With Nick Saban signing a contract extension Monday, it got me thinking once again about the massive paychecks and outlandish buyouts so many football coaches receive after they fail. Saban doesn’t really qualify here because he just keeps winning, and I’d have to imagine the teams he puts on the field at Bryant-Denny are an overall financial win for the University of Alabama.
But Saban is Saban. The rest of these guys aren’t ringing up national championships like it’s a bodily function. The vast majority of the rest of the very-highly-overpaid college football coach world spends its time being fired at one school, moving to the next and after some period of time, getting fired there as well. All the while, they collect amazing amounts of money for being asked to leave. To be fair, in the SEC a lot of these guys get fired for failing to beat Saban, which is a hell of a high hurdle in order to keep your job. Regardless of the reason, though, they’re typically leaving town with vast fortunes.
For instance, former Auburn University Coach Gus Malzahn signed a $49 million contract in 2017, but three years later he was fired. But he left with a complete matching luggage set full of cash — or maybe it was direct deposited. Either way, he got paid $21.4 million to leave. His defensive coordinator wasn’t hired by the new coach and he ended up with a $4 million ticket out of town. Now he’s working for $450,000 a year at the University of Tennessee, when he was making $2.5 million annually at Auburn. It’s probably easier for his family to make it on $450K a year when he has that $4 million buyout in his pocket. Still, it does make me wonder. If a guy will work for 18 percent of what he was making, were you overpaying him in the first place?
None of this is new and it’s typically explained away as coming from money boosters kick in to foundations separate from actual university money. So the justification goes that if rich guys want to waste their money writing contracts that give coaches huge sums of cash when they’re canned for failing to win enough, why should we care at all? And just for the record, I am absolutely available to coach any Division I school into the dirt and will take my multimillion-dollar buyout and happily leave. Just in case any coaching recruiters are reading this.
Lately, I’ve been writing articles about some issues at the University of Alabama System Office, and it’s led me to delve more into the way public universities are paying their top executives. Frankly, what’s happening in university administration is not that far removed from the fiscal bonanza in the athletics department.
The salaries top university executives make are stunning. It’s not unusual for university presidents to bring in $500,000 or much more a year in base salary, and also to enjoy hundreds of thousands more in bonuses, retirement, free housing and other perks. At the University of Alabama System Office, the chancellor, Finis St. John, earned close to $1 million a year in his first two years running the show. That includes $75,000 a year for housing — when he chose not to live in the university-owned chancellor’s house free of charge — and another $12,000 a year for a car allowance. So you pay a guy $1 million a year and still have to give him rent money and pay for his car?
If you check out the 990 forms from the UAB Hospital System — a nonprofit corporation — you’ll see seven out of 21 paid board members, key employees, officers, trustees and its highest-compensated employees who make more than $1 million a year. Of the other 14, the lowest-paid made about $259,000 in 2018 (the last year records are available) and the highest-paid made more than $800,000. Some of these salaries would make an SEC offensive coordinator jealous.
When you consider all of the various vice presidents and deans who serve under the million-dollar administrators, there’s very serious money being spent. But perhaps the bigger issue is that much like on the football side of things, we’re seeing individuals who were already very highly paid getting very large payouts when they retire or “resign.”
In 2019, for example, Auburn “parted ways” — a nice way of saying fired — with President Steven Leath. Leath was making the rather livable sum of $625,000 a year at the time of the parting, according to published reports. But when they decided to fire him, Auburn’s Board of Trustees decided to pay him $4.5 million as a going-away present. Leath was to get $1.5 million a year for three years after leaving. The irony is he was only president for about two years, making $625,000 a year, so of the total $5.75 million he made by working at Auburn for two years, 72 percent of that came after he left.
Former University of Alabama Chancellor Ray Hayes also got a sweet deal after working that position for just two years. He came back as “chancellor emeritus” and was paid another $1.2 million over two years for working on some issue with student health care. I have to believe the university already had people capable of working on that issue who wouldn’t have cost them more than a million bucks.
Making it even worse, the “Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama Board Manual” specifically says “retreating” chancellors and presidents like Hayes aren’t eligible for such buyouts unless they’ve served five years in the position. But rules are made to be broken, right?
We’re used to the football coach payouts coming from play money donated by individuals of leisure for whom a winning season is worth a bit of their vast wealth. But it looks like those same behaviors have been learned on the other side of the campus, where much of the money comes from taxpayers and parents struggling to pay ever-increasing tuition costs, not the elite.
Throwing millions at university officials who’ve already been paid more than they probably ever deserved as a goodbye gift or a way of keeping their mouths shut is something the Legislature ought to examine and at least create reasonable limits for generosity with public funds. We don’t need university administrators thinking they’re as important as losing football coaches.
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