And The Highest-Paid US Government Employee is....

...Probably Nick Saban, coach of the University of Alabama football team at around $7 million a year.  But Jim Harbaugh, recently hired by the University of Michigan for a $5 million base salary, apparently has incentives that can take that up to $9 million a year.

Apologists will argue that this is all OK and shouldn't worry taxpayers at all because these guys are paid out of the college athletic budget which is generated from sports revenue rather than taxes.  Hmm.  Any state parks agency probably generates millions or tens of millions each year in user fees.  Should we be OK with the state employee who runs those agencies making $5 million because it comes out of user fees rather than taxes?  Money is fungible.  $5 million more spent on a football coach is $5 million less that can fund other University services.

(PS - in the US Today ranking of college football coach salaries, 19 of 20 are at public institutions).


  1. HenryBowman419:

    I'll note that Mr. Saban and Mr. Harbaugh do not appear to be US Government employees, but are likely employed by state government agencies.

    That said, I agree that college football is anything but amateur — I wonder how the salaries of these folks compare with those of NFL coaches?

  2. stanbrown:

    All those people producing millions by watching on tv, paying for tickets and donating millions for the football team will still keep buying tickets, donating and watching TV if there was no football and the entertainment was a video of the chemistry lab?! Really?!

    Beyond stupid.

  3. anon:

    So, I believe people have called for greater demonization of drug companies on the grounds that they spend money on advertising instead of useful drug research. (Possibly part of a larger movement to demonize any corporations who spend on advertising; I only heard about this through an article defending drug companies.)

    Megan McArdle, writing in response, pointed out that a company doesn't run advertising for its own sake; instead, it runs advertising because it thinks the money spent on advertising will cover its own costs (and then some) by increasing revenues. In concept, if you redirected all of a drug company's advertising budget into its other activities, the rest of the budget would be working with less money than it had before, leading to a fall in money spent on research. Of course, it's possible that in any particular case too much money is erroneously being spent on advertising -- but if you really believe that a company is advertising too much to be useful, all you have to do is convince them it's true and they'll happily dial it down.

    Similarly, as I understand higher education, the football team is a huge profit center for the university (?). It doesn't sound crazy to make the argument that high coach salaries function as advertising, since a successful team brings in more money to the school than a failing team does (?).

  4. Lab Rat:

    The university sport's budgets are only partially generated from revenue. Mandatory student fees, separate from tuition and usually not waived for graduate students or undergraduate scholarships make up the difference. Only an elite few university athletic departments are self sufficient. Michigan runs 10 million in the black, but still oddly takes 0.18% of the athletic budget ($255,000) from its students.

  5. Dave Boz:

    Athletic departments are pretty much a closed loop - the revenues they bring are spent on more athletics facilities and payroll. The money doesn't go toward furthering the academic mission of the university. All the increased professionalism of college sports in recent decades has gone to the enormous benefit of coaches, administrators and other hangers-on - certainly not to the benefit of the players or of the university in general.

    There is also no literature that indicates that donors will give more money to the academic side of the school if the football team is successful.

  6. Don:

    I've heard (and even made) this argument before as well, but "anon" has the right of it. My alma mater, Texas A&I (not Texas A&M Kingsville), was a relatively small school in a poor area of Texas. If you looked at the school at all, it was simply to ask the question, "Why would anybody attend this school?"

    For foreigners in oil & gas companies, A&I was as close to a house-hold name as you could get. For it's size, A&I graduated a HUGE number of Petroleum Engineers, and many of them were very successful (the VP of Exploration at Exxon at the time I was in college was an A&I grad, for instance). Ditto for geology, and if you wanted an undergraduate NatGas Engineering degree, at that time, A&I was the only place on the planet to get one (and had the first NatGas MS in the US).

    For kids in the US though, outside of the Corpus Christi area, A&I was know only for one thing: one of the winning Div 2 football programs in the country. That fact alone brought people from all over the country, because they knew nothing else about us except we were a football school near the beach.

    Oh, and we were cheap. All-in, out-of-staters paid less for a BS than in-staters did for the same degree at UT, A&M or Tech. Honestly, without football, the university wouldn't have made it through the '80's (as many didn't) when Texas lost it's oil money.

    I know Coach Harms was paid well (more than the President's $250K salary in circa '89 if the campus paper was to be believed), but from a business point of view, he earned it.

  7. Don:

    Oops, that should read "_NOW_ Texas A&M Kingsville", but since I'm still pissed about the name change, either works :).

  8. stanbrown:

    Other than the professional opinion of virtually every collegiate official who ever raised funds. Who ya gonna believe? The sales people on the ground dealing with the customers their whole professional lives or some biased college profs who butcher some stats for a few days in an effort to produce a study?

  9. stanbrown:

    Don't confuse the football team with the whole athletic dept. The athletic dept is a money loser. The football program is not.

  10. stanbrown:

    Warren's argument is the same as a company slashing commission rates for salespeople on the grounds that the lower sales costs will boost profits since revenues can never go down.

  11. stanbrown:

    When Alabama had a chance to get Saban to coach, they went to the big money folks (the ones they hit up constantly for contributions for academics and everything else) and asked them if they would fund the big contract it would take to get Saban. The big donors, after wetting their pants in excitement, whipped out their checkbooks and said "hell yes!"

    Warren wants us to believe that they'd write the same checks if there was no football team. A rather doubtful proposition for which there is zero evidence in support.

  12. DaveK:

    Funding organizations, or specialized parts of organizations out of a special source of funds raises the question of accountability. Just who does the organization, or that part of the organization work for?

    The worst example of this that I see is the justification for expanding State Lottery programs to fund (pick one or many... schools, parks, victims of violent crime, and on, and on...). These programs have typically been funded by legislative action, and were accountable to the legislature in the event of poor performance. With funds coming from other sources, just who those programs answer to becomes fuzzy, and fuzzy accountability is really, really bad in any organization. At worst (and especially with lottery funds), the organization can stop worrying about performing well and just work on more ways to spend the cash stream that's coming in.

    With athletic funding, the question is whether the sports programs are still accountable to the University, or do they now answer to the alums and media-corporations that provide all of that cash.

  13. joshv:

    Well - the question is, are coaches fungible? If any old coach will do, and you can replace a five million dollar coach with a $250k coach, and still realize the same sports revenue, well you'd have a point. I imagine however if that were possible, we'd see it being done more frequently.

  14. Solomon Foster:

    Pretty sure I heard someone say Harbaugh's $5 mil a year is the same as his salary at the 49ers was.

  15. Lab Rat:

    Coach's salaries are part of the overall athletic budget, though. So if a university runs a deficit with a multi-million dollar coach, it becomes harder to defend. Not to mention the hundreds of administration and middle management jobs in the athletic department run on the backs of "amateur" athletes and student fees.

  16. Sam L.:

    Ought to hire a female coach...for 77% of a male's pay. That's the way to save money!

  17. marque2:

    Why isn't sports an academic mission. You have to a lot about reads and playbooks and history of the sport if you want to be your best. It takes at least as much skill as the sociology major. Also schools should allow quality students to excel in their field of interest.

    One difference between the sociology student and the athletic student. Many of the athletic students bring in revenue which pays at least part of the department cost frequently in addition to tuition The sociology student contributes nothing to the campus in many ways - providing no extra financial support, and no increase to the intellectual level of the university as well.

  18. marque2:

    Every department at the undergrad level is a money loser for schools. Most of the athletes pay tuition just like any one else. And the other, non athlete students get scholarships as well.

    Why can't I graduate from high school and aspire to learn to be a great athlete? I don't get it. No one complains about the parasitic sociology department, or the Arts department, or the ethnic/woman's studies departments - and they bring in nothing. In athletics at least the football/baseball/basketball teams bring in money to help fund the lesser sports, and women's sports.

    Bunch of BS by people who hate and resent athletes.

  19. marque2:

    Advertising can actually reduce overall costs. If you advertise and get more people to use your product - and many of the ads are legitimate outreach, you have painful gout, maybe you should try our new gout medicine - it works better than existing remedies on many people - you end up selling more product which allows you to distribute the R&D over a larger base, reducing the medicine's cost, as well as allowing for economies of scale in manufacturing, which also reduces the overall cost.

    If car manufacturers did not advertise, as another example, the price of cars would be 2 - 3 times as much, because so many fewer would be sold, and yet folks complain that 25% of a cars cost is the advertising.

  20. marque2:

    Pete Carroll makes $7 million a year with the Seahawks not including bonuses. His salary at USC was 4.4 million when he left. Note that he had the highest salary of any private college employee at the time - the number two at the time was David Silvers, @ 4.3 million who is a clinical professor at Columbia. Pete Carroll's Salary is a 3 way tie for 3rd place. There are two coaches earning more. Interestingly the highest paid college coach is Nick Saban of Alabama with 7.3 million.

    Both these coaches led their teams to national championships multiple times. I think they deserve the money - championships bring in more revenue for the owner, than lackluster teams. I remember in the 1990's, during their heyday, the 49ers had a estimated 20 year waiting list for season tickets - now - it takes much less time.

  21. marque2:

    It was an interesting statistic, that when Oregon played the PAC 10 championship game, they scored more points in the 49er's stadium, than the 49ers did. I wonder about hiring a college coach from such a mediocre team. Pete Carroll was an exception, most NFL coaches do not do that well in college coaching. Charlie Weis being a great example.

  22. Brad Warbiany:

    Harbaugh was a very successful college coach before going to the NFL. He turned a terrible Div II-A team, San Diego, in an 11-win team, and turned Stanford from an also-ran in the Pac 10 to a serious power.

    He'll do fine.

  23. texasjimbo:

    I'm with you on the absurdity of what goes on in a lot of social science, liberal arts and fine arts classes, but its equally silly to pretend that college sports has anything to do with education. As long as college athletic departments are self funding (with no money coming from student service fees) and the student athletes are treated the same as any other student, don't see anything objectionable about college athletics. But those conditions ae only very rarely met.

  24. slocum:

    For Michigan, the revenue difference between Harbaugh and their next best option is huge. Last year, games at Michigan Stadium were not selling out (for the first time since the mid 1960s). Big time private football powers (USC, Notre Dame, Stanford, etc), pay the same kinds of salaries for the same reasons.

  25. marque2:

    I sit next to a guy, at work, who played 4 years in a respected FBS team - and he earned an EE - which is one of the hardest majors in college, much more difficult than the Computer Science degree I got. He is also a minority. And please note, to get through EE, you can't skip class and have someone else do your homework for you. You might get past the first year doing that, but eventually you would flop out.

    You can't just stereotype the athletic students. Many play the system, but there are also many who do get legitimate degrees. Just like there are many students who get degrees in finance or engineering, and many many others who prefer 4 years of fun, so play the system, while getting a Psych degree. I wouldn't be surprised if the number of athletes in college getting dopey degrees is about the same as the student population in general.

  26. marque2:

    A less anonymous example, since she had the world spotlight. Debi Thomas was in my high School class. She was an ice skater who won worlds, won US twice and Bronze in the Olympics because she tripped in one set. She took all the AP classes in high school even though it wasn't fashionable, Graduated Stanford pre-med, and ended up being an Orthopedic surgeon.

    What a dumb jock.

  27. docwatson55:

    77% - a completely discredited statistic. Do the research, sir.

  28. marque2:

    USC regular season games rarely sell out save for UCLA or Notre Same games, but then I believe the stadium holds 92000 people.

  29. ncgh:

    You miss the point. He could have gotten through on academic merit. Getting a scholarship on academic merit is good, and we can support that. But why send people to college who are NOT academically qualified, just because they can play sports. This is the real problem.

    [And we'll get the 'this is how kids from poor neighborhoods get to college' BS. There are plenty of poor kids with brains, they're the ones who should be getting the help.]

  30. marque2:

    You miss the point as well. Athletic merit is a form of academic merit. Yes you should meet minimum requirements, to get into the college, those tend to be fairly low, but to say an Athletic scholarship has no merit is beyond belief.

  31. texasjimbo:

    If the student athlete is that motivated, they likely would have gotten a degree without any sports program. The fact remains, many star college athletes not only do not get a real college education, colleges are spending a lot of student and taxpayer money on salaries and facilities that have nothing to do with education. That should stop. Let the NFL and the NBA run their own minor leagues like MLB. You're being way too sensitive here; maybe you've got some personal insecurities involved, but neither myself nor ncgh has said that all athletes are stupid.

  32. Craig L:

    I think that's what he was getting at.

  33. stevewfromford:

    If some park ranger can figure out how to get over a billion people pay to see "his" park then I'd guess he, or someone involved will figure out how to monetize this phenomenal piece of management just as have the NFL and college sports.

  34. EricP:

    Irony is lost on some people.

  35. LanternFish:

    If the money wasn't going to Saban, it would most likely be going to the left-wing activists running the academics and the propagandist in the _______ Studies department. The world would be better off if Saban had all of their budgets too.