By Marika Washchyshyn
In mid-May, the first of 23 freshman orientation sessions were held at the University of Florida’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. 6,700 students out of a pool of about 30,000 applicants heard this message from Joseph Spillane, the associate dean of the college: “Your identity as Gators is real, it’s significant, it’s important, it’s what attaches you to this place, it’s part of what keeps you attached to this place after you graduate. But ultimately, what you’re here to do is engage with this place in a way that will elevate you, give you the kinds of experiences and expertise that will make you interesting people by the time you graduate. Somebody’s going to look at you and say, “That’s an interesting person.” Not because of the basketball team, but because the of the internships that you’ve done, because of the study abroad that you did, because of the research you’ve undertaken.”
Spillane said he’s not worried about athletics overshadowing academics, least of all when it comes to the price tags of UF coaches like basketball coach Billy Donovan, who earns $3.7 million.
“Would people say maybe our faculty, deans and profs should make more money [than Donovan]? Yeah,” Spillane said. “But I’m not sure there’s a lot of blame on the university, because our university isn’t doing anything dramatically different than what our peers our doing.”
One thing UF basketball is doing differently than its peers is setting records for unprecedented team success. Although a loss to eventual tournament champion Connecticut during this year’s NCAA Final Four ended the top-seeded Gators’ season abruptly, the regular season was a success. It included a record for longest winning streak in UF history (30 games), another for most wins in a season by any Florida team, and only the second most in the SEC (36 games), and the feat of becoming the first Southeastern Conference team to complete an 18-0 regular season.
With Donovan coaching the team for the past 18 years, the Gators have won two national championships and have made 14 NCAA tournament appearances, five of which resulted in Final Four stops.
It’s widely agreed among Florida fans and the university community that Donovan earns every penny of the $220,000 base salary he’s paid, which doesn’t include the millions from other sources he receives annually. Those include, according to a contract provided by the University Athletic Association, bonuses, special appearances and television contracts. This season, Donovan took home $50,000 for leading the Gators to a top 10 finish, another $112,500 for winning the conference title and making the national tournament, another $25,000 for being named the SEC coach of the year, and yet another $100,000 for reaching the Final Four. He also renewed his contract through the 2019 season, and earned a $340,000, considered a longevity bonus, for finishing this year. All told, Donovan’s price tag comes in around $3.7 million. That is $3.4 million more than university president Bernie Machen earns ($325,000) and $2.8 million more than Dr. William Friedman, a neurosurgeon in the medical school makes as the highest paid faculty member ($914,200).
Florida is no different from many other top universities when it comes to paying athletic coaches. So how does this play in the UF community?
Kevin Brockway, a sports reporter for the local paper, The Gainsville Sun, said that the University of Florida has been pretty modest in its pay to Donovan compared to what he could be making. Brockway and all other sources in this story were interviewed by phone.
“[Donovan’s] made UF basketball relevant on the national scale,” Brockway said. “In 1996, the average attendance was 6-7,000. Now it’s at 10,000, and one of the only two sports at UF to bring in positive revenue.”
According to the UAA’s 2013-2014 financial statements, football and men’s basketball were the two major contributors to the $100 million-a-year-budget machine. Basketball contributed approximately eight percent of revenue at about $9 million, mostly through ticket sales. With an expense budget of around $7 million, men’s basketball at UF provided the UAA with an operating profit of $2 million. Those numbers adequately reflect the team’s popularity, said Sean Stewart-Muniz, a staff reporter at the Independent Alligator, UF’s student newspaper. But, he said, it does seem like the coaches are getting bloated salaries.
“At the end of the day, they’re not NBA coaches, they’re not NFL coaches, they’re coaching college basketball and football,” said Stewart-Muniz. “And the reason they’re getting that much money as opposed to professors…is really a mystery to you and me.”
The NCAA revenue and expenditure report indicated that from 2005 to 2012, the percentage change in median compensation for head coaches in men’s Division 1 basketball was 102 percent. Coaches league-wide are getting paid more and more, and there doesn’t seem to be a limit, said James Riordan, an expert in sports management at Florida Atlantic University.
“There’s a benchmark that’s been established at some point, somehow, of what a coach gets paid,” he said. “Coaches are going to give their services to the highest bidder.”
The University of Florida has continued to bid for Donovan’s services. His contract was renewed for $1.7 million in 2001 to $3.5 million (both figures including bonuses) in 2007 after a brief courtship by with the Orlando Magic. And again this year, when rumors circled that Donovan could be considered for the top job with the New York Knicks, UF sweetened the deal with his current extension.
Academic representatives from several departments, including the board of trustees and foundation development, said Donovan displays integrity for going beyond coaching. His team had four graduating seniors, defying the typical NCAA basketball phenomenon of “one and done.” Center Patric Young is one of three Academic All-Americans coached by Donovan. Eight players on this year’s roster earned Academic All-SEC honors, according to the school.
The academic administration doesn’t appear too concerned about all of the media attention on UF’s athletics. Already a prominent research institution that boasts products like world-renowned sports drink Gatorade, the school, according to the University of Florida Foundation, received about $211 million in donor gifts alone this year, only $35 million of which went towards athletics. Most of the money that goes towards athletics comes from Gator Boosters Inc., the fundraising arm for the UAA, which this year, rang in at $47 billion, according to Gator Boosters Inc.
Phillip Pharr, executive director of Gator Boosters, said that even though this year’s basketball revenue was less than usual because ticket-holders were reacting to an unstable economy, UF is one of few institutions with an athletic department operating in the black; according to a 2010 NCAA spending report, only 22 of 120 Division I teams made money. But UF’s spending might not be comparable to most athletic departments nationwide, say some economists. A Knight Commission survey of 95 Division 1 presidents showed that 85 percent of presidents believed compensation for football and basketball coaches was “excessive” and that rising salaries were the “single largest factor to unsustainable growth in athletic spending.”
Spillane said that if salaries stop growing, it won’t start at UF. “It will come from the schools that are shelling out [large sums]of money,” he said. “Money that is coming from the university that they could be spending on students, but are spending it on athletics.”
Since the state of Florida designated UF as its preeminent institution a year and a half ago, UF Senate Chair Marc Heft, a faculty member in the College of Dentistry, said significant investments have been made to improve UF’s academic excellence. This includes investments of $15 million a year for the next five years by the state government to areas like big data, neuroscience, and food security, food safety and food distribution systems.
Selcuk Erenguc is the senior associate dean and director of UF’s Warrington College of Business Administration. He’s been at the college for 30 years, and has seen coaching salaries creep up to levels that, in his opinion, are too high.
“We have some college coaches making $5 million, I don’t know how you justify that,” Erenguc said. “Is it related to success? My gut feeling says no.”
In an email, State Senator Rob Bradley, a UF graduate, said the partnership between athletics and academics was essential in enhancing student life. “The return on investment when employing a successful coach is significant because program success increases booster support, media contracts, merchandising royalties and ticket sales,” he said. “The UAA has donated approximately $74 million back to UF for academic purposes since 1990, and funds approximately $13 million in student athletic scholarships annually.”
But according to this year’s budget, the UAA gave less to scholarships (a decrease of $1.7 million) and more to coaching salaries (an increase of ($2.6 million). University of Miami sports administration assistant professor, Alicia Jessop, said it’s not a morality issue but an economic one.
“If you look at the revenue generated by the UF men’s basketball team versus a school on a university campus, that basketball program, in most cases, brings in more money,” Jessop said. “There is a high demand for really talented coaches who ethically lead their programs and win either conference or national championships, of which Billy Donovan has done both.”
Brockway said he accepted it, even though it was an embarrassment of riches.
“Is it getting a little crazy? Yeah, probably. Are the priorities out of whack? Yeah, maybe a little bit,” he said. “But if you look at the bigger picture…it does have a positive impact on admissions.”
But there doesn’t seem to be a relationship between athletic success and application numbers at UF. Janine Sikes, assistant vice president of UF’s media department, said in an email that enrollment numbers have not fluctuated that much. She said the number of freshmen applications for the past few years has been just shy of 30,000, for about 6,400 seats.
Donovan’s office declined multiple requests for comment, as did Machen’s. Machen, who chairs the athletic association, took the post in order to assure that “potentially high risk situations” in athletics don’t hurt UF’s academic standing, said Carter Boydstun, the senior philanthropic advisor at the University of Florida Foundation.
“[Athletics] is an exceptional program. But it has it’s place, and it’s not the priority by any stretch of the imagination,” said Boydstun. “There’s no college president in the U.S. that’s going to say their mission is to have a strong sports program. It’s not worth their salt.”
The University of Florida is an institution that prides itself highly on it’s academic achievements. According to its website, the incoming class has a 4.4 out of 4.5 GPA, an average SAT score of 1960 and a 44 percent acceptance rate. But without the “front porch” of Gator sports, Florida likely would not generate the same interest for students.
“The nature of athletics is that you have 90,000 people that have the same goal on any given day,” Heft said. “It would be nice to see [academic programs] show the level of cohesiveness as that.”