Tom Ross: Show them the money

Jackie Sherrill’s $287,000 contract inspired outrage in 1982

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

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— As if there were ever any doubt, we learned this week that college football is all about the money.

Twenty-eight years have passed since my father expressed public outrage about the salaries of college football coaches in a 1982 Associated Press article. His strong words were precipitated by the news that coach Jackie Sherrill had been lured away from the University of Pittsburgh to Texas A&M University with a contract worth about $287,000 a year.

John E. Ross was a professor of agricultural journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in an era when the typical salary range for full professors at large public universities ranged from about $27,090 to $39,040, according to the article by Lee Mitgang.

Asked to react to the news of Sherrill’s compensation package, professor Ross didn’t hold back.

“If that were to happen in Madison, there’d be a faculty revolt,” he told the reporter. “We’d be out marching in the streets.”

Sherrill’s straight salary was an unheard-of $95,000, enough to rankle academics supporting families on less than half that amount.

In 1982, Wisconsin football coach Dave McClain was earning $42,000 plus about $12,000 in fringe benefits, and he had the Badgers on a roll.

The AP reported that former Colorado coach Chuck Fairbanks was lured away from the New England Patriots in 1979 with a $200,000 package that included a straight salary of $47,500. The legendary Bo Schembechler made $60,030 at Michigan plus other income from a weekly TV show and perks that took him to more than $100,000. Future Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson was making $50,000 in salary plus $50,000 in benefits to coach the Oklahoma State Cowboys in 1982.

Things definitely were changing in big-time college football in the early ’80s, but when you contrast the amount of money associated with the sport in that era to modern times, it sounds laughable.

The change was underscored this week by the news that the University of Colorado is leaving the Big 12 for the Pac-10 athletic conference, and the University of Nebraska is abandoning the Big 12 for the Big Ten and potentially an annual date with the Wisconsin Badgers.

Current A&M coach Mike Sherman makes $1.8 million a year. Wisconsin Badgers coach Brett Bielema was awarded a base salary of $400,000 in 2007 with an additional $900,000 generated by television programming. The second figure was to grow by $100,000 annually, so Bielema should be due for compensation of $1.6 million in 2010.

I checked with professor Ross on Friday morning, and he wasn’t out marching in the street.

What the heck? University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban makes something like $4.7 million. But The Associated Press reported that in the 12 months before June 2009, Crimson Tide football pulled in $38.2 million, making Saban’s salary a good investment.

The University of Wisconsin can handle the compensation of its coach in part because the Big Ten has its own television network that returns $20 million to $22 million every year to all 11 member universities. Those same numbers influenced the schools shifting allegiances this week as other conferences seek to replicate the success of the Big Ten.

Despite the impression I’ve left you with, I grew up in a household of college football fans. My mother sometimes dropped a friend and me off at Camp Randall Stadium at midday on a Saturday. I was given $1.50 to cover expenses. The first dollar covered the price of an end zone seat, and 50 cents was enough for two bags of peanuts. I probably was supposed to hold back a dime in case I needed to use a pay phone to summon help.

I’ll never forget cheering for my fourth-grade student gym teacher, Ralph Kurek, who was playing fullback on Oct. 13, 1962, when Wisconsin defeated Notre Dame, 17-8.

Several years later, when my father was earning almost half of a football coach’s salary, we had four season tickets to Wisconsin football. I recall attending every home game of a three-year losing streak.

Despite ongoing recruiting violations and player misconduct, it seems nobody’s losing money in college football these days.

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