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Coaching Contracts: Should Athletics Trump Academics?

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Recently on Meet the Press, David Gregory moderated a round-table discussion on whether college student-athletes should be paid. Guests included Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former Duke University basketball player Reggie Love, and NCAA President Dr. Mark Emmert.

During this debate, Duncan said that college coaching contracts are too focused on incentives for athletic performance and should be more closely tied to a team's academic performance. Duncan used the 2013 post-season ban placed on the University of Connecticut for not meeting minimum Academic Progress Rate (APR) as an example for impactful change.

Based on research my colleagues and I conducted, Duncan is positing a valid question: What if a coach's potential athletic incentives were tied to the team's APR or graduation rate benchmarks? Would the adjustment in contract verbiage bring about a change in the coach's compensation or would it pressure the coach (and athletic director) to increase focus on the "student" part of "student-athlete?" Let's pursue this inquiry by looking at the facts.

Our research on NCAA Division I men's head basketball coaching contracts for those teams participating in the 2009 NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament shows that head coaches had the potential to earn five times more money through team athletic performance incentives ($10 million) than team academic performance incentives ($2 million). Of the 46 actual contracts analyzed, 93.5 percent of the contracts included an athletic team performance incentive, while only 67.4 percent contained an academic team performance incentive.

These findings sparked our interest and led us to compare these data with a similar analysis of the men's head basketball coaching contracts for teams participating in the 2012 NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament.

Our comparative analysis indicated overall annual pay for the men's head basketball coaches increased 17.5 percent, from $73,955,503 in 2009 to $86,864,178 in 2012. Further, overall potential athletic incentives for coaches increased 69.4 percent, from $7,775,911 in 2009 to $13,174,858 in 2012. But overall potential academic incentives compensation decreased, from $2,411,650 in 2009 to $1,230,328 in 2012. This finding went against the trend of multi-categorical increases produced through this analysis.

However, an impactful finding was that Non-Automatic Qualifying conference school coaches (those not in the ACC, SEC, Pac-12, Big 10, Big 12 and Big East) experienced a 1,074 percent increase in potential academic team performance incentives, from $19,250 in 2009 to $229,000 in 2012.

What does all this data mean? It means that while Duncan's recent recommendation has good intentions, these data would indicate that it might be very difficult to change the culture of intercollegiate athletic coaching compensation.

The change Duncan is proposing has precedent. Former University of Connecticut men's basketball coach Jim Calhoun's contract (signed in May, 2010), stated that any earned athletic team performance incentives would only be paid if the APR "for the men's basketball team had been satisfactorily met (currently a score of 925)." Similarly, former San Diego State head women's basketball coach Beth Barnes' contract stated, "All bonuses shall be tied to academic achievement. The bonuses will be paid only if the following criteria are met: 1) APR is at or above 925; 2) team cumulative GPA for tendered student-athletes is at or above a 2.25; and 3) the cumulative GPA is no less than 2.0 for 75 percent of tendered student-athletes."

Although not the norm among the more than 500 head coach and athletic director contracts we have analyzed, this simple change could have far-reaching impact. But we must proceed with caution when dealing with the combination of student-athlete academics and coaching compensation in intercollegiate athletics. Although well intentioned, Duncan's call to tie incentives for athletic performance to academic benchmarks could result in the unintended consequence of pushing student-athletes toward "easier" majors or courses to stay eligible rather than providing students the opportunity to pursue their degree of choice.

But wait -- hasn't this claim been going on for years?