As the annual coaching carousel winds down the NCAA’s leaders continue to grouse over the high pay for college football coaches. NCAA President Mark Emmert told the IMG Intercollegiate Athletics Forum in New York last week that current spending was not sustainable, but that in a free market there’s little he can do until athletic departments “run out of money.” Emmert added, “We don’t have a legal structure where we say, ‘Thou shalt not pay more than X for a coach or assistant coach.’”
Nebraska Chancellor Harvey Perlman told the same IMG gathering that federal antitrust law would almost certainly thwart any attempt by schools to collectively restrain coaching salaries. “[T]here’s really two options,” Perlman said:
One is to figure out a creative way to do it within the antitrust laws. Or, second, is to get the antitrust laws changed. I know there’s great reluctance, but there’s been conversations within the NCAA about going before Congress and doing something about this.
The NCAA isn’t about to go to Congress, as that would open the door to a wide-ranging inquiry into college football’s business practices, including conference realignment and amateurism. Even attempting to find a “creative way” to circumvent the antitrust system, as Perlman suggested, would invite greater regulatory scrutiny. (After all, antitrust laws, like NCAA rules, are written so that only the regulators know if something is a violation after-the-fact.) It’s also far from clear how many other college presidents share Emmert and Perlman’s malaise over the current market. While Perlman’s Big Ten colleagues may welcome a new price fixing regime, it’s hard to imagine the SEC—which has just poached the top coaches from three of its rival conferences—would go along with such a proposal.
It’s also quite laughable that men as educated as Emmert and Perlman actually think price controls—and that’s what they’re proposing, let’s not kid ourselves—will actually work in practice. All price controls do is create further shortages while encouraging people to find, ahem, “creative ways” to circumvent them. Say the NCAA decrees no coach can receive a salary of more than $2 million per year. Does that apply to outside income from camps, media, alumni groups, et al.? If it does, good luck trying to enforce that. We’ve already seen how well the NCAA polices its price controls over player compensation.
The larger message from Emmert and Perlman’s statements is that they view rising coaching salaries as a bureaucratic problem in search of a bureaucratic solution. Nothing could be farther from the truth. What we’re really seeing here is an epidemic of mismanagement among Division I schools, particularly with respect to presidents and athletic directors.
Take Auburn’s recent hiring of Gus Malzahn. After firing Gene Chizik—who received a $3.6 million per year contract from the administration a year before he was fired—Auburn’s president brought in a “search committee” to recommend a replacement. Think about it. The president needed an outside committee to tell him to re-hire a man who had previously been on the Auburn payroll. This was textbook bureaucratic management. The search committee was designed to absolve the president and athletic director of direct responsibility for the final hire—especially if something had gone wrong and Auburn didn’t get its first or second choice.
Then there was the odyssey of Jeff Long. The Arkansas athletic director threw wild contract offers at every plausible candidate—including a reported $4 million per year offer to Louisville coach Charlie Strong—before pulling off the surprise hire of Bret Bielema, who settled for a mere $3.2 million. Even if Bielema doesn’t work out, Long successfully managed to get Strong and several other coaches, including Les Miles, a raise as a consequence of the rumor mongering that surrounded his actions.
The lesson here is that athletic directors make poor agents. They are ultimately bureaucratic middle managers. Meanwhile, coaches have learned to hire shrewd, entrepreneurial agents to rabidly protect their interests. University presidents should take note. Instead of relying on BS search committees or athletic directors who are looking to make a big hire at any cost, schools should seriously look at hiring their own Scott Boras-type agents. This would do far more to bring “balance” back to the market than price fixing or whatever bureaucratic remedy Mark Emmert might concoct.
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