Brian Kelly’s recent jump from Notre Dame to LSU has highlighted a number of current problems with respect to college football today, with none bigger than the ongoing shift from what used to be most important at American universities (academics) to today’s #1 priority — football. While it seems hard to believe now, there used to be a time where football coaches actually made less money than professors and college administrators, but today you would be lucky to find a football strength coach at a big college making less than any academic professor or dean. In fact, outgoing LSU coach Ed Orgeron will be paid $16.9 million to leave LSU. For comparison, that figure is the equivalent to 113 professor salaries paid $150k a year (a number much greater than the average national professor salary). There have never before been coach salaries in this range, and this trend is picking up speed annually. Coach salaries today are staggering compared to the pay of every other university employee — including college presidents — leaving you to wonder about the real purpose of colleges today? Higher learning, or professional football?
What’s more important, academics or football?
The trend to pay football coaches extraordinary salaries compared to all other university employees has been going for some time, and the gap seems to widen almost exponentially with every year that passes. Universities have most definitely spoken, and their actions reveal that college football is a lucrative and worthwhile endeavor, even at the expense of revealing academics to be a distant priority relative to football. Regardless of public image or how university employees feel, it is clear that the #1 priority of many universities today is to fully invest in their football program, regardless of expense, optics, or public opinion. Brian Kelly, and all well-paid coaches before him are not to blame for this, but instead the focus should turn toward universities so willing to put all their eggs in the football basket rather than keeping football in check. And there are even bigger questions than this — what are the long-term, holistic consequences when football expenses trump annual university employee salary raises, priorities in academic expenses, and other related cuts to academics, curriculum, and important technology and campus upgrades? When students see departments cut faculty, yet in the next moment pay a football coach $10 million dollars a year, what message does that send? Are we really turning out our best students under conditions that appear to place academics far behind what happens on any given Saturday in the fall?
College football is a lot of fun, and nobody begrudges Brian Kelly or any other American from getting what they can in a capitalistic society. The problem, however, centers around the controversial changes universities have made in recent years going all-in on investing in football programs, while at the same time making cuts to programs, departments, and faculty. When universities are compromised at the core of what they do, what is the quality of student that emerges, and how equipped is he/she to successfully transition from college to a career? And how should other university employees feel when they realize they are of less value than the football team? Opening the bank to college football coaches is great for the coach, but also has a direct effect on university employees, programs and departments, and possibly even the academic experience offered to students.