Brian Kelly just left a Notre Dame team in playoff contention for $95 million. Lincoln Riley said good-bye to his SEC future and reportedly took $110 millon to attempt to revive a mediocre USC program. Ed Orgeron can sit at home doing nothing but drinking beer and eating gumbo for the next four years and rake in $16 million. Alabama’s Nick Saban inches closer every year to a $10 million salary (though this Riley contract, if confirmed, will match that).
In 2020, former University of Miami president and current House Representative Donna Shalala said that the amount that schools are willing to pay head coaches was “mortifying,” and she’s got a point. Following the Kelly and Riley contracts, calls for a salary cap for NCAA football coaches are being tossed around on Twitter as the disparities between coaches and their athletes become clearer and wider by the day.
There is no other country in the world in which this sort of money is poured into an “amateur sport.” It’s not even accurate to say that the very best college coaches are paid these ridiculously high amounts — neither Riley nor Kelly has won a national championship as a head coach. Attempting to explain the college football financial landscape to someone from another country would make you sound a bit insane. Schools — academic institutions dedicated to educating future American leaders and workers — are paying out the same amount of money to football coaches as NFL teams, organizations with billions of dollars specifically dedicated to the sport. And many of these universities are public, which means one way or another, those salaries are tax dollars at work.
The hiring process of college coaches is subject not only to market forces, as bigger contracts drive up national expectations of financial shows of appreciation, but subject to the moral qualms and the fickle decisions of the athletic departments. Some schools are willing to essentially write a blank check for the chance to win it all — as Brian Kelly went on and on about “alignment” in his first press conference as LSU head coach, we all saw the subtext there. Yeah, $100 million aligning with his pocket and whoever he wants on as assistant aligning with whatever price he names. Maybe Notre Dame wasn’t “aligning” with that — the holy fathers may object to such an ungodly amount of money being spent on a coach. But the reality is that the blue blood programs are driving up the price of a good coach to amounts that even a decade ago, we would have scoffed at, creating a larger issue when impatience leads to firings that lead to half a billion dollars spent on paying coaches not to coach.
And yet I don’t believe that a federally regulated salary cap would solve the problems that come along with college football. Would it end exploitation of student athletes? Even out the playing field? Create a more equitable environment within athletic programs? The answer to all of these is no, and while I’m morally inclined to say that a salary cap might be the right thing to do, the practical side says it won’t work — and here’s why.
The primary reason is that it would significantly lower the quality of the college football we’re seeing on Saturdays right now. Sure, some coaches are dedicated to college for the love of the game, but realistically, the only thing keeping guys like Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, or even Riley from going to the NFL is the comparable contract that they receive with the big college jobs. They get the money they want and stay at their school, and CFB is all the better for it, but these high-level coaches would be far less inclined to stick around in a salary cap world.
So the people who argue that the playing field would be evened out might be right. It would be evened out to be worse across the board. But even then, it wouldn’t be an even playing field. There are so many other resources that come along with salary that would allow teams to stay at the top — how much a school is willing to spend on recruiting, for instance, or on new facilities has nothing to do with a salary. The top teams would remain at the top, but the quality of play would fall because the quality of coaching would fall with a salary cap.
Also, the way that the NCAA operates usually makes sure that if something affects football, it will affect every other sport. So does the NCAA place a salary cap on the athletic department as a whole? Say hello to severely underpaid golf assistants or understaffed swim teams while the football budget remains the same thanks to demands from donors and boosters. How about a sport-by-sport salary cap? Perhaps better, but do you sacrifice a good head coach for worse coordinators, or try to get the best coordinators in the game with a lower-paid head coach? Do you barely give graduate assistants a living wage so that the big man can buy his third home? The trickle-down effect to the lower-funded sports and the lower-paid staff members would ultimately be a real negative that probably wouldn’t affect the day-to-day life of the head coach in any tangible way — what’s the real difference between $5 million and $8 million? Maybe fewer square feet in your Palm Beach condo.
And it is the NCAA after all, where one of the most fun things about the athletic departments is seeing the creative ways they cheat. Football salary cap? Who’s to say they don’t hire a couple people on the golf staff that happen to be in the football film rooms taking notes? Or perhaps a graduate teaching assistant in the history department who’s just always in the weight room? Sure, they’ve got the chance of being caught and fined, but that’s never stopped these schools from doing anything they can to get the upper hand before.
This just isn’t the direction that college football is headed, and I believe that federal regulation of this sort would be an enormous detriment not only to this sport, but to the entire gamut of NCAA athletics. Yes, it’s a ridiculous amount of money for a job at a public university, but with the amount of money moving in and out of the sport, as well as its popularity, college football is forced to adopt professional practices. And yes, I believe that should include players having the opportunity to make money, but that’s a whole different issue on its own. College football itself is a bit ridiculous, and its unique spot in the American landscape calls for some unique choices. Now for those who want to even the sport out — I think we talk about 5-star recruit caps. But that’s another article for another day, and for the time being, Alabama will keep lining Saban’s pockets while he keeps winning, and LSU will keep lining Orgeron’s pockets while he — well, while he does whatever Coach O does in his free time.