"College football is real 'trickle-down economics.' If the football team wins, that money just trickles down on everybody." -- Pepper Rodgers, former UCLA and Georgia Tech coach By Thomas Boswell Washington Post Staff Writer
What is a successful college football coach like Jerry Claiborne or George Welsh worth to a major university?
A winning coach brings in from $1.5 to $2 million a year at Maryland, according to Athletic Director Dick Dull.
A coach's worth goes even beyond that, according to Capt. Leon A. Edney, commandant of midshipmen at Navy, who says, "We're in a recruiting game here and there's no better recruiting tool than a winning football team."
If this is so, then how can schools like Maryland and Navy dream of allowing coaches like Claiborne and Welsh, who, between them, have had 10 bowl teams in the past decade, go to other universities?
If the stakes are so high, then how could Maryland let Claiborne go to Kentucky for a raise in his overall salary package from $100,000 to $200,000, while Navy saw Welsh depart for Virginia where his new salary may be double his old $60,000 figure?
Factors other than money were involved in both cases. Claiborne was going home. Welsh was heading to a school where he could dream of easier recruiting and a chance for the top 20.
Nevertheless, their leaving brings up one of sport's most ambiguous and paradoxical questions: what are these guys worth?
It's a short question with a long answer.
The dilemma facing these men never changes. They're expected to walk on water on Saturday, yet keep their feet on the ground all week.
"In economic terms, we're probably only paid a fraction of our value," said Penn State's Joe Paterno yesterday. "However, my gut feeling is we're overpaid. It's an ambiguous situation that never changes.
"I always feel uncomfortable when I'm perceived to be of more value to Penn State than a Nobel Prize winner," continued Paterno. "I constantly meet people who are doing marvelous things in science, business, politics. But I'm usually the center of attention.
"If I were them, I might resent it. I'd be tempted to see this Paterno as a symbol of something ugly. It's very hard to say what a football coach is worth, or in what sense he's worth it."
The sort of football folk like Claiborne and Welsh, who take teams to bowl games, are expected to be public demigods yet remain a humble part of a larger faculty.
"At Navy, a history professor and a football coach are always going to have to be seen as having the same value," said Edney, "regardless of what a broader economic viewpoint might indicate. We all know that if you go to the Liberty Bowl (as Navy is doing Dec. 30) it helps the whole Academy in many ways, some of which don't even have a name. But we simply can't let our values here get out of balance."
Maryland's viewpoint is the opposite. "We are willing to pay a coach whatever the market will bear," said Dull. "We know there is a limit to how much base salary can be offered before you cause other problems (with faculty resentment). But we want to put together the best total package that we can."
However, that pursuit of the best package can run into harsh realities.
For appearance's sake, almost all coaches earn the same basic salary as a professor. In fact, they bring in two or three times that much in salary that is funneled (legally) into their pockets in the guise of radio-TV salary or summer camp income.
As Rodgers said this week: "Waitresses get tips and football coaches have TV shows. There aren't five coaches' shows in the country that could beat Howdy Doody reruns in the ratings, but everybody's got 'em. They exist entirely because the alumni buy the TV time, buy the advertising and pay the coach his salary. Heck, you gotta find some way to pay the coach three or four times as much as the university president without makin' everybody too mad."
By the standards of academe, the coach is grossly overpaid. Yet, by any fair, open-market standard of value to the university, winning coaches are almost comically underpaid. The Claibornes and Welshes are worth several times the $100,000-to-$200,000 greener-pastures salaries that they jumped for this week. And they know it, although it's taboo to say so.
The hitch is that it's harder to put together a gaudy radio-TV salary deal in a major city like Washington than it is in a medium-sized town like Lexington, Fayetteville or Tuscaloosa. "Almost every cent of a TV deal is just alumni money," Dick Bestwick, Welsh's predecessor at Virginia, said yesterday. "But in a major TV market, it just costs too much to buy TV time and advertising. It eats into what's left to give the coach."
To appreciate how a coach can be worth such attention, we must see the various levels at which coaches do, or at least should, have value.
For instance, what is a good coach worth to his players as a teacher?
"Our primary role is supposed to be as a teacher of young men, but that's the first thing that's usually forgotten," said Bestwick, fired after this season by Virginia.
What is the coach worth to the team as prime progenitor of victory?
"In the long run, the coach is more important than any other one factor, and maybe more important than all the other factors combined in determining whether you're a winner or a loser," said Dull, who must replace Claiborne, who got a $127,000 TV-radio deal at Kentucky.
Perhaps never has a man been paid so much to say so little. Claiborne is the paradigm of the catatonically dull coach-on-TV whom Rodgers calls "Coach Cottonmouth. You know, the coach who mumbles in a monotone, praises his seniors, runs lists of alumni contributors on the screen, likes to say, 'That sure will help our program' and finishes every show by saying, 'Our players never quit.' Just once, I'd like to hear Coach Cottonmouth say, 'I fully expect that our players will quit this week.' "
What is a respected coach worth to an entire athletic department?
"A good football coach can pay everybody's bills," said Dull. "Of all Division I football programs, two-thirds are in the red. But the third who are in the black can carry the whole athletic department on their backs. In a good year at Maryland (with a bowl bid), the football team brought in about $1.5 million. By comparison, every Maryland student pays an athletic fee of $54. That comes to $1.2 million, or about 25 percent of our total budget.
"In a peak year, like '76, when Maryland went to the Cotton Bowl, the football program's gross would be more like $2 million. But it gets bigger every season. An ACC team that went to the Orange Bowl now would get back about $825,000 from that one game."
Finally, what is a Coach with a Capital C worth to a university?
Said Edney: "There's no better advertising than the high visibility of being on TV in 11 million homes, as we were last week with the Army-Navy game. There, we're presented at our most attractive."
Or, in more venal terms, a winning team produces, as Rodgers said, "alumni contributions, endowments and just all kinds of general good will and good image. At Georgia Tech, as at a lot of big schools, our whole athletic department was a separate corporation from the school."
Football may merely be a metaphor for war for some, but to the coaches the sense of falling in battle, of being a casualty, is great.
"If you don't have a healthy ego, you can be destroyed by failure," says Bestwick, now in the limbo known only to unemployed coaches coming off a 1-10 season. Just like Claiborne at Kentucky and Welsh at Virginia, Bestwick arrived at Virginia with the customary, "We'll turn this program around" rhetoric.
Now Bestwick is more chastened. "An unbelievable number of factors have to be in your favor to be a consistent winner," he said. "Most important is the ability to get anybody -- absolutely anybody -- into your school, and keep him there four years, if he's the player you need. That's saying a lot.
"Once, a lot of fine athletes never got out of high school. They just couldn't pass. Now, everybody graduates. Consequently, it would shock people to know the schools that can get a football player on scholarship who reads at the second-grade level."
That's not the kind of program Bestwick would want. But, as he knows, the demands of his job make a man constantly question his personal values, push on them to see if they will bend without breaking. "Our job is not like anyone else's in the university. One professor doesn't teach against another with 30,000 people watching. A coach's only tenure is success."
In this moral maze, it is hard for a man to know where he stands. Is he a pillar of his university with the potential to bring millions to his school in the course of a career? Or is he man who, like Paterno, must constantly ask himself if he is overpaid, overpraised, overvalued. "I often feel embarrassed," said Paterno.
"We're part of the bread and circuses," said Bestwick. "In every society you have them. Not just for entertainment. Look at so many prominent people in sports -- people from lower middle-class backgrounds, like my own, who were looking to make a place for themselves. How tough do you think they might have been as revolutionaries?
"Instead, there was an outlet to do something difficult and excellent and ennobling."
So, finally, what is a coach to feel?
Paterno, Rodgers and Bestwick gave the same coda, identical almost to the comma. "You have to find a way," they said, "to take the job seriously, but not yourself."