wasn’t going to leave Cornell unless a job at a college that really appealed to him came along.”

Though Cornell is a well-endowed institution, Noel said his athletics budget does not nearly have the room to accommodate a coaching salary comparable to that offered by a big-time athletics institution like Boston College. Noel said Cornell would not consider offering such paydays to coaches

“You can double or triple someone’s salary and still not be in the hunt,” Noel said. “That’s not even in the realm of what we can consider. There’s not really an established ceiling. But, if you had to do something, is it appropriate to compensate a coach more than a scientist who is putting modules on Mars and that type of thing? You’ve got distinguished faculty and staff that are highly thought of, a president and people who are critical to the mission of the university.”

Ronald G. Ehrenberg, director of Cornell’s Higher Education Research Institute and an avid Big Red basketball fan, echoed Noel’s sentiment.

“At Cornell, faculty expect we will be paid more than everybody else,” Ehrenberg said. “If faculty had any idea how much coaches and some non-academic administrators got paid, they would be upset. … If you broke the bank to keep one person, that’d likely have adverse affects on other sports as well. “

Taking a Step Back

NCAA watchdogs have yet another take on the scramble for head coaches that occurs every year following March Madness. Amy P. Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, said that setting coaches' salaries has a lot to do with administrative principles.

Colleges "need to stay within your institutional values when considering how far they have to go to keep a coach,” Perko said. "I don’t want to get into pegging a number, but compensation should be considered in the context of the entire institution. You can’t parse out athletics and say, ‘We’re going to treat them differently.’ ”

She also argued that institutions should refrain from making spur-of-the-moment decisions when crafting offers to try to keep coaches who have achieved seemingly sudden postseason success.

“It goes back to the principle,” Perko explained. “What happens when you’re coming off a competitive season and there’s a lot of media attention and you have to move into the recruiting season? Those compressed windows cause some institutions to not go through their normal process. Institutions should never make knee-jerk reactions with regard to bonuses and retention payments in the heat of the moment.

"Athletics competitions create a lot of excitement and stir a lot of passions, and that’s why administrators need to take a step back from the passions and consider their moves in the context of the whole university.”


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