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Opinion: Cutting college coaches' pay during coronavirus crisis is the right call

Iowa State’s Jamie Pollard is not one of the biggest names in college sports, nor does he lead an athletic program that generates a lot of national attention. But when Pollard speaks, his colleagues across the country generally listen because of his pragmatism, his track record of sound coaching hires and his fiscal savvy. 

And on Thursday, Pollard spoke in a way that should reverberate all across a business that is starting to come to grips with what the coronavirus disruption could mean to its future. In discussing why Iowa State became the first major conference school to install pay cuts to athletic department officials — including the highly paid, high-profile coaches in football and basketball — it seems both inevitable and appropriate that others will follow. 

“We have a $27 million payroll and out of 200 employees, 50 of them make up 75% of that payroll,” Pollard said. “So approaching this by saying well, we won’t fill open positions or we’ll lay off people who are unessential, that isn’t going to work for the athletics department, because the only way to do that is to drop four or five sports or eliminate every administrative person in the department, including units that support our coaches.

“And if we did that, they’d go on unemployment and that would add to the state’s problems, American Sports News so all I’d be doing is passing the burden on to taxpayers. We felt like we needed a different solution.”

In other words, by getting his coaches to agree to roughly a 10-percent pay cut this year and a suspension of their potential bonus money, Pollard is going to immediately address a $5 million shortfall in Iowa State’s budget that was created by the cancellation of the Big 12 and NCAA basketball tournaments. 

For football coach Matt Campbell, that means potentially making closer to $3.15 million than $3.5 million. For basketball coach Steve Prohm, it’s a couple hundred thousand less than the $2.375 million in his contract. 

There may be more financial hardships and painful decisions down the road that Pollard may have to address, but for now, his actions constitute bold leadership in an industry that has done nothing over the last decade to help curb the exponential growth of coaching salaries. 

Now that runaway train is likely headed back to the station. 

There’s a lot we don’t know about what the world is going to look like when we get to the other side of the pandemic, but a couple of things seem pretty clear. One, higher education is going to be in pretty significant trouble. Two, a country where few people are going to be doing better economically than they were before isn’t exactly going to be in the mood to cheerlead for college football coaches like Jimbo Fisher getting a $75 million guarantee.

Not to pick on Fisher, as he’s merely one of dozens in his field who used their leverage to make insane amounts of money. But his 10-year contract with Texas A&M can in many ways be held up as the embodiment of a broken system, where schools simultaneously argued that sharing the wealth with amateur athletes would bankrupt them while doling out blatantly irresponsible contracts to coaches.

Fans, of course, didn’t really care as long as the revenue rolled in and the athletics director had a few rich donors in his back pocket willing to bankroll a buyout after a couple of 7-5 seasons. As long as the money spigot flowed, the escalation of salaries didn’t seem to matter at all. 

COACHES SALARIES: College football | Men's college basketball

Financial losses likely to be steep
But the outlook for college athletics has changed a lot in three weeks. The lost revenue from the NCAA is one thing, but now the conversations have turned to preserving the football season in some way, some form. Even in the best-case scenario for this fall, though, athletics directors know that a lot of fans they’ve counted on over the years will be unable to afford tickets or flat-out won’t be interested in being part of large crowds inside a football stadium.

For most athletic departments, the financial losses are likely to be steep. And in this climate, expecting that money to be made up with some type of government bailout or increased student fee would be naive beyond belief.

"I’d hope overall athletic directors and presidents would say, ‘We can operate more on a have-to instead of want-to basis,'” said David Ridpath, an associate professor of sports management at Ohio University. “They’ve never as an industry really had to face the scrutiny that a college of business does or a college of fine arts does, but that may change.”

It will have to, if for no other reason than it would be both illogical and morally bankrupt for a university to be cutting everywhere except within the somewhat artificial market for coaching salaries that was created mostly by their lack of collective backbone. 

After years of agents running up the score on athletics directors in coaching contract negotiations, it may be time for some uncomfortable conversations. Nobody likes to give or ask for money back, and for schools that have robust reserves, it may be too early to sound that alarm. 

But in conversations with several athletics directors this week, the consensus is that cutting salaries or asking coaches to perhaps defer some of their pay to future years would be preferable to cutting sports. That’s the right ordering of priorities.

On the other hand, contracts with high-profile coaches are complicated and structured so that most of their pay comes from a private foundation attached to the athletic department. Agents are also involved, and allowing clients to give back money is a precedent they won’t be eager to set. It would take a total change in what the mentality of the business has been — more, more more for coaches — to suddenly ask them to sacrifice anything for the greater good. 

Don't want to be the coach who doesn't help
But strictly from a public relations standpoint, it would be the smart thing to do. As Pollard explained Thursday, Press Release Distribution Service the pay reduction will allow Iowa State to make decisions that are consistent with its normal budget and not have to suffer death by 1,000 tiny cuts.

“Some of our coaches have said, ‘Let me do more,’” Pollard said. “I just said, let’s keep some of the powder dry because we don’t know what else is around the corner for us.”

Pollard was careful to note that he didn’t want to sound preachy or judge what other programs are doing, but he knows his colleagues around the country are worried about what the future looks like and what unknown factors may complicate things even further.

It’s unclear how many schools will follow Iowa State and ask their coaches to give up money to help finance the department, but you can be sure others will follow. 

“If this catches fire,” Ridpath said, “you wouldn’t want to be the coach who doesn’t do something.”

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