Trustees Cannot Punt on College Football

Top administrators are certainly instrumental, but ultimately, coaches’ compensation and other key financial decisions rest with a university’s board, writes Richard Chait.

January 4, 2022
 
 
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The roster of head coaches at college football powerhouses seems to be changing faster than the weather here in Boston, where conditions seem to shift every few hours.

At Louisiana State University, for example, the head football coach was ushered out last month with a $16.9 million payout, while his successor was ushered in with a 10-year contract that will pay him at least $9 million in annual salary, bonuses and supplemental income for “marketing and promotional services” and the like. So far this year, about 25 percent of the 65 top-tier programs, members of the so-called Power Five conferences, have made a change at the top of the football hierarchy. Some transitions were prompted by terminations, as in the case of the Universities of Florida, Miami, Southern California and Washington. Others were the result of voluntary departures of coaches for more money and greener pastures, such as at the Universities of Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Oregon.

While the contracts to lure new talent and retain victorious coaches are strikingly lavish—often $5 million to $10 million a year and larded with incentives—the severance pay for fired coaches is even more stunning. Over the past 10 years, ESPN reported in November, 86 state universities (where salaries are public) shelled out $533.6 million to terminated coaches in football and men’s and women’s basketball. The winners on payouts to losers were Auburn ($31.2 million), Nebraska ($25.8 million), Mississippi ($20.4 million) and Kansas ($20 million).

Most Power Five universities aspire to be among the nation’s top-ranked university football teams. In that pursuit, those institution are ready to fire and hire at any price. That’s good for rabid fans, television networks and sports apparel companies, but is it good for higher education?

Among football teams ranked in the top 25 at the end of the current season, only those at two institutions, Notre Dame and Michigan, were also rated among the top 25 national universities, No. 19 and No. 23 respectively by U.S. News & World Report—an imperfect but nonetheless highly influential index. Both lists reflect choices institutions make about mission, priorities and allocation of capital. In other words, an institution’s standing in academics as well as athletics is a matter of strategy, not chance.

That raises the question “Who sets strategy?” The president and executive team are certainly instrumental and influential forces, but ultimately those decisions rest with the university’s Board of Trustees. As fiduciaries, boards have the authority and, more important, the responsibility to determine what matters least, more and most.

It is inconceivable that a contract would be tendered to a football or basketball coach, or substantial capital investments earmarked for athletics, without the approval of the board or at least a designated subset of trustees. And via the compensation packages they endorse, trustees have signaled that football coaches are five to 10 times more valuable than the president. And, by extension, they are indicating that the quest to be the best on the gridiron supersedes any ambitions to excel in teaching and research, nominally the core purposes of higher education.

Trustees often complain about the board’s limited ability to make decisions due to the constraints of shared governance and the supposed intransigence of tenured faculty. But athletics is one arena where boards have broad discretion to govern, set salaries, rebalance priorities and effect change. Instead, boards have been complicit at best and derelict at worst. For the most part, trustees foment the athletics arms race, look away or acquiesce to the status quo. Few seem disposed to, pardon the phrase, tackle the problem.

Runaway remuneration for football coaches implicates systemic concerns—namely, the primacy of revenue sports at ostensibly academic institutions and the fiction of amateur athletics. To borrow a phrase that trustees regularly invoke about academe, the business model for top-tier collegiate football and basketball is broken. Boards of trustees have a responsibility to fix it. Governance is not a spectator sport.

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Bio

Richard Chait, professor emeritus of higher education at Harvard Graduate School, has focused as a researcher, author and consultant on college and university boards of trustees.

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