Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney made more than $9.3 million last year, according to USA Today, just one of 10 coaches who made more than $6 million. David J. Phillip/Associated Press

The regularly scheduled start of the college football season is still some 4 1/2 months off, and at the moment it’s impossible to say whether that will happen. Uncertainty defines life right now, and at some level, wondering whether college kids can play football as planned seems insignificant, even inappropriate, particularly before we know when college kids will be allowed back on campus.

The resumption of college sports is important enough, though, that Vice President Mike Pence held a conference call with its major stakeholders Wednesday. There are truths about college football that would have existed had the novel coronavirus pandemic not crippled the world. But those truths, with the season threatened, are laid bare at the moment. College athletics exist in the most fragile ecosystem. And the entire enterprise depends on football.

Not just football being played. But football being played in packed stadiums.

“If you don’t have a season,” Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith told reporters last week, “do the math on that.”


Gene Smith, Ohio State’s athletic director, might have to look at the football staff for relief. The Buckeyes paid their assistant coaches a total of $7.245 million in 2019, and head coach Ryan Day is due $5.4 million this year. Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

Where college sports are concerned, there is so much math to be done. If Major League Baseball can’t play this summer and fall, it impacts both players and owners financially, for sure. But if college football can’t be played this fall, it affects not the wallets of the players, but the mere existence of an opportunity for gymnasts and lacrosse players, wrestlers and runners. Athletic departments across the Power Five conferences are built on the revenue football rakes in. If that revenue evaporates – or even shrinks – something will give.

Here’s an idea: Why not start with the salaries of coaches?

First, the math Smith spoke of last week. The Buckeyes annually host seven games at Ohio Stadium – capacity 104,944 – because they need the revenue from seven home games at Ohio Stadium. Playing without fans, Smith said, would cost the Buckeyes between $5 million and $7 million per game. If seven games go away, then – poof – there goes somewhere between $35 million and $49 million – potentially nearly a quarter of the $210 million in expenses the department needed to keep 36 sports afloat last year.

And that doesn’t include the revenue football brings in through television broadcasts. Yes, maybe some money would be salvaged if games could be played in empty stadiums. Smith said on the conference call with reporters: “If we don’t have fans in the stands, we’ve determined it’s not safe for them in a gathering environment. Why would it be safe for the players?” Given the above math, there are clearly other factors at work as well.

College football needs the fans because college football needs the money because the rest of college sports – at so many schools – exist only because college football does. So when Oklahoma State Coach Mike Gundy says football should return ASAP because “we need to run money through the state of Oklahoma,” he is being both tone-deaf and honest.

That this money is generated by young men who don’t receive anything approaching their fair share of the cash is inescapable, of course, the constant thread that runs through all those can’t-miss fall Saturdays. But there’s a reason conference commissioners are willing to talk about a delayed season – even potentially beginning in 2021 and playing in the spring. There must be football. If preserving the current model is the goal – and whether that should be is another discussion entirely – then there must be football.

The NBA or the NHL could lose this year’s playoffs and start again next year, and there would be an economic impact, for sure. But if college football punts an entire season, the infrastructure that supports so many of the 170,000 Division I athletes would all but collapse.

If revenues don’t evaporate – meaning, if there’s some sort of a season – but just decline, then costs must decline, too. It would be a shame, then, if the hit to football’s largesse was felt by the athletes in the other sports football supports.

College sports are often referred to as the front porch of a given university. But the reality is, once you’re on the porch and open the front door, there’s at best a rickety bridge stretching across to the academic side of the school. Most big-time athletic departments operate as separate corporations. What they share with their schools amounts to a particular shade of a specific color and a couple of chants.

That doesn’t mean athletic departments can’t lead in how to respond to the economic hardships so many people already are enduring. CEOs across the country are taking pay cuts as both a show of goodwill and a cost-saving measure during these economically crippling times. The CEO of Columbia sportswear reduced his salary from $3 million to $10,000. The heads of most major airlines have declined salaries at least through June – some beyond that. The CEO of Marriott, the world’s largest hotel chain, won’t have a salary through the end of this year.

So if athletic directors are looking to cut costs in a time when people nationally are, almost invariably, cutting costs, couldn’t they look at themselves – and, more impactfully, their football coaches?

Take Ohio State as an example. The Buckeyes paid their assistant coaches a total of $7.245 million in 2019, according to data compiled by USA Today. Head Coach Ryan Day is due $5.4 million this year. Five members of Day’s staff make at least $900,000 each.

Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney made more than $9.3 million last year, according to USA Today, just one of 10 coaches who made more than $6 million. Thirty-one head coaches made at least $4 million, and 31 schools pay their staffs of 10 assistants at least $4 million. If revenue trends downward – whether because seasons are shortened or because fans are reluctant to pack closely into stadiums – it seems clear where some cash could be saved. After all, $9.3 million goes a long way in Clemson, South Carolina. Ol’ Dabo could get by on, say, $4 million, couldn’t he?

There are signs that this could be a consideration. Washington State announced that its athletic director, football coach and men’s basketball coach will all take 5 percent pay cuts through the end of the next academic year. It’s a step. There should be more.

Any return of any sport must be about public health and safety. But if college football coaches and administrators sound a little desperate to stage a normal season in an abnormal world, it’s because they are.

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