By Zach Brown
Red McCombs does not understand why the University of Texas decided to pay Charlie Strong more than $5 million a year in salary to be the Longhorns head football coach.
McCombs, also known as Billy Joe, was born and raised in Texas. He understands what football means in a state where at least eight current NFL starting quarterbacks went to high school. He knows firsthand that towns shut down on Friday nights to watch their high school teams play, whether it’s a home game or on the road. He said movies and TV shows like “Friday Night Lights” probably under-represent the atmosphere surrounding Texas football.
“Football in Texas is more than an entertainment product,” he said. “It’s more of an identity of your community.”
McCombs, the former owner of the San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Vikings, has donated more than $100 million to the University of Texas, including a $50 million in 2000 to the business school which now bears his name. He is one of the many boosters that help support the school and its football program.
McCombs doesn’t believe Strong has the qualifications to earn the amount of money the University of Texas is paying him, but he also thinks there is a failure in the system that resulted in the amount of compensation.
“(Strong) doesn’t have a reputation and he has not built up a reputation that would, in my opinion, qualify him for that kind of money in any way,” McCombs said. “I would say that that is school management, and I’d say they don’t manage that too well.”
In January, Strong left the University of Louisville to take over as Texas’ head coach. He signed a five-year contract with a starting salary of $5 million, according to school documents. He will receive a guaranteed $100,000 bonus each successive year. He can also earn a maximum of $900,000 in bonuses in 2014, a number that will rise slightly each year. Texas will also pay Strong’s $4.375 million buyout to Louisville this year for terminating his contract with the Cardinals, which could push Strong’s total compensation package for 2014 above $10 million with bonuses.
Strong’s salary alone would be worth more than seven times the $667,212 salary of University of Texas president Bill Powers and more than 11 times the $419,249 in combined salaries of Austin’s mayor and five city council members. The average salary for a professor at UT as of 2013 was $145,549, the school said.
“I don’t think that really makes any sense,” McCombs said, in a phone interview, which is how all interviews for this story were conducted. “(The school) would say, ‘We are having a Top 10 program, and we do take in more money through the football program than anybody in the country so we want our coach to be the top paid guy.’ Well if I were running my business and I could go get the top guy, I wouldn’t pay him 20 if I could get him for 10. I’m not saying everything school administrators do would make good business sense at all.”
McCombs made similar remarks about Strong’s qualifications when the coach was hired in January, saying Strong would make a great position coach or coordinator. He apologized for those comments days later. Texas athletic director Steve Patterson and president Bill Powers were not available for comment, but their media relations staffs said they stand by the statements of support they made after Strong’s hiring. Neither addressed McCombs’ comments regarding the school’s management of the contract negotiations. Nick Voinis, the senior associate athletics director at Texas who arranges interviews with Patterson among other duties, also pointed out that Strong made more than $4 million at Louisville with bonuses last season.
McCombs, fellow booster Frank Denius and Austin mayor Lee Leffingwell all said Strong’s salary was a result of supply and demand. It’s not easy, they said, to find a football coach to lead a Top 10 program, which is what is expected at Texas. They also said the football program brings in enough money to pay whatever the market price is for a coach who can come in and lead the team to national championships.
For the fifth straight year, Forbes magazine ranked Texas football as the most valuable program in the country, estimating the team’s value at $139 million. Longhorns football brought in $109.4 million in revenue in the 2012-2013 academic year. No other team in the country brought in more than $90 million. UT’s athletic department has been ranked No. 1 in the Collegiate Licensing Company’s list of top-selling institutions and manufacturers for eight straight years. The Longhorn Network, which was the first network devoted exclusively to a single university’s athletics, is expected to continue widening the gap between what Texas football brings into the school and other programs’ revenues. Home football games also generated nearly $10 million dollars in local spending, according to Forbes, which used that figure to help calculate the football program’s nation-leading value. In 2012, the school spent more than $27.6 million on the football program, leaving about $81.8 million in net revenue.
Leffingwell added that people accept the amount of money the athletic department spends on football, including coaches’ salaries, in part because of the financial gains it brings to the school and the city of Austin.
“It’s the old return on your investment kind of thing,” he said. “If you pay a coach a lot of money and the return on that investment is winning a lot of football games and getting a lot of people to come to those games and buy those tickets, that’s one way people might justify it. And I think that’s a valid point of view.”
The Texas athletic department is entirely self-sufficient in large part because of the football program. It does not pull in any funding from the university. In fact, the athletic department transferred more than $9 million to the university this year, according to a report in USA Today.
Dr. Daniel Johnston, chairman of the neuroscience department at UT, said he has never seen anything that compares to the atmosphere surrounding football at the Univesrity of Texas. He previously worked as a professor at the University of Minnesota, the University of Virginia and Duke University. Overall, he finds the athletic department’s successes to be beneficial to the university but does worry that it draws too much attention away from academics.
“The negative is people focus too much on athletics and not enough on the academics and the research that’s going on,” he said. “It’s really easy to raise money for the football program from alumni. It’s much more difficult to raise money for research programs, for academic scholarship or things like that.”
McCombs believes having powerful, renowned athletic programs also helps the university not just by increasing the number of applications to the school but also by attracting top professors from across the country. Johnston and two other professors at Texas said they had never heard of a colleague choosing a school because of the quality of its athletic department.
One of those professors, Tom Palaima, who served as the school’s representative on the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, a watchdog group intended to provide a faculty voice on intercollegiate sports issues, said McCombs’s comments that successful athletic teams could draw in top professors were “insane.” As for the increase in student applications from having a successful sports department, Palaima, who worked with COIA from 2008 to 2011, said the quality of those applications likely gets sacrificed as the quantity rises.
“If you’re applying to an institution of higher learning these days,” he said, “knowing that it’s reasonable when you come out that you’re going to be loaded down with some serious debt and that’s going to factor into your career choice and so forth, if you’re making that choice that you’re going to apply based on the fact that (the school) has a fantastic quarterback, I mean come on.”
UT’s applications have increased each year since 2010, but that can’t be tied to success on the football field. Texas has won 30 games in the past four years, the worst stretch for the program since the Longhorns won 30 games from 1994 to 1997. Those were the last four years before Mack Brown, Strong’s predecessor, took over as head coach.
Strong started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Florida in 1983. He eventually worked as a defensive coordinator at South Carolina and Florida before getting his first head-coaching job at Louisville in 2010. After two straight 7-6 seasons, he led the Cardinals to an 11-2 finish and a victory in the Sugar Bowl over the Gators. Louisville rewarded him with a $1.4 million raise that made him the seventh-highest paid coach in the country. The Cardinals went 12-1 last year.
Joe Kines was the defensive coordinator at Florida who gave Strong his first coaching job as a graduate assistant. “Back in those days, you could have quite a few graduate assistants,” Kines said. “Early on, you probably gave work to all of them, but as the year went on, you usually gave work to the ones you knew would get it done. Charlie was one of those.”
Kines said that he saw Strong continue to grow and learn the profession as he moved up in the ranks. He added, though, that becoming one of the top paid coaches is as much about luck in this era as it is about ability.
“His success as a coordinator earned him the right to be put in those positions,” Kines said. “When he got a break or his chance, he made the most of it. I think it was more of a process. A lot of them have the ability. I’ll tell you, there’s a lot of really fine coaches who never got a chance, just by circumstance and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There’s a little luck of the draw in there somewhere, too.”
Whether Strong leads Texas to a national title or goes winless and is fired after one season, he will still make millions of dollars. If he is fired without cause, Texas will owe him the full amount of his remaining contract. Strong can offset up to half of that with pay from his subsequent employer. All of the money Texas pays him will come from the self-sufficient athletic department budget, as do all football-related expenses at Texas.
Strong can earn up to $150,000 in bonuses for his team’s overall academic performance, but the other $750,000 in potential bonuses are football-related, such as winning bowl games and conference championships among other success markers.
Leffingwell also pointed out that none of Strong’s salary comes from any taxpayers’ money and added that it is simply a return on the University of Texas’ investment in its football program, one that brings more national attention and funding to the school and the city of Austin than the university could without it.
“Having a world-class physics professor at the University of Texas, which we do have, is not going to attract a whole lot of additional people to the city or even students for that matter,” Leffingwell said. “What we say here at the University of Texas is it truly is a great university. And it’s a university our football team can be proud of.”