In Defense Of College Football Coaches

For winning the BCS National Championship this week, Florida State's Jimbo Fisher received an additional bonus of $325,000. Not surprisingly, this time of year tends to trigger scrutiny into coach compensation and whether or not they're worth the money. Coupled with concussions, periodic recruiting scandals and amateur athlete compensation, college football may be the country's most controversial sport, leading some to even accuse college football coaches of being overpaid, youth labor extortionists. But to make an informed assessment, several key factors should be understood about the college football coaching profession.

Looking first at compensation, Deadspin reported that the highest paid state employee in most states is a college football coach.

From basic economics, it is understood that over time the open market ultimately determines the price of a good or service. In this case, if college football coaches provide value, the prices of their services rise. If they don't, the prices fall. The open market determines the value of a college coach and issues compensation accordingly. So inherently, college football coaches as a whole are "worth" their compensation.

But why are good college football coaches so valuable? This is because football (often along with men's basketball) provides marketing and sales for the entire school. At the IMG Intercollegiate Athletics Forum, I asked a panel of school presidents and athletic directors that included the University of Oregon and the University of Georgia for the most effective way to market their institutions. They unanimously agreed that it was "intercollegiate athletics." Where else can a university gain several hours of national TV time and generate revenue in the process?

Even at smaller schools, no activities better unify alumni bases and draw graduates back to campus like football games, which has led to a rise in the number of NCAA Division III football teams added. At all levels, college football teams play a significant role in helping schools gain necessary exposure, and football coaches are responsible for leading those teams.

Second, coaching college football is a difficult profession. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, there are over 1.1 million high school football players in the U.S. alone. A college coach must be able to not only identify the best players but also convince them to attend his school. Once they are enrolled, he must help them transition to college life and develop as young men while also helping them improve as football players. Not to mention he must win football games, or he'll soon be out of a job. And that's just the football part; there is also fundraising, community service and media commitments to name a few additional responsibilities.

Third, there are limited job opportunities which yield a grueling and generally unglamorous lifestyle. Including the NCAA, the NAIA and junior colleges, there are fewer than 900 college football teams in the U.S. Of those teams, only 121 are part of the Football Bowl Series (FBS), which consistently garners national media attention and the corresponding compensation. The vast majority of college football coaches are paid nowhere near seven figures.

With only a few, highly coveted college coaching jobs, it creates tremendous competition. A zero-sum game, only when a coach is fired or vacates a position can another one take his place. To stay competitive, coaches work long hours and are often forced to miss weddings, funerals and time with their families. Much was made of Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh's grueling weekly routine where he sleeps in his office and barely sees his family. If Coach Harbaugh is trying to win Super Bowls and keep his job, one can imagine how hard a college coach trying to impress Harbaugh and get on his NFL staff is working.

The last and most critical factor to note is that of total impact. Good college football coaches are often role models, mentors and father figures for their players. Their bonds can last lifetimes and sometimes go even deeper. For example, choosing to remain anonymous, there is a junior college coach in Los Angeles who has one of his players currently sleeping at his apartment because both of his parents are now dead. The young man is not a blue chip player with a big NFL pay day on the horizon. But rather, the coach is all the family that he has, so he takes care of him.

As in any industry, big bonuses and controversy attract media attention. But pundits should note just how few college coaches actually reap substantial compensation. And for the coaches who do, one should keep in mind all that goes into the profession, what it took for him to reach that coveted position, and the value he brings to his conference, his school and the people around him.