Perhaps We Should Address JBE’s Desire To Cap The “Obscene” Salaries Of College Football Coaches…

as reported by The Advocate’s Ross Dellinger earlier today. It appears Louisiana’s governor thinks it’s “obscene” how much money the Nick Sabans, Jimbo Fishers and Ed Orgerons of the world are making and that someone should step in and stop them from making any more, or something.

Here were the quotes Dellinger attributed to John Bel Edwards from his meeting with the Advocate’s editorial staff last week…

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards believes that multi-million dollar college football coaching salaries are “obscene” and a cap to limit them should be in place.

Edwards, during a meeting with The Advocate editorial board last week, expressed his concern over escalating staff salaries that have “gotten out of control.” Louisiana’s flagship college football program, LSU, is one of the country’s leaders in football staff spending.

“I am concerned. I’m not as concerned as I would be if those were tax dollars being spent,” Edwards said. “I do think that there has to be some look nationally at some sort of salary caps for the organizations. This is an arms race, and it’s gotten out of control. Some of the salaries and buyouts are obscene and they can create all sorts of problems.

“Everybody at this table knows that those are not taxpayer dollars but the general public doesn’t necessarily know that,” he continued, referencing the Advocate reporters and editors in the meeting. “And what about those faculty members at LSU and elsewhere who haven’t had a raise of any size in many, many years and they’re seeing what’s happening in athletics?”

“I saw the other day where a statement was made – can’t remember who it was, but I think it was someone from the NCAA – that it may be time to look at imposing limits on what the entire staff can be paid. Otherwise, you’re going to have the haves and have-nots and so forth. It’s a real problem,” Edwards said. “I don’t blame any individual for getting what the market will bear. I just don’t think the market should bear that.”

Needless to say this has created quite a commotion in social media and other circles. There is a lot to unpack in these comments, and there are lots of people doing the unpacking on message boards, Facebook and other places at present.

First, it’s nice that the governor doesn’t blame any individual for getting what the market will bear. We’re glad to know he feels that way, because at least he’s not a full-on Communist like Bernie Sanders or a red diaper baby like Barack Obama committed to disparaging the market in favor of his own personal preferences about how much money someone is allowed to make or else they should be castigated and demonized as “greedy.”

On the other hand, there isn’t all that much difference between Sanders and Obama and Edwards. Because right after saying he doesn’t blame a college football coach for getting what the market will bear, he then judges that the market shouldn’t bear what it currently does.

Which is socialist gibberish.

John Bel Edwards isn’t writing Ed Orgeron’s paycheck, much less that of higher-paid coaches like Jim Harbaugh, Saban or Fisher. Therefore Edwards has no place in purporting to set the market for football coaching salaries. That market is set by what people who are writing those checks are willing to spend, which is a function of the earnings of the programs the coaches are hired to manage.

LSU’s athletic department, driven chiefly by football revenue, does $150 million per year. Orgeron makes a little south of $4 million per year to run the football program. He and his staff have a payroll of about $9.4 million.

Given the revenue football brings in, $9.4 million is anything but “obscene.” Anyone who’s ever run a business, or is smart enough to recognize college athletics is a business, would understand this.

Let’s say instead of a football coaching staff we were talking about a rock band, whose concerts and record sales generated $150 million in a year in gross revenue. Would you call it “obscene” if the band members made $9.4 million among them?

How about the cast of a movie which does $150 million at the box office?

How about the top management of, say, a clothing line with $150 million in gross revenues?

It’s a business with lots of revenue. The people running it are going to make lots of money. That’s the way of the world, and Louisiana’s governor thinks it’s “obscene.” This is not a good sign for the state’s future economic prospects.

But it’s worse than that. Why does a Saban or a Fisher or a Harbaugh or an Urban Meyer, who we think (we’re not researching this) are the four highest-paid coaches in college football, make $6 million per year or more? Because the difference in revenue between having a great program vs. just a good one is significant. Not just for the athletic department – for the university as a whole.

College football is one of the most competitive work environments on this planet. It’s right up there with the hedge fund business, the software and dot com sector and a few others where fortunes can be won and lost in a day. Your job security as a college football coach is absolutely nil – one bad game can put you on the hot seat, and one bad season can be fatal. Look at Florida’s head coach Jim McElwain, who went from playing in the 2016 SEC Championship Game to being fired at midseason in 2017. With that kind of volatility, you’re going to have high salaries. There is too much money and too much pride at stake in the outcome of the coaches’ work products for there not to be vast compensation.

So why is that “obscene?” And who is John Bel Edwards to say what’s “obscene” and what’s not?

As for his complaint about how the ordinary professors don’t make that much money, it’s gobbledygook and it’s boring. We don’t really need to compare a football coach working 90 hours a week in do-or-die conditions to a tenured geology professor who teaches two classes a semester, for Pete’s sake. That the governor of Louisiana would traffic in such frivolous rhetoric is depressing indeed.

His quote about how taxpayer dollars aren’t involved in Ed Orgeron’s salary but ordinary folks might think there is might be something of an answer to that question as to why he thinks it’s his place to say what’s “obscene,” but it sure as hell isn’t a good one.

John Bel Edwards knows LSU’s athletic department is self-funding, and in fact has funded the academic side of the university to the tune of more than $50 million over the past five years. That there might be people who don’t know that is no excuse for him to pander to their ignorance – he’s the state’s highest-ranking elected official, and he has a responsibility to educate the public in matters such as those. Which he has neglected to do.

This is reminiscent of the 2015 controversy over Les Miles’ aborted firing, when LSU president F. King Alexander reportedly nixed a buyout of the coach’s contract over concerns about optics when he was about to lobby the state legislature to avoid general fund cuts; Alexander knew the buyout would come from private funds but worried that state legislators would oppose his efforts on the basis that LSU would have spent its money on football coaches rather than upkeep of the Biology building.

That was pure nonsense, of course, and we had several conversations with state legislators during that time who were, frankly, insulted at the insinuation they knew so little about how the athletic department is funded vis a vis the university.

Now we find out Edwards has the same mentality Alexander does, and is more wrapped up in the optics of what professionals hired to produce excellence are paid than the question of whether their product is excellence.

Which is an important thing to know.

This comes a week after the Baton Rouge Business Report put out an outstanding piece on how an institution with an opposite mindset, namely the University of Alabama, is undergoing a renaissance of sizable proportions fueled by the benefits of a perennial national championship football program Saban has produced. To wit…

Quietly, off the football field, Alabama has been trouncing LSU—and other flagship universities in the U.S.—in another arena: Growth in enrollment, as well as applications from potential students.

Alabama has been one of the fastest-growing schools in the U.S. for more than a decade, and, as of 2016, the nation’s fastest growing flagship. Applications at the school exploded by 205% from 2006 to 2016, far outpacing both LSU’s growth (67%) and the rest of the country’s flagship schools (79%). The result? A 58% spike in enrollment at Alabama over that decade, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. By comparison, LSU has seen just 5% growth.

How did Alabama do it? In part, by looking increasingly outside its state lines and throwing itself head first into a national competition for students.

Those trends get at deeper issues about how universities operate in a world with declining state aid, and about the role of state universities and flagship institutions. How should schools find the money lost by decreasing state appropriations? Should in-state students comprise a majority of the student body at public institutions? Is it a good thing that Alabama has turned so sharply toward recruiting nonresidents?

Amid declining state appropriations, some schools in recent years have turned to spending millions of dollars on advertising and marketing efforts, especially in other states, LSU spokesman Jason Droddy says in an email. Louisiana’s universities, with tight budgets to begin with, didn’t have the money to spend on advertising, he says, and instead cut costs.

In 2014, Alabama had nearly double the number of out-of-state students as in-state students in its freshman class. That year marked the first that Alabama’s total enrollment included more out-of-state students (18,325) than residents (17,830). That trend has only accelerated since.

The piece goes on to note that out-of-state tuition rates at public universities make the students paying them cash cows for those universities, and Alabama is flush with cash because kids from all over the country see their football team dominating on the gridiron and get interested in going to school there. As former LSU chancellor and current NCAA president Mark Emmert constantly evangelized during his ultra-successful time at LSU, athletics is the single best marketing arm of a university, and attracting the out-of-state students is what an LSU wants marketing for. That’s why Alabama has gone from 12,522 applications in 2006, the year before Saban was hired there, to 38,237 in 2016 after nine years of Saban winning championships.

And yet Saban’s $6 million-plus salary is “obscene?” Says who? People who lose to him?

There is a fundamental deficiency in the governor’s outlook here, one that frankly is dangerous to any attempts to lift Louisiana off the bottom of the public policy metrics it places so poorly in. Successful people and institutions are the ones willing to pay a price for success, and the most successful are the ones willing to pay the highest price. When the benefits of that success are shown to more than cover the cost of producing it, as the University of Alabama’s experience demonstrates has been the case with respect to bringing Saban to campus, there really isn’t much of an argument about whether it’s “obscene” to pay a multi-million dollar salary to a top executive in such a high-profile position. The only thing in doubt is whether the product on the field is worth its price.

In Miles’ case the answer was no, which is why he was fired. In Saban’s case, as in that of Meyer and Harbaugh and other successful coaches, it’s a clear yes.

But if you think the game itself is “obscene,” whatever the game might be – college football, K-12 education, infrastructure and technology, economic development – you aren’t going to be successful competing in it. Edwards has already told us he’s not about excellence, and we’re going to have to keep that in mind when he turns around and demands an obscene amount of our tax dollars to pay for the gargantuan mediocrity atop which he sits at the State Capitol.

Your $30 billion state budget is obscene, Governor. You might accept some ideas on how to cap it.

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