By Ben Baskin
When Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama on January 3rd, 2007, hundreds of strangers, most of them adorned in crimson, were waiting outside the small airport to greet him. They cheered wildly when his plane touched down and then formed a throng, multiple layers deep, surrounding him as he disembarked. They were there to welcome him, praise him, touch him; anything to be close to the man who had come to save their beloved, and recently struggling, University of Alabama football program.
The previous season the Crimson Tide had won six games, and lost seven. They were losers in four of their final five contests, including a fifth-straight loss to arch-rival Auburn, and a loss to Oklahoma State in the Independence Bowl. Before the bowl game, Mike Shula was fired as head coach.
For a state that has such a rich football history, a state that has tied its identity to the Alabama football program since the early 20th century, the recent trend of losing was not acceptable.
“The way in which we can best understand what’s happening there…is that these things are religious,” Dr. Eric Bain-Selbo, author of “Game Day and God: Football, Faith, and Politics in the American South,” said. “What it boils down to in the end is a way for people to identify who they are, orient themselves in the world…and infuse meaning into the things that they do.”
Alabama pried Saban from the Miami Dolphins, and gave him an eight year, $32 million contract. The deal was approved by the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees — they oversee operations for the University of Alabama, the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the University of Alabama in Huntsville — mere months after the board had denied the $600,000 per year contract, half set to come from booster donations, that UAB had offered to current Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, citing “fiscal responsibility.”
At the time of Saban’s hiring, he had the highest salary ever paid to a college coach. Seven years, and three BCS National Championships later, Saban —who could not be reached for comment — has reworked his contract on three separate occasions.
Before the 2009 season, Saban signed a three-year extension, bumping his annual salary to $4.75 million per year. In 2012, two more years were added on to the deal, with total compensation at more than $5.3 million annually before additional bonuses — $400,000 if his team won the BCS National Title, $100,000 if it had a graduation rate in the top twenty five per cent of all SEC football teams. The deal also included country club membership, personal use of a 15 seat skybox during games, and 25 hours of annual flight time in a private plane for personal travel , according to the University of Alabama.
Most recently, in December of 2013, Saban reworked his deal again. The new contract, which will pay Saban $6.9 million per year — $6.5 million in base salary with a $400,000 annual “completion bonus” — was unanimously approved by the Board of Trustees, the school announced in a press conference on June 3.
Saban’s new annual salary is nearly 60 times more than what Alabama Governor Robert Bentley would make per year if he chose to take his salary ($120,935.80), which he does not. Bentley did not respond to phone and email requests for comment. Saban’s salary is also approximately 13 times more than what University of Alabama President Dr. Judy Bonner — who declined comment for this story by email — is paid ($535,000).
“Nick Saban is the best financial investment this university has ever made,” Dr. Robert Witt, the University of Alabama System Chancellor, said in an email statement. “We have made an investment that has been returned many fold.”
Witt was the president of the University at the time of Saban’s initial hiring in 2007. A lot has changed since then. In 2006, the year before Saban’s arrival, the Alabama athletic department spent $60.6 million on all of its programs, according to Alabama’s financial reports compiled annually by the US Department of Education. In the most recent fiscal year, 2013, that number has risen to $122.2 million, including debt service. The athletic department revenue has increased at an even higher rate, rising from $67.7 million in 2006 to $143.4 million in 2013.
The 2013 revenue came in part from record-highs in ticket sales ($38.9 million), donor contributions ($34.2 million) and NCAA/SEC payouts ($23.9 million). The football team accounted for 93 percent of the athletic department’s ticket revenue and 55 percent of its contribution dollars, according to Al.com.
With $88.7 million in revenue and $41.6 million in expenses, Saban’s football program accounted for nearly 62 per cent of the total athletic department income, and 38 per cent of its expenditures, in 2013.
Because of this profit, the athletic department was able to transfer $5.9 million to the university in 2013 for initiatives outside of athletics, according to AL.com. Current Alabama Athletic Director Bill Battle did not respond to multiple attempts for comment on the details of this transfer, among other topics.
With $47 million in profit in 2013 and an estimated team value of $110 million, Alabama’s football program ranks behind both Texas and Notre Dame in profitability, according to Forbes.com.
Calvin Brown, Director of Alabama Alumni Affairs, as well as others in the Alabama administration, pointed not only to the increased profit margins the athletic department has generated since 2007, but also to peripheral benefits that Saban has provided to the school, to justify his salary.
“I really do believe that he’s had a very, very positive impact on enrollment and just on the overall image of the university,” Brown said in a phone interview.
Brown noted that the school has added $1.7 billion in infrastructure in the last 10 years, and also pointed to the growth of Alabama’s student population since Saban first came to Tuscaloosa. In 2007, Alabama had 21,082 undergraduates, according to the Alabama Admissions Office. By 2013, that number was 29,443 students, including an incoming freshman class made up of 57.6 per cent out-of-state students who pay a higher tuition rate than in-state students. That out-of-state number was an all-time high for the school.
Although Brown acknowledged that this increase in enrollment had been planned by the UA administration well in advance of Saban’s arrival, he believes the football coach deserves much of the credit.
“Many times athletics provide the window through which people first see the university,” Brown said. “I think again, his success, the way he’s run that [football] program, people that may not have had any familiarity with the University of Alabama, got their first glimpse into the university through that program.”
Lars Anderson, an adjunct professor at Alabama and a former senior writer at Sports Illustrated, sees Saban’s impact on the rising student population similarly.
“You certainly can’t attribute all of that [growth] to Saban, but you can attribute a big part of it,” Anderson said. “He is the number one marketing tool for that school. The culture of college football in this state is unlike anywhere else in the country, the passion is so deep for it.”
Rodney Fort, a sports economist and professor of sports management at the University of Michigan, agreed that there could be an “advertising affect” for universities that is related to having a successful sports program.
“We’ve been able to detect that you do witness a larger number of applications [after increased athletic success],” Fort said over the phone. “And that does two things…One is they can raise tuition, the other is that when the number of applicants go up that means…the quality of applications also increases.”
The average ACT score of the 6,478 students admitted in 2013 was 25.8, an all-time high at the university, according to the Alabama Admissions website.The school also ranks first among public universities nationwide in the number of National Merit Scholars enrolled, according to the National Merit Scholarship Corp.’s 2011-12 report.
“However, there’s no way you can hire a football coach and then turn around and say, ‘Oh I think we better increase enrollment 40 per cent in seven years,’” Fort continued. “Clearly it was a decision process that was in operation long before Saban arrived.”
Norvin Richards, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Alabama, says he can see two different perspectives in regards to the school’s football program, not its academics, generating the increase in student interest.
“It’s a hard sell to go out and convince people in other parts of the country that [the University of Alabama] is where you should go, that this is a good place academically,” Richards said. “So, one side of coin is to ride the ‘football horse’ to get the money, to help you attract academic talent, as you have nothing else that will generate that kind of money.”
“The other perspective would be to say, ‘But it’s corrupt…It’s not what universities ought to be doing,’” Richards said. “‘Universities ought to be academic places, and football and [other] sports are extra curricular activities.’
“The trouble is that if you do take that perspective, I think you don’t have the revenue to pursue really good students and really good faculty. You’re sort of consigning yourself to less success.”
As a result of the benefits that Saban has provided the university, many at the school said that they believe his salary is simply the result of a free market.
“There’s a lot of different market pressures that seem to be at play,” Dr. Andrew Billings, Director of the Alabama Program in Sports Communication, said. “I’m sure if some NFL team wanted to get coach Saban they could offer even more money… So in that way, you can say he’s underpaid, at least to what the market is.”
Brown agreed: “I really believe it’s the free market at work. He’s making what the market will bear.”
Two sports economists had a different take.
“Those [college coaching] salaries, to some degree, are artificially inflated to the extent that the players are not paid,” said Robert Brown, a professor of sports economics at California State University San Marcos. Brown maintains that a premier athlete at a top program— such as an A.J. McCarron at Alabama — can, on his own, generate $2 million annually for an athletic department.
Leo Kahane, co-founder of the Journal of Sports Economics, agreed.
“It has the elements of a classic, very effective cartel,” Kahane said. “The revenues that are generated by that cartel accrue to a very select group: coaches, athletic directors, the institutions themselves. Left out of that equation are the players.”
In 2013, the university spent $9 million renovating its football facility. The new space is equipped with an arcade room, pool tables, two 30 foot-long hot tubs, six TVs in the locker room, a weight room with floor-to-ceiling windows, and several “position-specific” meeting rooms.
“The thing that bothers me in college sports, is the kind of hypocrisy between what college sports has become, a big time enterprise in the country, and where it is happening—at institutions of higher education,” Kahane said. “For many, it would be inconsistent with the mission statements of these universities.”