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Alan Webber: Why must taxpayers partly pay for high-cost coaches?

December 4, 2018

During the Thanksgiving weekend, I heard Lovie Smith had been re-signed by the University of Illinois football program for two more years.

Not being much of a college sports fan, that information normally would have gone in one ear and out the other. I did think it odd though, as I recalled the Fighting Illini didn’t have a very good season … again. I also recall wishing they had signed Mike McCarthy instead, just so we could get Mike out of Green Bay.

Anyway, Monday rolls around, and I’m skimming the Chicago Tribune and run across a dispatch by Shannon Ryan, a reporter at the Tribune. Ryan confirmed that, in fact, Lovie did get a contract extension for two more years. She also pointed out he only had four wins this past year. I didn’t know he had that many.

Lovie has nine wins total in three years. Had I been looking for sensationalism, I might have then mentioned that cost the university $1.17 million per win.

She also informed us that, had Lovie been let go after the conclusion of this year, the university would owe the coach a $12 million buyout, as his original contract called for six years. This news got my attention.

Both the original contract and the extension were at the largesse of athletic director Josh Whitman, who himself makes $624,000 per year. Plus, a list of incentives as long as your arm.

So, I wondered, who is footing the bill for all this futility. Then, I corrected myself, as the U of I is an institution of higher learning and not a professional franchise. Right? Wins and losses shouldn’t really matter. But, still, there is an awful amount of money flowing around the university to play a game.

Well, imagine my surprise when I dug a little deeper. I hadn’t hit the top drop of the tip of the iceberg.

The head coach of the men’s basketball program, Brad Underwood, makes $2.75 million per year. These two gents are the highest paid government employees in the entire state of Illinois.

Does Mike Madigan know about this?

I had brought this up a few years ago and was informed by friends that no taxes are used to pay the head coaches. The money to pay the coaches comes largely from the money the programs make.

Even if you put aside the fact that those are ridiculous salaries and perhaps the money might be better used to reduce school expenses for students and their loan debt, there still is the matter of benefits and pensions paid to these individuals.

Guess who pays that? You probably guess it is paid courtesy of the taxpayers of Illinois. Keep in mind, the higher the salary, the higher the subsequent benefit cost is as well.

In research for this commentary, I stumbled across a scathing four-part report from last year by Jay Rosenstein called “The Million Dollar Head Fake.”

Rosenstein is part of the faculty of the U of I, and, based upon his biography, probably not going to be attending Donald Trump rallies with me. He also is the culprit largely responsible for giving Chief Illiniwek the boot out of Illinois, too.

In his report, Rosenstein mentioned former Illinois Athletic Director Ron Guenther as an example. Guenther, according to Rosenstein, was paid a salary of $340,000 in 2003. Five years later, it had increased to $600,000. Today, his pension, paid by taxpayers, is $473,000.

Just the retired coaches and athletic administrators from only the University of Illinois costs taxpayers more than $2.6 million per year.

They also are guaranteed a 3 percent increase every year. In fairness to those individuals, while they were employed, they did contribute 8 percent of their salary toward the pension, but that money runs out quickly, and guess who is left with the bill?

The entire report was eye-opening.

In his account, Rosenstein described other abuses, causing both students and taxpayers to pony up for absurd athletic fees that were to be temporary, but never went away. We have toll roads like that, too. I would encourage anyone paying tuition to the U of I, or paying taxes in Illinois, to read the report.

As I was reading it though, it occurred to me Rosenstein was reporting only on one university … out of thousands. Millions of our kids are drowning in school loan debt — the amount owed nationwide is in excess of $1.48 trillion at this time. And politicians keep talking about bailing them out.

With yet more taxpayer money.

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