Programs and schools do not garner wins, good coaches do. Programs and schools do not recruit students, good coaches do. And in a critical twist for me as an academic, programs and schools do not get students graduated, good coaches do. Schools like Penn State, UCLA or Michigan State do not rise in national stature through their academics alone, they rise on the coattails of iconic coaches such as Duffy Daugherty, John Wooden or Joe Paterno.
In a capitalist system, which intercollegiate athletics resembles on the field of competition, successful individuals will be rewarded. In a winner take all system, which intercollegiate athletics is in its purest sense, the "winners" will reap disproportionate rewards. Today more than forty D1 football coaches make more than 2 million dollars a year, and the percentage will continue to rise. The salaries of just decent coaches at second level BCS schools dwarf salaries of university Presidents, state governors or anyone else in states except for investment bankers and Presidents of successful companies. This makes a perverse sense because good coaches of highly successful college football and basketball programs--the only two programs that may make money or count in terms of visibility and reputation--act as CEOs of sprawling staffs, constantly work to appease shareholders (boosters and fans), generate profits via media exposure and present the image of the university to the public at large.
The predictable rise of elite and highly paid coaches can create the illusion that programs and schools still matter. For instance the great program of Bear Bryant, Alabama, rules collegiate football from the tightly coiled heights of Nick Saban's steely will and intelligence. This year legendary Notre Dame has been restored to the top of the football heap under Brian Kelly's inspired guidance.
Yet both schools illustrate the very issue that the school matters far less than the coach. Notre Dame struggled for 15 years through mediocrity and chaos with a succession of at best good coaches and would be saviors until they got Brian Kelly who longed for the job Alabama had suffered through many years in the wilderness, winning a random championship here and there, but struggling until it offered Nick Saban the highest salary in college sports as Saban looked for an excuse to flee the NFL.
Basketball reflects the same dilemma. Kentucky sits atop the greasy pole with its corrupt but untouchable coach who spits in the eye of every academic ideal the NCAA professes. But until he arrived with his baggage of vacated championships, Kentucky went through coaches like water. UCLA still lives in the shadow of John Wooden with no coach able to match his legacy. North Carolina suffered through a series of failures after the dynasty of Dean Smith despite its superb reputation until they got Roy Williams from Kansas. Williams, the coach, restored the "program's" glory and position. Schools really don't matter in the end; coaches do.
All this reduces to the reality that for an intercollegiate program what matters is not tradition or stature, but money. The top ten paid coaches in D1 football track the relative wealth of the programs with a remarkable degree of accuracy. Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas, LSU etc remain powers at the moment because they have invested hugs sums of money in fine coaches and continue to pay top money to them. Alabama does not possess the sheer bulk or wealth of these schools, but like most SEC schools spends an inordinate amount of money on their football programs due to booster support beyond the size and status of the entire program.
That high salary usually reflects the ability to recruit and win which will usually determines the top contenders for national football honors. Basketball tends to be a more chaotic world. Although an oligarchy clearly exists, the sheer number of D1 schools, over 300, and the ability of schools to mount strong programs with eight players plus the surplus of young talented coaches means that the distribution or unpredictability of the talent and competitors is more widely distributed and more surprising than football.
But money alone will not guarantee success as professional baseball regularly demonstrates. Texas and Oklahoma pay some of the highest salaries to their coaches and are regularly in the hunt for the Big12 championship but not for the national championship for awhile. At the moment legendary and fine coaches like Mack Brown at Texas may not be long for the conference. Smart and patient schools can hire up and coming coaches or be patient enough to invest in a long term program and coach and reap success with smarts and work.
Now a really smart and wealthy program can actually make this work to create the illusion that the school/program matters more than the coach. Ohio State has done this seamlessly with the implosion of Jim Tressel and the hiring of Urban Meyer. Michigan could have but precipitously fired a fine coach in Lloyd Carr, squandered their program with a misfit hire, and finally seemed to have recovered with another hire. Florida another rich school and smart school lost Urban Meyer and immediately went out to steal coach in waiting Will Muschamp who got tired of waiting at Texas. USC a wealthy but not uber rich school hides its data since it is a private school, but stumbled for years before hiring Pete Carroll and is now stumbling with Lane Kiffin who may or may not grow into a fine coach,
The point to remember is that the name, tradition or pedigree of the school matters far less than the wealth of the program. This matters even more as the time for coaches to turn around programs shortens. The blood bath has begun this year with 12 coaches fired before the first of December, two after one year and one after two years. But all of them especially Gene Chizik of Auburn who won the national championship only two years ago requires huge buyouts.The SEC alone ran up over 20 million dollars in buyout costs in two years!
The NCAA has no power over coaches salaries as court cases have demonstrated. The salaries rise because university presidents and regents continue to pay them. But the NCAA has recognized the centrality of coaches and coaching responsibility in its new reforms. Almost all the academic reforms aimed at pushing students toward graduation have the incentives of the coaches as their target. So schools that do not move students along to graduation lost scholarships which have direct impacts on coaches. The Calhoun and Connecticut penalties including banning from the NCAA tournament again target coaches for academic failure. The newly targeted suspensions and published graduation rates again target coaches as do the new laws to make coaches responsible for the activity of their cheating assistants all focus on the coach's centrality.
Universities are not dominant athletic powers in a strong organizational sense at anymore. What matters is the quality of coaching at the top and the quality of assistant coaches and recruiters and conditioning staff. The key to building a college program that endures is either to get a great coach and keep him, the Penn State or Nebraska model. Or find the best coach money can buy for as along as you can afford him, the Florida model. Alabama created a model followed by many-- cycle through a coach every three years until you either find somone who sticks, or give up and go to the Florida model as they did with Nick Saban.
During the off season select coaches suddenly get new extensions; buy outs are increased; all to seal off coaches from the market. This means that the salaries of all coaches continue to rise. The relation between the coach and the university community thins out even further.
If there is a saving grace in all this, and I doubt it, it reminds us that there are no automatic passes based upon institutional status. Individuals and teams of individuals build quality institutions. Institutions do not continue on top just because they have a name. They have to earn it, every day, every year. Institutions do this with high quality people, not with reputation and inertia.