Clemson Assistant Wins the Coaching Lottery

By Nick Nehamas

At Clemson, Chad Morris's salary adds up. (Photo: Google Images)

At Clemson, Chad Morris’s salary adds up. (Photo: Google Images)

It took 58 minutes for Clemson University’s Board of Trustees to make Chad Morris the highest paid assistant coach in college football. The vote, held during a meeting of the board’s compensation committee on Feb. 1, 2012, was unanimous.

The new contract gave Morris, Clemson’s offensive coordinator, a base salary of $1.3 million per year. Under his old deal, which still had three years to run, Morris made $450,000.

A few months earlier, head coach Dabo Swinney and Morris had led the Tigers to their first Atlantic Coast Conference title in twenty years. Schools like Ohio State were suddenly interested in hiring the promising coordinator, who is now 45, to run their own offenses. But Morris’s success did not protect administrators from hearing criticism over his new contract.

“This is going to be a challenge,” wrote James Barker, Clemson’s president at the time, in an email to the Board of Trustees when word of the deal first leaked.

Today, some faculty members still believe that Morris’s high salary reflects Clemson’s decision to prioritize athletics over academics. These professors question the fact that a football coach is one of the highest paid employees at an academic institution. “They’re putting the sizzle over the steak,” Abel Bartley, director of Clemson’s Pan-African Studies program, said in a recent interview. Bartley said $1.3 million was too much for someone who essentially coaches half of a football team. “You could probably pay them half that and imagine the number of low-income students you could give scholarships to,” he said.

“We really need to figure out what a university is supposed to do,” Bartley continued. “Do we want to win football games? Or do we want to teach our students classroom skills that they can use for the rest of their lives?”

Dabo Swinney, right, and his highly-paid assistant, Chad Morris. (Photo: Fox Sports)

Dabo Swinney, right, and his highly-paid assistant, Chad Morris. (Photo: Fox Sports)

The issue extends far beyond Clemson’s red brick campus in the foothills of South Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. As television revenues from college sports have soared, American universities have become part of a multi-billion industry. College coaches fly around the country to recruit the next great dual-threat quarterback or pass-rushing defensive end. Athletic directors compete with their rivals for the right to play prime-time games on national television. Over the last five years, ESPN has spent more than $10 billion on television rights for college football, according to The New York Times.

In this financial climate, said Robert McCormick, a professor emeritus of economics at Clemson, salaries like Morris’s make sense. “This is an age-old problem in economics,” explained McCormick. “We call it the ‘diamond-water paradox’ and it goes back to Adam Smith.”

Also known as “the paradox of value,” McCormick said, the concept seeks to explain why diamonds, essentially worthless to human survival, are so expensive while water, a necessity of life, is so cheap. McCormick said the answer lies in the fact that we value goods in relation to the value of other goods, their “marginal value,” rather than their total value to human society.

Comparing Morris’s $1.3 million salary to those of other public figures like current Clemson president James Clements ($775,000) or South Carolina governor Nikki Haley ($106,078) only tells us about prevailing market forces, not about who provides more societal value, according to McCormick.

South Carolina governor Nikki Haley earns all of $106,078. (Photo: The Christian Science Monitor)

South Carolina governor Nikki Haley earns all of $106,078. (Photo: The Christian Science Monitor)

“It doesn’t matter to me that Chad Morris gets paid a lot,” McCormick added. “I believe in the morality of markets. Chad Morris is a rare commodity. He works hard and produces a lot of value for the university.”

And Clemson’s football team does subsidize the rest of the school’s athletic department, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. In 2013, the football program earned more than $21 million, producing 60 percent of the athletics’ department overall revenue. All of Clemson’s other teams, including basketball, combined to lose nearly $19 million. Thanks in part to football the other sports continue to function financially.

Clemson’s college football program is “completely self sustainable,” said Kayley Seawright, the student body president. Seawright also believes the Tigers play a vital role in the school’s social life. “It’s important for students to enjoy the atmosphere they are part of and to have a social life outside their studies,” she wrote in an email. “When students are happy, they are more passionate about what they are doing, which carries over to the academic environment.” (All other sources in this story spoke in phone interviews)

McCormick agrees. Big home games, he said, especially those against rivals like the University of South Carolina and the University of Georgia, are like a festival. “Kids like that sort of thing,” McCormick said. “It’s a party. It’s our Mardi Gras.”

Morris did not respond to phone calls and emails requesting comment for this story. The office of the university president, the athletic department, and the board of trustees declined to comment.

Morris, a college math major, has a reputation as a numbers man. USA Today once called him the “mad scientist” of college football. Morris is a proponent of an up-tempo, no-huddle offense in the mold of Gus Malzahn, who was tied with Morris as college’s highest paid assistant until Malzahn, now the head coach at Auburn, took over at Arkansas State in 2012. Before becoming the offensive coordinator at Tulsa in 2010, Morris was a successful coach at several high schools in Texas, including Lake Travis High School, where his teams won two state championships. At Lake Travis, Morris made $117,549 in the final year of his contract, according to the local school district.

In a 2011 interview with the Post and Courier, a newspaper in Charleston, former Clemson president Barker expressed amazement at Morris’ success and defended his high salary. “Four years ago, [Morris] was in high school, probably helping mow the grass on the field and picking up tackling dummies,” Barker said. While Barker acknowledged that coaching salaries were “out of whack,” he said universities must pay top dollar or face the consequences.

“You can either say this is crazy and we refuse to play the game anymore,” Barker said to the Post and Courier, “or you can say America is a great country and [Morris] is an Horatio Alger story.”

For an assistant, what Morris makes is off the charts. (Photo: Google Images)

For an assistant, what Morris makes is off the charts. (Photo: Google Images)

“It’s a heck of a lot of money,” said James Satterfield, an associate professor of higher education at Clemson, of Morris’s salary. “But it doesn’t bother me. They’re trying to win a national championship.”

But other professors worry that the growth of college sports is unsustainable. Raymond Sauer, chair of Clemson’s economics department, said he thinks his school has handled the problem relatively well. “We won an ACC championship and a BCS bowl game and nobody went and burned couches downtown,” said Sauer, referring to riots that have broken out at other colleges after football games.

But in national terms, he said, American universities are in danger of losing sight of their original mission. “Give it another thirty years and it won’t be a sports program attached to a university anymore,” Sauer explained. “It will be a university attached to a sports program.”

Other schools, including the University of Chicago and Ivy League institutions, have removed themselves from the growing professionalization of college sports. Those schools do not offer athletic scholarships and pay their coaches a fraction of what big sports schools can offer. Last year, Morris made about 40 percent of what Harvard pays the 34 head coaches of its men’s and women’s teams combined.

In today’s world, donors and alumni expect to win no matter what.

If any one major school or conference refused to pay their coaches top dollar, Sauer said, then they would take themselves “out of the athletics arms race” and lose the ability to field competitive teams. “They’d be shooting themselves in the foot,” he said.

The only way to stop the rise in coaching salaries and athletic spending, Sauer argued, is through collective action. But the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the governing body of college sports, cannot unilaterally create such restrictions. “If the colleges did it together under the auspices of the NCAA, they’d get sued under anti-trust laws,” said Sauer. “And precedent says they’d lose.”

Instead, Sauer suggested that the NCAA must petition Congress for an anti-trust exemption allowing it to set a salary cap. “It could happen,” he said. “Not quickly, but it could happen.”

Until – and if – there is a national shakeup, Clemson’s football team will remain a big-money program. Last year, the university spent $10 million on an 80,000 square foot practice facility for the Tigers. In January, head coach Swinney, who is often praised for his willingness to accept smaller salaries in order to attract top assistants like Morris, signed a new contract extension. The eight-year deal will pay him $3.1 million a year, not including bonuses. Nick Saban of Alabama, the best paid college football coach in the country, will make between $7 and 7.5 million a year if the Board of Trustees approves his new contract. Saban’s teams have won three of the last five national titles.

Morris’s big raise came at a time of budget cuts at the state government level. Since 2007, the state of South Carolina’s financial contribution to Clemson has fallen from nearly $113 million to just over $66 million for this financial year. “The real story here is declining state support for public education,” said one professor who asked to remain anonymous.

While Morris saw his salary nearly triple in 2012, tenured professors at Clemson received an average annual raise of 1.6 percent last year, according to a database compiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education. At a faculty senate meeting held after news of Morris’s deal first leaked, professors expressed outrage. Angela Nixon, who works for Clemson’s public relations department, summarized the mood at the meeting in an email to her colleagues. “The consensus seems to be that Clemson isn’t doing enough to increase salaries of faculty to be more in line with national averages but we’ll triple the salary of an assistant coach after one year,” Nixon wrote. (All emails from Clemson administrators used for this story were obtained through a public records request.)

Kenneth Marcus, a professor of analytical chemistry who holds season tickets to Clemson’s home football games, said Morris deserves his pay. But he also believes Clemson needs to treat its professors more like its coaches. “The athletic department basically said that if we want good people, well, guess what, we have to pay for them,” Marcus explained. “But the university proper doesn’t have that attitude. They don’t understand market forces the way the athletics people do.”

Leave a Reply