Why Jim Harbaugh's $9M salary isn't the problem in college sports

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The University of Michigan athletic department employed 344 people in the 2015-16 school year, according to state records. The number might be higher by now, but either way it’s up considerably (26.5 percent to be exact) from as recently as 2011.

USA Today released its annual college football coaching salary database and there’s been plenty of attention and hand-wringing over the compensation of one of those employees, Jim Harbaugh, who is getting $9,004,000 this year, the highest in the sport.

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How, exactly, the argument goes, can college sports cry poverty and fairness when one guy is making that much as the actual players are limited to tuition, room, board and a fairly humble stipend that was only pried loose after much tumult and litigation?

The movement may be noble – to share the wealth with workers, in this case the players. The point, however, is generally lost.

The focus shouldn’t be on Harbaugh, per se. Instead it should center on some or even many of the other 343 of his co-workers in Ann Arbor. Good and talented people, one and all we’re sure, but they represent, in ever growing numbers, the National Collegiate Athletic Industrial Complex that finds ways to spend money on themselves before popular football teams like Harbaugh’s Wolverines can even earn it.

Perhaps only Nick Saban and Urban Meyer should care about Harbaugh’s compensation package, which dwarfs theirs by $2 million and $3 million respectively. Here’s guessing their agents will care, and the $10 million barrier will soon be breached.

If you’re trying to reform college athletics, which has seen revenue spike exponentially thanks mostly to soaring media deals, expanded stadiums and corporate sponsorships, then chasing Harbaugh is Fool’s Gold.

Fact is, he’s worth every penny and probably many more. He’s also the product of a free-market place. His success is a reward from supply and (NFL) demand. If you don’t think a football coach is worth the cash (and schools certainly do), recall that Michigan went through a prolonged period of mediocrity (seven of eight seasons) until Harbaugh arrived. In his second season, they are No. 2 in the polls.

He’s behind only Saban, who inherited an Alabama program that went 41-55 from 1997-2006 and saw the one moderately successful coach from that era, Dennis Franchione, leave for the supposed greener pastures of Texas A&M.

Jim Harbaugh has Michigan on course for a Big Ten title and a spot in the College Football Playoff. (Getty Images)
Jim Harbaugh has Michigan on course for a Big Ten title and a spot in the College Football Playoff. (Getty Images)

Since Saban arrived, Alabama has gone 100-18 (with six of those defeats his first year) while winning four national championships, expanding its stadium and donor base and becoming the signature powerhouse of the sport.

Saban, Harbaugh and the others earn their money with relentless work. It’s unlikely any one of their players would honestly complain that they don’t deserve their pay, seeing their talent and tenacity up close.

They just aren’t the problem. The mentality of college sports is.

In athletic departments, every penny football earns must be spent and spent quickly on anything but additional scholarships for non-revenue sports, the raising of the athlete stipend or the relaxing of name and likeness restrictions for players that would allow them to earn their own, third-party income.

Not sharing the increased revenue is how an athletic department grows by more than a quarter in half a decade. Or how over a seven-year span the number of Michigan athletic department employees making six figures went from 30 to 81.

Michigan isn’t alone here. It’s the norm. This is how it is at nearly every major athletic department in the country. More money is coming in, mostly via television deals and, in the case of the Big Ten and SEC, conference-run networks that amount to a de-facto tax on states with league members.

Yet, more teams in more sports aren’t being created (or it’s rare). And more scholarships aren’t being offered to the ones that previously existed, allowing the wealth to be spread to more athletes and more families.

At least a football coach can offer 85 full-rides to his players. This is the age of the million-dollar baseball coach, yet an entire team of about 25 players must divvy up 11.7 scholarships. In softball, the cap is 12 scholarships per team, despite twice as many deserving players. Field hockey has just 12, men’s swimming and diving 9.9, women’s soccer just 14 and so on and so on.

So far, additional revenue has mostly produced more associate deputy athletic directors and assistant coaches and sweet offices in remodeled buildings for each of them.

For the student-athletes, it’s basically the same-old deal, and the same-old number of them. How do you need 26.5 percent more people to run an athletic department with essentially the same amount of teams and players?

For the athletes, the system offers no more money, yet also restricts their ability to earn an honest buck on their own.

The Wolverines’ star player, Jabrill Peppers, can’t get a cut of his jersey sales, let alone say a $500 appearance fee from a local Home Depot to spend a Sunday afternoon signing autographs and bringing in customers.

Stanford swimmer Katie Ledecky can inspire the country with five gold medals at the Rio Olympics, but if she shows up in a Subway commercial, let alone one for swim goggles, she’s banned from collegiate competition.

Colleges don’t need to pay the players – the scholarship and stipend deal is a form of compensation. The details of doing so are devilish, purposefully so, and serve as the ideal way to put a halt on any progress.

It should first open up players to receive outside compensation, lifting the burden of regulation. That way the stars could be properly awarded and schools could cut jobs by not having to employ huge compliance staffs that must chase every nickel around town. Win. Win.

The International Olympic Committee, hardly a group of generous and progressive souls, did this all the way back in the 1980s and they saw fan interest grow – it turned out no one cared that Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt were rich. In fact, those Nike commercials made them bigger television draws when they raced again.

The NCAA, however, still fears its athletes. It still wants all control. It still protects its pot of gold. Ledecky chose to keep swimming at Stanford, but Simone Biles, Laurie Hernandez and plenty of other Olympians had to give up on college sports to make some well-earned and needed money. This shows how hell-bent college sports leaders are to maintain the status quo. Who in their right mind tells a sensation such as Simone Biles, who was once committed to the UCLA gymnastics program, that she isn’t wanted?

Opening up the vault even a crack, however, is to risk ruining a system that allows staffs to grow bigger and bigger and facilities to become grander and grander and everyone to get distracted by Jim Harbaugh’s monster income.

The football coach isn’t the issue though. He’s the distraction. Focus on him, ignore the rest and nothing is ever going to change.

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