Commentary

Big-money coaches not immune

Originally Published: July 15, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Fred Hill was rolling south on the Jersey Turnpike between Newark and Philly one day last week. He had the top down on his convertible Ford Thunderbird, Earth Wind & Fire blasting on his stereo.

[+] EnlargeFred Hill
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesGood thing Fred Hill likes to drive. He's been doing a lot of it in this economy.

The Rutgers basketball coach's leisurely summer interlude was made possible by the sagging economy.

In more flush times, Hill likely would have stayed in Philadelphia between the Wednesday and Thursday sessions of the Reebok All-American camp. But with budgets tightening on every campus, the state university of New Jersey included, Hill opted to make the 75-minute commute home and return the next day. That saved Rutgers a night's hotel bill in one of the more expensive cities in the country.

During an earlier recruiting trip this year, Hill drove to see prospects in Massachusetts rather than fly. Time of trip each way: 4½ hours, long enough to hear the entire EW&F oeuvre.

"That's not a big deal to me," Hill said. "I enjoy driving."

Coaches everywhere are rediscovering the open road, to the detriment of their frequent-flier accounts. Rental cars for recruiting, buses for away games and other expense-trimming methods are the new realities for men who often are the highest-paid employees of their universities.

Most revenue-sport coaches at the top of the college food chain are accustomed to living like CEOs. In fact, many believe that projecting a "we-do-everything-first-class" aura -- private jets, huge offices, state-of-the-art facilities, etc. -- is an important recruiting tool. So some coaches are wary about discussing cutbacks because they see it as a sign of weakness in their program.

Others can more willingly admit that times have changed, and that their programs must do their part to scale back.

"We're very, very aware of everything we do from a cost standpoint," Hill said. "We're looking for ways to be very frugal with the budget."

The f-word -- frugal -- also was mentioned by Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber and West Virginia football coach Bill Stewart. Memphis basketball coach Josh Pastner went with "cost-conscious." Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney chose "cost-containment," while basketball counterpart Oliver Purnell mentioned "sacrifice."

College football might be the most recession-proof sport in America, and college basketball isn't too far behind (at least in the hotbed areas). Coaches in those sports are immune to discussions of eliminating a program or hacking scholarships and staff size -- threats that are increasingly present in the nonrevenue world.

Nor is it anywhere near as bad as in the real world. Know this much: The outlook is considerably better for Michigan State hoops coach Tom Izzo and Michigan football coach Rich Rodriguez than for the auto execs in their state.

[+] EnlargeTom Crean
David Stluka/Getty ImagesSome teams, like Indiana, spare no expense in their recruiting efforts.

Nevertheless, the word has gone out from the vast majority of college athletic directors to their highest-profile coaches: Even the cash cows must curtail expenses where possible. And travel is the logical place to cut. That affects coaches' working style much more than their lifestyle.

Thus, Miami's football team is planning to bus (rather than fly) to Tampa for a game against South Florida in late November. West Virginia has a private booster fund to help finance private planes for recruiting, but it will bus this football season to Cincinnati -- with a stop for lunch with an alumni group in Zionsville, Ohio, along the way.

"We're going to use it as an opportunity to connect with some of our fans," Stewart said.

Rutgers basketball is looking into weekend bus or train trips to Georgetown, Syracuse and Providence, when missed class time is not a concern. Weber said Illinois is looking at commercial flights instead of chartering on a couple of trips over the Christmas holidays. Purnell said Clemson probably will cut back one of its two annual charter flights to the Tobacco Road area, replacing it with a bus trip.

Basketball coaches are on the recruiting trail right now with a freshly conservative fiscal approach.

Weber said Illinois is looking to trim 5-10 percent of its athletic expenses, and to that end his coaches are opting for cheaper flights. Davidson coach Bob McKillop said his staff is trying to avoid costly airplane ticket changes during the July evaluation period incurred by hopscotching from one event to another. McKillop also said colleagues are rebelling against spending hundreds of dollars for rosters at each AAU tournament or shoe camp, where the cost has been driven up in recent years by the promise of getting phone numbers and addresses for prospects.

"Coaches are helping each other out," McKillop said, sharing numbers instead of forking over thousands of dollars this month.

Of course, everyone's circumstances are different. Some schools have the urgency (and deep-pockets fan backing) to still treat July recruiting as a spare-no-expense endeavor.

New Kentucky coach John Calipari, packing an eight-year, $31.7 million contract, has a booster's private plane at his disposal this month. So does second-year Indiana coach Tom Crean, whose efforts to upgrade his depleted roster sent him on the following breakneck itinerary from last Monday to Friday: Bloomington to Indianapolis to Cincinnati to Cleveland to Bloomington to Louisville to Philadelphia to Louisville to Bloomington to Louisville.

At Kentucky and Indiana, basketball success is only slightly less important than breathing. When the emotional investment is that high, the monetary investment follows.

[+] EnlargeSteve Slaton
Frank Victores/US PresswireThe next time West Virginia visits Cincinnati, the Mountaineers will be traveling by bus.

But as Jim Calhoun showed us last winter when he shouted down baiting questions about his high salary amid trying times in Connecticut, coaches are sensitive to the perception that they're the golden children on campus. Not since Richard Nixon bragged about his wife's "respectable cloth coat" in the 1950s have rich people tried so hard to act middle class.

For good reason. Given the way so many common folks are struggling, and given the budget problems in academia, it's best for the seven-figure coaches to avoid being caught in the act of conspicuous consumption.

"We feel it [the economic crunch]," Purnell said. "And we want people to understand we feel it. We're not going to be out there flaunting it around."

In fact, while Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl was just awarded a contract extension and a $200,000 raise, and Louisville just hired Ralph Willard at about $350,000 a year to be an assistant, others are taking a hit in the wallet. At Arizona State, Dennis Erickson and Herb Sendek were part of a mandatory 12-day furlough for all university employees. In recent months, Purnell and Swinney took five-day furloughs as part of a campus-wide cutback at Clemson.

Neither Purnell nor Swinney even knows which week he went without pay. Neither of them is a 9-to-5, punch-the-clock guy, by nature or job description, and neither thought for a second about actually not working during his furlough.

"It was sometime in the spring -- my secretary picked the days," said Swinney, who helped lead a donation campaign at the spring football game for lower-salaried Clemson employees hit harder by the furloughs. "The people who were most affected are the hourly workers. If you're making $25,000 a year, five days off is going to hurt you a lot more."

For the richest and most visible employees on campus, this economic downturn is less damaging. In fact, it can even have some accidental benefits -- like driving with the top down, singing along to the music of your choice. Beats standing in line for airport security.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.