A $100,000 bonus paid to head football coach Craig Bohl for the University of Wyoming Cowboys’ season-opening win over Missouri has rankled at least one state lawmaker and raised eyebrows among some UW and state employees.
Cowboys fans can celebrate the victory — the school’s first over a so-called “Power Five” team since 2008 — but also question why the athletes play for free while the coach standing on the sidelines makes a bundle for guiding their efforts.
One can argue that since most players earn scholarships, they are being compensated. But providing that academic benefit is a relatively low expense for college sports programs, since it essentially amounts to lost revenue from students who might attend UW anyway.
Yes, strong athletic programs help pull the state together, give UW regional and national attention, and attract students from other disciplines to the Laramie campus. Everyone wants to be associated with a winner, and these are all good things.
But it’s the athletes who risk injury on virtually every play, and it’s their efforts that help make their universities millions of dollars in revenue from ticket sales, donor contributions, merchandising and TV rights.
“My issue has more to do with the NCAA in general than in Wyoming,” Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, told me after the UW-Missouri contest. “But if we’re spending millions and millions of dollars a year on infrastructure and many other things on what is essentially the farm system for professional football, we ought to look at that.”
Pelkey noted that scholarships “can be yanked out from [players] the minute they get too hurt to play.”
“I used to think of football players as pampered, but now I think of them as exploited,” he added. “I think it’s just a horrible national system, but we can start raising hell locally, too.”
I agree that the entire NCAA’s way of doing business is out of whack. College football alone is a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry — to say nothing of basketball and all the other NCAA sports — and it has propelled coaching salaries to ridiculous heights. When his original contract was extended in 2017, Bohl signed a seven-year deal that, with incentives, is worth a total of $11.95 million.
The $100,000 for a regular-season win against a Power Five school is only one of the bonuses available in the coach’s contract. He’ll be paid over his guaranteed $1.4 million annual salary if his squad gets five Mountain West Conference wins, $100,000 if UW sells 10,000 season tickets and $25,000 if he’s named the MWC coach of the year.
And that’s not all: If his team has a combined 2.8 grade point average, add another $100,000. A finish in the national Top 25 is worth the same amount. Still having his job on March 1 got him a bonus check for $625,000, and he’ll get the same amount if he’s employed as UW’s head coach on March 1, 2023.
Locking a coach into a multi-year contract does pay some dividends for the school and protects UW from being left for greener pastures by requiring a contract buyout. For example, if Bohl leaves UW in the last year of his contract, he will owe the school $1.19 million.
None of Bohl’s figures are out of line with typical coaching salaries for MWC schools. UW officials decided long ago that they wanted to play with the big boys of the college sports world, and that’s what it takes these days to do it. I’m certain the vast majority of Wyomingites who follow sports don’t want to see UW demoted to a lower division.
The University of Alabama’s Nick Saban makes the highest salary among NCAA football coaches at $8.3 million per year. There’s no doubt that he gets outstanding results from his teams. But is he worth that much? You be the judge.
Bohl’s annual base salary from state monies is $350,000, which makes him the highest-paid state employee. He is in the Wyoming spotlight in a way no one else is, including the governor, who makes $105,000 a year. Poor decisions and a losing season often result in calls for a coach’s head on a platter, and there is scant job security in the rough-and-tumble world of college athletics.
But since UW’s unexpected win over Missouri, I’ve heard some complaints about the fairness of Bohl’s compensation, questions about why university and state employees’ achievements aren’t also rewarded with bonuses, and remarks about how the money could be used in other ways.
Here’s a sampling from Facebook posts last week:
“That $100,000 could give a few adjuncts [professors] a raise.”
“Maybe help a few low-income students get an education.”
“Does anyone have stats on the bonuses for instructors, administrators, counselors, food service workers, security workers [all UW workers] and students who do their job well?”
I myself would like to know precisely how much state money is spent on athletics versus academics, given that the latter is what is supposed to make a university tick. Pelkey is doing some research to find out the figures, and I’m sure he’ll have those ready by the time university funding comes up next session in the Legislature.
The state matches dollar-for-dollar the first $4 million raised by the Cowboy Joe Club, a private booster organization, every year.
Like Pelkey, I was irked a few years ago when lawmakers approved $8 million for a sports nutrition program at UW while simultaneously cutting funding for suicide prevention, substance abuse treatment and other programs.
“Yes, a good time was had by all on Saturday, but should taxpayers carry the cost of that good time while we in the Legislature are struggling to maintain funding for health care, education, mental health, highways, corrections, wildlife management, etc.?” Pelkey asked. It’s a great question for both lawmakers and voters.
Pelkey said the fundamental structure of college sports must change. I agree, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon. It’s a huge business that, as Pelkey points out, amounts to a free farm system for professional leagues and obligatory service for those who hope to play in those leagues. That kind of system doesn’t slip quietly into the night, and unless Congress gets involved to curb some of its excesses — a highly unlikely scenario — the unfairness will only grow.
The debate about whether college players should be paid for their labor will continue, both here and nationally. Ironically, they would be if the university was operated like a private enterprise, as so many lawmakers are fond of saying it should be.
“We’d all still wear Brown and Gold, but it wouldn’t be taxpayers supplementing the cost,” Pelkey said of such an arrangement.
For many years I’ve watched Wyoming legislators hustle through the session agenda on game days in time to go over the hill to the Double A in Laramie and catch a UW basketball game. It’s funny — and kind of sad — how a strong season can make some lawmakers kinder to the university when it comes time to mark up the budget.
That situation probably isn’t unique to Wyoming, but it’s a good illustration of why lawmakers and fans are willing to accept over-the-top coaching salaries and athletic facility price tags while academic programs are starving.
Whether the state’s public university is adequately funded shouldn’t depend on wins over teams in higher-ranked conferences, no matter how exciting they are.
Kerry Drake pens “The Drake’s Take” column for WyoFile.com, an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy. The views expressed here are solely his own.