NCAA coaches may be worth their burgeoning salaries

The annual USA TODAY NCAA Coaches salary database typically brings about discussion centering around the outrageous amount of money the game’s top names bring in on a yearly basis. This year’s leader in the clubhouse, Jim Harbaugh of Michigan, is scheduled to make over $9 million for the year, with the potential to get to $10 million if he hits incentive bonuses. While that number may be a bit inflated due to the unique structure of his contract that allows the university to collect on his life insurance at some point, there’s no denying that Harbaugh, along with many other college football head coaches, are bringing in salaries far beyond pretty much any other university employee.

Now that we’ve gotten the shocking numbers out of the way, are these guys worth what they’re being paid? Well, that depends on the university, the level of success they’re having, and a number of other factors that don’t necessarily lead back to the respective athletic departments.

Revenue-producing men’s basketball and football programs pay the freight for entire athletic departments. The increased exposure a basketball mid-major received by making the Final Four brought in an estimated $677 million. Of course, these universities typically don’t have the exposure the majority of the Power 5 conference schools do, so the brand benefit generally will be greater for exposure on the national stage. However, a tangible impact is felt by by success regardless of the university’s standing.

Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Beyond the marketing uptick, student applications have been shown to increase, ACT/SAT scores for incoming classes rise and donations come in at a higher rate when programs are successful.  In some cases, this level of success could even generate additional revenue through apparel deals, although these are typically related to the long-term brand strength of a university more than the ebb and flow of success on the field.

While there seems to be a clear correlation between on-field success and increased revenue opportunities off the field, true game-changing coaches that maximize this effect may be few and far between. This calls into question whether the quantity of high salaries are justified given the dearth of difference-making coaches.

Each university’s situation is different as well. Donors may withhold money if they’re unhappy with the direction of the program. Ticket sales and sponsorships may lag because of poor performance. An overall malaise can have long-lasting impacts on a program, so overpaying for a coach to bring excitement back to the school and make it easier to raise money and sell tickets may make sense. Even though it’s difficult to quantify how much value a successful coach brings to a university, schools without one can definitely tell you how hard it is when they don’t have one.