Morris: Salary insanity makes playoffs a pipe dream

May 9, 2010 

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USC assistant head coach Ellis Johnson walks out onto the field for practice Friday afternoon.

RICH GLICKSTEIN/RGLICKSTEIN@THESTATE.COM

If you want another reason why college football will never have a playoff, look no further than the raise for USC assistant coach Ellis Johnson recently approved by the South Carolina board of trustees.

I do not begrudge Johnson one dime of the $700,000 he will be compensated for the 2010 season. Johnson deserves market value, and market value for assistant head coaches/defensive coordinators has reached astronomical proportions.

Understand, though, the more athletics departments become fiscally irresponsible, the more they push themselves away from a football playoff. University presidents continue to point to escalating salaries as another example of how athletics departments are divesting themselves from college campuses.

Let's start with Johnson's situation, because his case serves as a good example of how college coaching salaries are being elevated far beyond what is reasonable. Johnson was offered the defensive coordinator's job at Tennessee during the offseason. USC could not match Tennessee's offer, but it did manage to keep Johnson by doubling his salary.

"I have very uneasy feelings about paying a defensive coordinator the amount of money we are paying him," said Eric Hyman, USC's athletics director. "When you have the competition come and offer him this kind of money, what do you do? You have a choice, so you make a business decision on what's the right thing to do considering the circumstances you are in."

Hyman said there were two factors at play in dealing with Johnson's salary increase. First, Steve Spurrier said USC needed Johnson on his staff for the Gamecocks to compete in the SEC East. Second, if USC is to compete in the SEC, it must pay competitive salaries.

Therein lies the rub. SEC salaries, and those in most of BCS conferences, have soared. The more the salaries increase, the further athletics departments distance themselves from their respective universities.

Exorbitant salaries epitomize the excess university presidents have attempted to curb. Those same university presidents stand in the way of a playoff. They do not see how additional revenues will help fiscal responsibility by athletics departments.

University presidents have clamored for football to first clean up its sport before talking playoffs, pressing first for better integration of athletes into the student environment, continuing with demands that athletes earn degrees, and concluding by asking athletics departments to curtail spending.

In other words, the sport needs to move closer to being college football rather than pro football. Paying professional-level salaries to college head coaches has not helped that cause.

Nick Saban's eight-year, $32 million contract with Alabama in 2007 kicked off the high-stakes salary game, and two years later Urban Meyer signed a six-year, $24 million deal with Florida. Last year, Mack Brown had his contract reworked so he is paid $5 million a year, quite an increase from the $750,000 deal he signed when he arrived at Texas in 1997.

The coaching money grab has now infiltrated the ranks of assistants. Five years ago, it was big news when an entire staff of assistant coaches earned $1 million. Now, Johnson is one of three SEC defensive coordinators who will earn $700,000 or more this season.

With pay increases for next season, every USC assistant will earn at least $142,500, or about three times what an English professor makes. To USC's credit, it doled out raises to its assistants - with the exception of Johnson - without increasing its budget for 2010. That occurred because offensive line coach Shawn Elliott was hired at $150,000 to replace Eric Wolford, who earned $250,000. The staff raises totaled $79,500.

Also, to USC's credit, it continues to filter revenues back to the school. USC has committed $18 million from its lucrative SEC television package with ESPN to the university over the next 15 years. It recently paid $400,000 toward an endowed chair. It donated a significant amount to help with library renovations.

USC funnels a higher percentage of its revenues back to the university than any athletics department in the SEC, according to Hyman. That is all good and well. But the fact is that as long as any athletics department carries a "U" in front or back of its name, it should send all profits to the school's coffers.

Instead, athletics departments continue to spend wildly in order to compete at the highest level. To compete in the SEC, USC spends a small fortune to keep pace in facilities and recruiting and ticket prices and seat licenses and coaches salaries.

When it comes to a college football playoff, it is a Catch-22. Spending is out of control at the same time that university presidents have been crystal clear in wanting college football to reign itself in.

School presidents begrudgingly justified head coaching salaries that have reached three and four times greater than their own. But when an assistant coach such as Johnson makes $200,000 more than USC president Harris Pastides, it sends a strong signal to university presidents that college football is out of hand . . . and that a playoff system is pushed further and further to the back burner.

Watch commentaries by Morris Mondays at 6 and 11 p.m. on ABC Columbia News (WOLO-TV)

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