Rick Pitino, the head men's basketball coach of the University of Louisville, the National Collegiate Athletic Association's newly crowned tournament victors, will get a fat bonus for winning Monday night’s championship game. And in keeping with the national trend, that bonus – following the trajectory of his salary – will probably be higher than it would have been two years ago. (Pitino makes almost $5 million a year and is the second-highest paid coach in this year’s tournament, behind the Duke University's Mike Krzyzewski.)
Coaches in the elite athletic conferences may make millions of dollars a year, but the salaries and bonuses of their less-elite competitors are growing at a faster rate, according to new research. And while all coaches are getting more lucrative bonuses for athletic achievements, the rate of increase in incentives for non-elite coaches is significantly higher – and the gap is even more pronounced in academic incentives, which skyrocketed at non-elite programs but shrank by almost half at elite ones.
“These results indicate the intercollegiate ‘arms race’ continues to expand regardless of conference affiliation in Division I men’s basketball head coach compensation,” the paper says.
The research , published in the Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics, is based on the income of the 65 coaches whose teams made it to the National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s basketball tournament in 2010 and the 68 coaches who made it in 2012. (Teams from the six conferences whose football champions automatically qualify for the Bowl Championship Series are classified as elite programs.) Matt Wilson, director of Stetson University’s sport management program, and Kevin L. Burke, professor and dean at Queens University of Charlotte’s Blair College of Health, used data compiled by USA Today .
Coaches of elite programs received an average income of $2.25 million in 2011-12, up from $1.9 million two years prior, a 20 percent increase. Non-elite coaches, whose salaries rose by 43.8 percent during that same time span, still lag far behind at about $513,880 a year.
The differences in incentives are even more striking. Elite coaches together stood to pocket an extra $10,219,781 in return for a successful 2011-12 athletic season, 57 percent more than in 2009-10 (when they could earn an extra $6,500,368). Total potential bonuses for athletes meeting NCAA academic benchmarks and doing well in the classroom, however, fell by 58 percent, to $1,001,328.
That’s in sharp contrast to the non-elite programs, where total potential academic incentives for all coaches included in the study shot up 1,074 percent, from $19,250 in 2009-10 to $229,000 two years later. Athletically related incentives also rose, but at a slower pace of 131 percent, from $1,275,543 to $2,955,077.
While the academic bonuses are likely in part a bid to get coaches to attract better students, Burke said, they also serve another, more cynical purpose: to keep coaches from jumping ship.
“There’s not a guaranteed payout, but it’s certainly attractive to a coach,” Burke said.
That might also help explain why athletic incentives are rising so much faster than academic ones at the more elite universities that have built up their basketball programs into multimillion-dollar enterprises.
“All of the coaches have little to nothing to do with students’ academic performance,” Burke said. While athletic departments have staff dedicated to advising and tutoring for athletes, and those employees are usually in communication with coaches, the coaches have little if any direct responsibility over athletes' academic performance. “If I’m a coach, I’m going to want those athletic incentives because I have more control over whether or not I actually reach those incentives…. It gives them a goal that they think they can do something about.”
There are some limitations to the research that could have affected its findings. For one, private colleges are not required to release coaches' contracts, so they're not all accounted for. Also, participants in the tournament varied between 2010 and 2012, meaning the salary figures rose or fell depending on the proportion of elite to non-elite programs. (More non-elite programs made it to the tournament in 2012 than in 2010, and some of those 2012 additions are at the top tier in terms of salary at their level of competition.)
U.S. Education Department Secretary Arne Duncan recently called for  a “better, healthier balance” between universities’ athletic and academic sides. Noting the large gap in graduation rates between white and black male athletes, he suggested more financial incentives for better graduation rates -- or disincentives for failure to produce such a result.
Burke and Wilson note in their report that the salary increases are being funded at least in part through more student fees and institutional subsidies. But Burke also suggested that this trend has a less measurable effect on people who believe academics is the most important aspect of the university.
“Professors are asked to do more with less and then they look on the other side and see coaches making millions of dollars in a glamorous area,” Burke said. “It can create on some campuses a divide between athletics and academics.”
And, invoking the mess at Rutgers University  -- where four officials including the athletics director have resigned or been fired over their failure to push for the firing of now-former basketball coach Mike Rice after discovering he physically and verbally abused players during practices – Burke cautioned that paying coaches hundreds of thousands to millions more than the people in charge of managing, hiring and firing them can cause problematic dynamics and power struggles.
“If you’re trying to be rational about the pay, really, no one should make more than the president of the university,” Burke said. “That’s got to create some unusual situations.”