The High Cost of Keeping Up

By Julie Schwarz

Franklin looked at home during Penn State's spring game. (Photo: Fox Sports)

Franklin looked at home during Penn State’s spring game. (Photo: Fox Sports)

James Franklin, a football coach, will be, by far, the highest-paid public employee in Pennsylvania.  Penn State said its new head football coach would be paid $4.5 million per year for the next six years.  Franklin will easily earn more money than the university’s new president Eric Barron and Governor Tom Corbett combined.  Barron, the university said, will earn $800,000 per year with added bonuses totaling up to $1 million.  Corbett was the highest paid United States governor in 2013 with an annual salary of $187,256 according to a survey conducted by the Council of State Governments.

With Franklin’s salary, Penn State is trying to remain competitive in an oversaturated, overpriced college football market, the economics of which are largely dictated by television contracts.  “It’s supply and demand,” former Penn State football player Bob White said in a phone interview.  “The market itself is dictating it.” (All interviews for this story were conducted by telephone).

For years Penn State’s football program, when Joe Paterno was running it, was one of the most lucrative revenue producers in the country and the program was a model for other Division I schools.  According to the annual financial report Penn State submitted to the NCAA, the football team generated $52.8 million in revenue in 2012-2013 down $17.4 million from $70.2 million before the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal hit the school.

On the expense side, the football program cost $18.8 million, a figure that included continued payments for the sanctions the NCAA imposed on the school following the Sandusky case in 2011.  The school is expected to pay $60 million in fines over the course of five years.  The total of all teams’ expenses in 2012-2013 was $110.7 million.  Penn State athletics’ expenses exceeded its revenues by $5.99 million.  In a year that the athletics programs lost money, the school still chose to spend $4.5 million annually on a new head football coach. Franklin came from Vanderbilt University where four of his players were accused of rape in 2013, though Nashville Deputy District Attorney Tom Thurman said in May 2014 that Franklin had nothing to do with an alleged cover-up in the case.

The university is still recovering from Paterno's death and the Sandusky scandal. (Photo: Google Images)

The university is still recovering from Paterno’s death and the Sandusky scandal. (Photo: Google Images)

Michelle Rodino-Colocino, an associate professor of media studies and women’s studies at Penn State, started a petition against Franklin’s potential hiring.  Like hundreds of other faculty members, she expressed concern over the allegations involving Franklin.  Rodino-Colocino also wanted a stronger emphasis on academics.  “This system is really top-heavy right now and not serving students.  There’s a lot of talk about Penn State being student- centered, but I just don’t see that,” she said.  “I think we’re failing our students right now.  I see signs of a very wealthy university that has millions of dollars to spend on coaches and administration, and I think that there needs to be a more fair distribution of resources so students can really take advantage of learning.”

Allen Sack, the president of the Drake Group, an organization whose mission it is to “defend academic integrity in higher education from the corrosive aspects of commercialized college sports,” is adamantly opposed to the high pay of college football coaches across the board.  “It points to an incredible inconsistency and incongruity,” he said referring to Franklin’s hiring.  “Here you have a coach who should be an educator in a non-for-profit organization who insists on being paid as if he’s in the NFL.”  The current average salary of an NFL head coach is $4.6 million, essentially on par with what Franklin will be paid.  Sean Payton, the head coach of the New Orleans Saints, topped the NFL’s 2013 list of highest coaching salaries at $8 million per year, according to a study conducted by Forbes.

Sack said college athletics is at a critical point. “The nation has forgotten what universities are here for – we are educational institutions, we’re not here to train and make professional athletes.  We’re here to make well educated citizens,” he said.  “The payment of the coaches has suggested that the public has lost its mind.”

Wally Richardson, a former Penn State quarterback between 1992 and 1996, who is the current director of the Penn State Football Letterman’s Club, understands the current culture of college football and academics does not quite make sense.  “Things are kind of out of whack because the academic component is probably not where it should be,” he said.

Franklin’s salary is competitive with other coaches in the Big Ten as well as the SEC, Big 12 and ACC.  According to a USAToday study of college football coaches’ salaries for 2013, Ohio State’s head coach Urban Meyer earned $4.6 million; he was the highest paid coach in the Big Ten, and now Franklin is second.

After years of competing as an independent, Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1990 (and began competing in the conference in 1993).  This move changed the economic dynamics of an institution whose football program had been sold on Paterno’s “Grand Experiment,” the so-called perfect marriage of academics and football.  Beaver Stadium, home to the Nittany Lions, seats 106,572 and is the second largest football stadium in the country, slightly smaller than Michigan’s Big House at 109,901 seats.  It is evident that the football program is hugely important to Penn State and its economics.  But when is enough money just simply enough?

John U. Bacon, author of the book Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football, has doubts about the direction of college football and Penn State’s program in particular.  “This [college football] thing is about to blow, it’s gotten to be too much,” Bacon said.  “What makes Penn State special is what makes it unique, it’s different than other schools.  It’s becoming more and more like other schools, and less and less like Penn State.  And that, I think, is a danger.”

Some Penn State faculty members are questioning where and how the university’s money is spent.  Matthew Jordan, an Associate Professor of Media Studies and one of the main subjects of the upcoming documentary Happy Valley, is irked by Franklin’s high salary.  “I would have liked to see us get something slightly cheaper,” he said“The faculty haven’t gotten many raises around here.  We basically have had an average 2.5 percent raise per year for the last ten years.”  Jordan noted that Corbett cut the school’s budget by twenty percent in the last three years which, he explained, meant each college was forced to “cut whatever fat was left” which wasn’t much.  “So to see the salary of the football coach grow exponentially, it does breed a certain degree of skepticism if not resentment among the faculty,” Jordan said.

A.E . Luloff, a professor of rural sociology at Penn State, agreed. “Our coaches probably shouldn’t be making as much as they do,” he said.  “We [professors] don’t get paid very well here as a whole.  We were way behind the Big Ten and way, way behind the national averages.”  According to the American Association of University Professors, the average salary for a Penn State faculty member was $94,500 for 2012-2013.  Penn State ranked second lowest in the Big Ten next to Nebraska at $89,100.  Northwestern, the only private university in the Big Ten, had the highest average salary of $142,000.

Lou Prato, a Penn State football historian and author of The Penn State Football Encyclopedia among other books, has seen the football culture at his alma mater change over the years.  “We got an avalanche coming and you don’t how to get out of the way,” he said of how college sports economics have spun out of control.  “It’s entertainment; sports is now part of the entertainment culture.”

O'Brien's abrupt departure cleared the way for Franklin. (Photo: CBS Sports)

O’Brien’s abrupt departure cleared the way for Franklin. (Photo: CBS Sports)

Prato understands how times have changed for the Penn State football program, and how key decisions have altered its course.  “I think Joe Paterno would be [amazed] with all these salaries.  I think [Paterno] made $25,000 his first year.  There was no contract, it was a handshake, and he was underpaid for years.”  Ron Musselman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote about Paterno’s conversation regarding salary with then-Athletic Director Ernie McCoy.  The agreed upon salary was actually $20,000 for Paterno’s first year.  Paterno earned a salary of $1,022,794 in his final year as head coach in 2011 according to the tax report released by the university.  He was 64th on the list of highest paid university coaches in the nation for that year.

For decades, Paterno was the face not only of the football program but also of the university.  Richardson said, “Joe was really the guiding light of this university for the past 50 years.”

Paterno began as an assistant football coach at Penn State in 1950, and received the head coaching position in 1966.  Under Paterno’s guidance, the Nittany Lions won national championships in 1982 and 1986.  White, a defensive tackle on both winning teams, called those experiences “overwhelming – just the ultimate in what you’re trying to achieve.”

Running back Franco Harris, one of Penn State’s star players and a four-time Super bowl champion with the Pittsburgh Steelers, remembered Paterno’s many contributions to the university.  “Joe was a big part of not only taking the football program to a higher standard, but taking Penn State as a whole to a higher standard,” Harris said.  “Joe is probably the only coach to take a whole university and to make it believe that it can be better than it ever was.”

Harris was a freshman at Penn State in 1968, just two years after Paterno assumed the head coaching position.  He remembered Paterno as demanding both on and off the field.  “Our freshman year it was mandatory to go to the library every night to study,” Harris said.  “His ‘grand experiment’ was success with honor – the emphasis being not everybody’s going to play pro football and you’re here to get an education.  Joe really made a commitment to a lot of parents.  He told a lot of parents, ‘your son’s going to graduate.’”

Bruce Clark, a Penn State defensive tackle between 1976 and 1979, was another of the players who did continue his football career – after he completed his degree.  “I came to Penn State to get the education that Joe promised me.  I got the education that I wanted.  I got my degree and then I got drafted,” he said.

“Joe,” as former players and other supporters called him, lived up to his word on academics.  Penn State’s graduation rate for all undergraduates, and especially those in the football program, has been near the top of the rankings for years.  Graduation rates remain high today.  Penn State’s overall graduation rate for the 2012-2013 academic year was 86 percent according to the United States Department of Education.  For all student-athletes, the graduation rate was 88 percent, and the football team specifically was 85 percent, second in the Big Ten only to Northwestern’s 97 percent according to data released by the NCAA.

Paterno was the face of Penn State until 2011 when the Sandusky scandal rocked the university.  The NCAA doled out what many students, fans and media members believed to be radical and harsh penalties against the football program, including the $60 million fine, an annual reduction of 10 football scholarships (some of which have been restored), and a bowl game ban for four years. Paterno and school president Graham Spanier were fired.  Athletic Director Tim Curley was placed on administrative leave following the scandal and his contract was not renewed.

Following the Sandusky scandal and Paterno’s firing, the football program was in dire need of positive publicity.  Bill O’Brien, the offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots at the time, joined Penn State as its new head coach in 2012 for an initial salary of $950,000 per yearHis contract for his second season at Penn State totaled $3.2 million annually before he decided to become the head coach of the Houston Texans, creating the opening for Franklin.

O’Brien was being paid quite handsomely, but Franklin’s pay is on a whole different level.  Michael Berube, director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities and a member of the faculty senate at Penn State, said, “I think everyone knew whoever the next coach coming in was would be vastly more expensive.  The days of the throwback that Paterno was – those days are gone.”   But Berube understands the importance of the program to the institution.  “Football determines the amount of oxygen in the air around here,” he said.

Kay Salvino, president of the Penn State Alumni Association, understood Franklin’s high price tag.  “In today’s market,” she said, “if you want to have a good football program, you need to pay a worthy price.”

Penn State is trying to remain competitive and put the Sandusky scandal behind it.  But hiring Franklin and Barron seems strange to some some critics because Florida State and Vanderbilt have recently had sex scandals that have tainted their football teams.  Penn State’s president’s office and athletic department declined to comment about the hirings and select board of trustee members did not return interview requests for this article.

Jordan understands Franklin’s appeal, but said the focus should be more on academics and less on football.  “Franklin does seem to be a tremendous public persona,” Jordan said,  “Maybe that’s why they picked him – because he realized that his job was to be the public face of the university.  Now, I wish our scientists would be the public face of the university, I wish some of the people that have more to do with the mission of the university should be the public face of the university, but I think in this contemporary university culture in the United States right now we are defined by our sports teams.”

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