Reeling from Dismal State Budget, La. Gov. Takes Aim at ‘Obscene’ College Coaching Salaries

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Gov. John Bel Edwards has had to consider suspending classes at state colleges. He thinks the millions going to coaches could be better spent.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards is making headlines for taking aim at skyrocketing college football coaching salaries. He said routine multi-year multi-million contracts were “obscene” and that coaching pay should be capped.  

“I am concerned,” Edwards, a Democrat, told the editorial board at The Advocate in Baton Rouge last week. “I do think that there has to be some look nationally at some sort of salary caps for the organizations. This is an arms race, and it’s gotten out of control. Some of the salaries and buyouts are obscene, and they can create all sorts of problems.”

The governor’s tough talk on coaching salaries this week comes against the backdrop of a historic budget crisis that has plagued the state for years and at a time when Edwards is asking lawmakers to decide between raising taxes by more than $800 million or slashing funding for major departments across the state and cutting back on the number of sheriffs, district attorneys and prison cells. At other times, Edwards has said some of the state colleges might have to be shuttered temporarily to help shore up the budget.

In his meeting with The Advocate, the governor acknowledged that the coaching salaries aren’t being paid by taxpayers but that “the general public doesn’t necessarily know that.”

University coaches receive their eye-popping salaries in large part because of the vast sums brought in by university athletic programs. In 2014, the National Collegiate Athletics Association in 2014 reported generating nearly a billion dollars in revenue. That’s the money that pays the coaching staffs, but critics like Edwards say it’s still money that could be funding larger educational goals.

“What about those faculty members at LSU and elsewhere who haven’t had a raise of any size in many, many years,” Edwards said.

Many people agree with the sentiment.

In 2013 Time magazine referred to college football coaches as “multi-million dollar money pits” in a headline and titled a infographic of coaches salaries as the “Gilded Age of College Football.”

In 2016, college football and basketball coaches were the highest paid public employees in 39 states, according to ESPN.

This year’s 25 highest-paid university football coaches raked in annual salaries that landed somewhere between the $9 million paid to the University of Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and the $4 million paid to the University of Miami’s Mark Richt.

Former LSU coach Les Miles, who was fired in 2016, would have made the middle of the list. He was paid an annual salary of $4,385,567 by the university.

As the Advocate reported, LSU this year paid its football coaching staff a total of $9.4 million, but that doesn’t include the millions it is still paying to four staffers who left the school, including Miles, who got about $7 million fro LSU as a contract buyout.

The Advocate reported that six of the top seven highest-paid state employees in Louisiana last year were athletics coaching staffers, including LSU’s current head football coach, Ed Orgeron.  

The Louisiana state budget, which was flush a decade ago, tanked when global oil prices went south, the state economy fell into recession and political leaders continued to build budget policy around tax cuts.

The dire fiscal situation spurred Edwards a month after he took office in 2016 to appear on primetime television to describe the problem. Sitting at a desk, he moved soberly through a list of financial statistics and ticked off the names of programs likely to face deep cuts.

“We know that behind every budget number are real Louisiana citizens,” he said.

John Tomasic is a journalist based in Seattle.

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