Editor’s notebook: Xs and Os: University coaches’ pay forsakes the rest of the funding alphabet

An open letter to Rob Mullens, University of Oregon athletic director.

I write to you with concern over the rate of pay announced last week for the new defensive coordinator for the Duck football team: Jim Leavitt will make $1.15 million annually for the next four years.

News item from OregonLive (Dec. 29): “In its attempt to fix college football’s 126th-ranked unit, Oregon is now paying a key assistant a salary never before seen at the school.

“Jim Leavitt, the Ducks’ new defensive coordinator, will earn $1.15 million per year as part of his four-year contract according to public records released Thursday afternoon, becoming the first UO assistant coach ever to earn more than $1 million.

“That paycheck easily eclipses the $700,000 that Brady Hoke, Leavitt’s predecessor, was set to earn in 2017, which would have been a record salary for a UO assistant.”

A cool million, for a football coach? A person responsible for the oversight of, what, three or four of his own assistants, and 50 or 60 “student athletes”?

Quite simply, where is the sense in this?

Duck athletics, now parked at the corner of Lucrative and Ludicrous.

A typical UO department head makes a small fraction of this salary, oversees dozens of faculty responsible for hundreds of students, and has little or no cash incentives and bonuses (Leavitt’s totals several hundred thousand dollars — plus car and travel expenses are covered).

As I hope you are aware, I had written you a personal letter last year, questioning the high scale of payment to athletic coaches. With the news of this further Leavitt-ation of lucre I decided to take another tack. I write now as a newspaper editor, as well as a citizen, and the parent of a University of Oregon student. For when I read of the new assistant coach’s salary, I was appalled: $1.15 million to organize a college football defensive team?

We had already learned that the new head coach will get a massive raise over his predecessor. Is Willie Taggert worth multiple millions per year, let alone Jim Harbaugh at Michigan’s $9 million plus, or Nick Saban at Alabama the $12 million plus he is paid? No coach is worth that much. The University of Oregon now believes it must fully invest into this mythic largesse, and again the wrong people are getting big raises.

Okay, let us accept a certain level of logic in what is paid to Taggert: he is the face of the program, his is the glamor job and the one bearing the most pressure and expectation. We’ll let rest that concept, cozy within its own set of spreadsheets.

But while meaning no offense to Mr. Leavitt: he is not worth that much. No assistant coach is.

Setting aside the arguments of rising standards or expectations — also known as “what the market bears (or demands)” — can you objectively disagree that $1 million for an assistant coach is far too high?

The pay is $300,000 more than Leavitt’s predecessor makes; how is it that the defensive coordinator job value enriched by 30 percent overnight?

Further, it is several hundred thousand more than the University President makes. Can you provide an actual argument for paying an assistant football coach roughly twice what the premier administrator earns — let alone a 10-fold ratio for the head coach?

What is perhaps most troubling is that all this largesse is not sufficient for Mr. Leavitt. His contract builds in a clause that codifies a temporary, tentative loyalty. As OregonLive reports: “Leavitt does have a very specific loophole in his buyout clause: He won’t be required to pay anything ‘should he voluntarily terminate this agreement to become the head football coach at Kansas State University.’”

Here’s your bucket of cash, coach: spend it while you think of that job you really want.

Duck athletics, now parked at the corner of Lucrative and Ludicrous.

Things have gotten out of hand. I understand the competitive, quasi-business nature of top tier NCAA athletics. However, call me naïve or simplistic, I like to think that the same resources that go to athletic programs and salaries could be used for other needs. Yes, Phil Knight recently donated a half-billion dollars to the university for a medical center. That will be a remarkable step forward for the university. But you don’t let the family car rust and then grandly point out that your rich uncle paid for your chrome bumpers.

These jumps in coaches’ salaries eclipse the small increases, if they exist, in other aspects of the institution. What if the University of Oregon announced it was going to spend an increase of $5 million per year on more important needs rather than giving the coaching staff members exorbitant pay increases?

Instead, all those resources are further depleted and diverted. Yes, you want to maintain and build the university’s reputation for athletic excellence. Oregonians understand that, I would hope begrudgingly.

But what if, for starters, that $300,000 pay raise for an assistant coach and $3 million head coach bump were instead to go to giving professors and other faculty the pay raises they deserve, to support educational programs, to repair dorm rooms, to enhance financial aid for students in need? How about to scholarships?

The best improvements happen incrementally. So do the worst changes. While coach salary creep has become a kind of fiduciary kudzu nationwide, what is happening to support all those other things besides athletics that we should treasure in a university?

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jimaorduck 1 year, 11 months ago

Let's talk how much Taxpayer dollars support the U of O AD compared to OS and PSU (we can leave the other schools out. At Oregon the AD gets Lottery money and has the Academic support program operations paid by the General fund (remember all those out of State Athletes well the Scholarship ones still pay full tuition coming from Guess who: the AD. While at OS they budget at a loss, have to cover even more losses, get the same lottery dollars and cover operation costs of the Academic support program. Care to guess what happens at PSU?

Here's the other thing that bugs me; there is equal pay in K-12, but not in the former OUS system where state money is shifted so that all schools see approximately the same tuition hike. Care to venture to guess how much the U of O gets for every Oregon resident who attends the school and how much is paid for Oregon resident at OS. Last reported by Oregonian the OS Student gets a $2500 subsidy from U of O students based on equal pay formula. Is that fair?

When U of O went to the 1995 Rose Bowl the following two years saw a major increase in academic donations; currently the U of O is conducting would could be a four year campaign that will raise over 2 Billion dollars. Have you been on campus to see new buildings, remodeled and upgrades facilities and new scholarships? More than athletics has grown at U of O without real taxpayer/legislature support!

I look forward to your response after you look at pay increases at OS and Athletic department growth without the ability to generate additional revenue and continue to operate the AD Budget with upfront subsidies and covering yearly losses. Try to investigate the situation with both eyes open and no blinders. The whole picture, to include politics, is pretty interesting. Maybe you should ask why we need a new campus in Bend? or why we haven't really reinvented public College education where major infrastructure investment can be reduced!

Thanks for reading


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