College football coaches love to compete, nowhere more so than in their salaries. Alabama’s Nick Saban, whose Crimson Tide plays Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl this New Years’s Day, pulls in $6.9 million a year, giving him bragging rights as the highest-paid coach in college football. That is, until Jim Harbaugh takes over as coach of the University of Michigan Wolverines next year for a reported $7 million annual salary.
How can public universities afford such obscene compensation? One big reason is that they pay their players nothing. Indeed, while Saban and his ilk enjoy ever-swelling salaries, bonuses, paid media appearances, and other perks like free housing, college players must endure draconian NCAA rules that banish them to hell for such sins as signing an autograph for cash or selling a jersey, all in the name of protecting the “amateur” spirit of the game.
But as Matt Connolly shows in a sneak preview from the upcoming the January/February issue of the Washington Monthly, there was a time, more than a century ago, when college teams didn’t pay their coaches, either. The arguments back then against compensating coaches looked surprisingly similar to the arguments today against paying players.