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Cognitive Dissonance: Weighing the Desire to Win against Sky High College Coaching Salaries

Nebraska is about to raise the stakes in the coaching salary arms race.

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I'm sad about how this ended.

I like Bo Pelini. I think he's a good coach.  I know he's a man of integrity and that he's fiercely devoted to his assistant coaches and players, character traits that are frustratingly lacking in the the high stakes world of college athletics today. I also think Nebraska Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst made the right decision in terminating Pelini's contract and letting him go this morning. And I think a lot of Husker fans would agree with me on both points.

If Eichorst is going to really take the Husker football program from good to very good to great, he will have to make a very careful decision.  I think that decision has to be to hire a proven, Power 5 coach.  I think he needs to hire someone away from a comparable job...not look to promote an FCS or mid-major coach.  I think Eichorst will need to hire someone like Auburn Head Coach Gus Malzahn, Minnesota Head Coach Jerry Kill, or Washington Head Coach Chris Peterson.

The thing about hiring those guys, or someone else in a similar position, is that it will take lots of money to do it.  At a minimum, it will take $5.6M and probably north of $6M.  That's an extraordinary amount of money.  There's an arms race happening in college athletics and the salaries paid to coaches, while justified by market forces, seem immoral when seen in the context of the utility they bring to society.

In 2013, Deadspin reported that in 40 states, the highest paid state employee was the football (27) or basketball (13) coach of a state university.  And while those coaching salaries aren't being paid by tax dollars, the money generated by football and basketball programs aren't going back to the universities either.  Football and basketball revenue is going back in the athletic programs to support those coaching salaries and keep other sports programs afloat.

In 2013, the median income in Nebraska was $51,000.  Assuming the next football coach at the University of Nebraska makes $5.6M, that coach will earn 110x, or 11,000% of the median household income in Nebraska. Is the work that the head coach does worth 110 times more than the work a family making the median is worth?  Is the utility of the head coach at 110 times greater than the utility of a high school teacher Lincoln?

I don't think so, but neither do I see any resolution to this cognitive dissonance. Letting Bo Pelini go was the necessary next step for a program that has a history of winning championships and wants to win more.  But I'm not sure that a culture of "must win championships to have job security" is really good for the program, the game of college football, or our society.

Go Big Red.