ATHENS — Thank goodness for “the market.” Otherwise, there might be some real outrage about what happened for Kirby Smart on Thursday.
Georgia’s third-year football coach just received the biggest raise anybody this side of professional athletics ever has seen. His new salary of approximately $7 million per year represents an 86.7 percent increase of his old salary, which was pretty decent at $3.75 million. We don’t know the exact yearly salary just yet. UGA announced Smart’s new deal on Thursday only as seven years for $49 million with no other details immediately available.
We assume that number does not include bonuses. Smart earned $1.35 million of a possible $1.6 million in bonuses last year. The assumption is the new deal will provide a similar incentive structure.
Regardless, it places Georgia’s coach among the top three in SEC in compensation. In the ever-competitive league, even that is important. That was the key for the Bulldogs — moving Smart from eighth, where he was as a second-year coach last year — to where he is now among the league’s top-earning coaches. The rich agreement was necessary to assure that the 42-year-old Smart remains the Bulldogs’ coach for a good long while. The deal runs through the 2024 season.
Still, it’s hard to get past those figures. We often see crazy figures like $49 million in sports, but that’s usually in the pro ranks and we don’t think much of it. Increasingly, though, we’re starting to see such figures popping up for coaches in college athletics — and football in particular.
As huge of a jump as this is for Smart, it still leaves him about $4 million a year shy of his former boss at Alabama. Nick Saban made $11.1 million last year, according to USA Today’s comprehensive annual survey, and that was before defeating Georgia in the National Championship Game on Jan. 8. Jimbo Fisher, who showed up at Texas A&M this winter, got a 10-year, $75 million to leave Florida State. Dan Mullen went from being the 14th-highest paid coach in college football at Mississippi State last year ($4.5 million) to No. 7 as Florida’s new coach ($6.1 million).
And it’s not just the SEC coaches with exorbitant salaries. Jim Harbaugh made $7 million at Michigan last year and $9 million the year before that. Clemson paid Dabo Swinney $8.53 million in 2017. Rich Rodriguez made $6 million at Arizona last year. That breaks down to more than $1 million a win for the 7-6 Wildcats, who finished third in the Pac-12.
Such deals usually provoke a little outrage from campus faculty, but I haven’t sensed anything from UGA yet. I had a fun text exchange with a friend who happens to be a tenured UGA professor and that teacher, for one, didn’t have a problem with it.
“If that’s what coach salaries are, I think Kirby has earned it,” was the reply. “I do hope he can build a long-term career here. Folks want Georgia to play the big-time game and, for better or worse, that’s the big-time game.”
To be clear, no public funds go toward paying Smart’s salary. It all comes from the Athletic Association’s coffers, which get refilled each year by the SEC Network to the tune of about $40 million. Along with the millions that come in via donations and season-ticket revenue, it’s a drop in the bucket really.
That’s from a purely economic standpoint, though. It gets a little more muddled when one takes into account what college athletics are supposed to be about. I can’t help but hear Vince Dooley’s voice in my head telling me about his first contract with Georgia. It paid him $15,000 a year after he counted the $3,000 he’d earn from his TV show.
If I’m doing the math right, Smart’s new salary is nearly 500 times Dooley’s and will be more if he keeps earning bonuses at the rate he did last year. Which, of course, is what everybody wants.
There’s not many other places where these bustling athletics enterprises can put their money other than in coaches, buildings and equipment. They’re categorized as nonprofits by the Internal Revenue Service — for now anyway. Taking that into account, no wonder that 78 football coaches and 41 men’s basketball coaches made $1 million or more in salary last year, according to the USA Today survey.
And you see that trend reflected at UGA. Smart has made sure to take care of his staff as well. Salaries for his assistants are up by $1.85 million, which included more than $1 million in raises for just his offensive and defensive coordinators.
Some might say that the student-athletes are getting left out of this, and there’s certainly an argument for that. But Georgia and its programs do spend tons of money on student services, between elaborate training-table meals, strength training, medical and dental care, academic support, equipment and so on. It’s significant, even if it is not proportional.
Said my friend the professor: “It would feel more just if some portion of the team’s profits were set aside in a trust fund for the students to access after their playing years.”
Another debate for another day, I guess.
Today’s point is, the Bulldogs had a rollicking good time during that crazy run to the SEC Championship and through the College Football Playoffs and they’d love to make it an annual thing.
Keeping Smart and his staff happy was the first step toward that end.
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