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Why college football teams should have coach salary caps

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It’d make the sport more interesting, competitive, and sustainable.

Alabama v Arkansas Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Coaches make more and more money all the time. Nick Saban will make more than $11 million in 2017, counting bonuses. Last year, 32 public schools spent more than $6 million each on their staffs, per USA Today.

At the other end of FBS, 35 public schools spent less than $2 million each. The schools that have the most can afford to hoard and poach the best coaches, meaning top teams remain top teams.

NBA and NFL salary caps mean teams can only make so much of their inherent advantages. Pro sports have found ways to ensure one team can’t hog talent (well, usually).

Since college athletes don’t make salaries and can’t be capped (or because the NCAA’s capped their earnings at Tuition Plus Some Costs), think about capping the sport’s most influential budget line, as proposed in Bill Connelly’s nine-part plan to improve college football as commissioner.

1. More teams would contend.

How many FBS teams have realistic shots at the title in any season? Fewer than 20? While we’ll never have a sport in which everybody has an equal chance (nor should we), this would be the most direct way to widen the field. When Saban’s out-earning entire FBS conferences’ worth of coaches all by himself, it’s justifiable in the market, based on the money he’s made for his school, but is this what we want football to be?

(No, Bama fan, all this isn’t in response to Saban’s salary. He’s just got the biggest number right now.)

Some mid-majors would be able to keep rising stars longer and avoid endlessly replacing winners. When Houston backed the truck up for Tom Herman, it really would’ve taken no less than his dream job for him to leave. In our alternate reality, Tulsa is building a Todd Graham statue. So even if we never have a promotion-and-relegation system, this would mean a sustainable model for underdogs.

2. But contending would still require investment.

Whatever the cap number is, it should be big enough for committed teams to have advantages over teams that are only in FBS for the hell of it. If only half or a third of FBS teams max out their caps, that can work.

Set it at $5 million and rein in 40 or 50 teams, at $10 million to slow the 10 biggest spenders, or anywhere else.

The goal is to make contention possible, not easy.

10 most expensive coaching staffs, 2016

School Head coach total Assistants total Coaching staff total
School Head coach total Assistants total Coaching staff total
Michigan $9,004,000 $4,308,750 $13,312,750
Alabama $6,939,395 $5,320,000 $12,259,395
Ohio State $6,094,800 $4,583,100 $10,677,900
LSU $4,385,567 $5,781,500 $10,167,067
Oklahoma $5,550,000 $4,390,900 $9,940,900
Florida State $5,250,000 $4,586,000 $9,836,000
Clemson $4,422,700 $5,390,417 $9,813,117
Texas A&M $5,000,000 $4,811,000 $9,811,000
Texas $5,200,130 $4,546,250 $9,746,380
Auburn $4,729,500 $4,456,250 $9,185,750
USA Today

3. More money for athlete benefits.

Better long-term health insurance? Post-football academics? Brain safety research? Graduation bonuses? Roster support for an expanded Playoff? Gotta pay for that.

If we were to chop Bama’s main-staff base total from about $12 million to about $6 million, just as an example, that could go toward $70,000 worth of benefits (I’ll leave “benefits” open-ended) for each scholarship football player or about $10,000 per scholarship athlete ... while still paying each assistant enough to remain or become a millionaire.

That’s just one hypothetical, most schools wouldn’t have that much more to spend, we’d have to figure out legal stuff, and so on.

4. Teams would have more staff flexibility, in certain ways.

You want a 20-coach staff or a shadow coaching staff like some teams have? Just cut the pie up.

5. More interesting choices.

Right now, every team’s staff is basically the same. One or two position groups don’t have dedicated assistants, there might not be a dedicated special teams coach, and one “position coach” is actually The Recruiting Guy, but otherwise, it’s 10 (soon to be 11) guys dividing up 100 players.

With no rules on staff sizes, we’d see competing schools of thought. Imagine a big staff of young coaches vs. a small staff of expensive veterans vs. an enormous staff with dozens of recruiters vs. a star head coach and a bunch of nobodies vs. a figurehead CEO overseeing star coordinators, all in the same conference.

“We’re losing in recruiting! We gotta fire our expensive defensive coordinator and hire six recruiters!”

One year later:

“Our defense sucks! We gotta fire all these recruiters and hire a big defensive coordinator!”

6. Coaches would not exactly end up hurting financially.

We’re talking about human livelihoods. But depending on where we place the cap, six-figure salaries could surely remain standard for most FBS assistants. Since many teams wouldn’t hit the cap, their payouts could remain the same.

7. This sport should cut costs anyway.

What happens after the TV money bubble deflates? What if shrinking per-game attendance trends continue? What if a legal development or demographic trend forces some schools to consider giving up football?

8. This would trim the most embarrassing expense of all: buyouts.

Case in point: Charlie Weis making $1.6 million per career win.

9. Sports nerds would have more fun, at least.

Do you feel jealous when you watch NBA fans play with trade simulators or NFL fans suggest ways to make room for a big free agent, knowing our sport’s only transactions are (a.) try to sign good recruits and (b.) try to hire expensive coaches?

We’d suddenly have napkin-math activities. This sport’s lack of offseason entertainment is never more glaring than when we have to unearth Oklahoma Remains Unhappy In The Big 12 every May, and this would give us something real to daydream about.

“We could try to steal Brent Venables from Clemson, but we’d have to fire most of our offensive staff to make room.”

“Our offensive staff is terrible anyway.”

“We should offer Clemson all our assistants, except The Recruiting Guy, and our campus Popeye’s.”

“Or a line roasting South Carolina in our fight song, instead of the Popeye’s.”

10. More to argue about!

That’s your favorite non-recruiting part of college football’s summer. It’s the only thing, so of course it is.

  • How big should the cap be?
  • Should buyouts count toward caps?
  • Should the strength coach’s staff count toward your cap?
  • What about graduate assistants?
  • Should teams with good academics get higher caps?
  • Should teams be able to exceed caps and pay luxury taxes?
  • It’s pretty weird that pro owners forever want to cap athlete salaries but never coach salaries, huh? Sorry, lost my train of thought.
  • Should the head coach and the assistants have separate caps?
  • Bonuses and weird life insurance deals should count toward the cap, right?
  • Can you have player-coaches?
  • Seriously, is somebody gonna say something about the SEC West hiring player-coaches?

11. More of the greatest college football joy of all: creative cheating.

As soon as this passes, imagine how much brainpower would go toward ways to work around it.

If stashing a scholarship athlete on the track team works, so does putting your assistant linebackers coach on the sociology department’s budget. He helps grade papers twice a month!

What’s the downside?

Maybe an extra college coach takes an NFL head coaching job per year. Maybe Saban leaves for TV a year earlier than he would’ve. Maybe Jim Harbaugh never returns to Michigan. Maybe mid-major head coaches leave to become NFL assistants, though that’s already happened anyway.

I think we’d trade that to have the field of contenders expand from 20 to 40 or 60, right?

Maybe fewer people get into coaching, though I doubt anybody argued fewer people would play basketball because of the NBA salary cap. We’re also on year 148 of college players making little more than enhanced scholarships, yet they keep signing up, so why wouldn’t coaches?

“It’ll never happen.”

I know. It’d require people to vote to give themselves less money. So what?