In March 2013, the University of New Mexico agreed on the terms to pay former men’s basketball coach Steve Alford a base salary and compensation package of $1.25 million per season, even before a potential $625,000 in bonuses kicked in.
The deal would have had him lapping the field as the highest paid men’s basketball coach in the Mountain West Conference. In a college athletics landscape dominated by football, Alford would have been getting paid more than almost all of the football coaches in the league, as well.
Never mind the fallout of the contract that never was (for those just tuning in, Alford never signed the contract and left to coach UCLA less than 10 days after the new contract was announced). The fact was UNM – its president, board of regents and top athletic department personnel – made a decision that investing top dollar in the head coaches of its intercollegiate sports teams was worth the risk.
Two years later, while no salary compares to that Alford deal, UNM has held firm in its approach and ranks at or near the top in coaching salaries in almost every sport in the MWC.
“Philosophically, and we’ve talked about this internally with our leadership team in athletics, college athletics is a coach-driven enterprise,” said Vice President for Athletics Paul Krebs. “… One of our goals is to try to retain the best coaches. We’re committed, and we’ve talked about it internally, our salaries for our head coaches are going to be at or near the top of the league. We want to get the best coaches, and we want to try and keep them here, retain them.”
That’s not necessarily the case when it comes to other areas of department spending. The operating budgets for some sports, including paying assistant coaches, take a hit because the investment is made in the person leading each sport.
“We recognize, again generally, that we can’t retain everybody,” Krebs said. “We can’t pay everybody everything. So our investment tends to be in our head coaches. We try to pay our assistants a fair wage, but we’re not going to always compete for them if other jobs come up. They’re going to have an opportunity to leave because it’s just not how we’re wired. It’s not within our budget. We have to make some choices.”
Krebs is the longest tenured athletic director in the league, and also the highest paid, earning a base salary and compensation package of nearly $420,000.
Craig Neal, for a few months between the 2013-14 and 2014-15 season, was the highest paid men’s basketball coach in the league with a base salary/compensation package of $950,000 despite having completed just one season as a head coach. That prompted a quick renegotiation of the contract of San Diego State’s Steve Fisher, the dean of MWC hoops, who now earns a little more than $1 million in base salary and compensation before bonuses.
The $772,690 base salary and compensation given to Bob Davie, the Lobos’ fourth-year football coach, is in the middle of the MWC pack, but considering the financial drain the program has been on the athletic department in recent years, it can still be viewed as a generous payout relative to the rest of the league.
The base salary for women’s basketball coach Yvonne Sanchez’s new deal, which was signed in April, continues to lead the MWC, as do the salaries of some of UNM’s Olympic sports coaches.
Bonus or incentive pay might allow for other coaches at other schools to ultimately make more than their UNM peers, but in terms of guaranteed pay, UNM is generally ahead of the pack.
“We’ve come to the position that we have high expectations for the program,” Krebs said on the general philosophy of having high base pay as opposed to incentive-laden contracts.
With investment in head coaches comes a certain level of risk assumed by universities, and buyout clauses to protect both parties – coaches and schools – vary greatly in the MWC.
“You’re hoping that your coach has so much success that they’re wanted by others, but you don’t want them to go so you build in safeguards,” Krebs said. “The more of those safeguards you build in, then they want something else in the contract.”
Neal has a mirrored buyout clause of $1 million, essentially meaning he owes UNM that amount if he leaves before his contract expires in 2020 or UNM would owe him the same if he’s fired.
For Davie, the buyouts are much less severe. If he quit before the end of this season, he would owe UNM $350,000. He would owe $250,000 if he quits in any season after this one. If UNM fired him anytime over the next five seasons, it would owe him $350,000.
While most MWC football programs have much more severe buyouts than UNM – both for coach and school – Neal’s buyout is one of the largest in men’s basketball for a school outside of the Power Five conferences.
No school in the Mountain West has protected itself more through buyout clauses than Colorado State.
If men’s basketball coach Larry Eustachy quit to coach another college or NBA team, he would owe CSU $4.5 million. If he were let go during a season, CSU would owe him the balance of that season’s salary along with the next season’s base salary.
In football, Mike Bobo would owe Colorado State $5 million for leaving.
Bobo is the first-year head coach replacing Jim McElwain, who left this offseason for Florida despite a $7 million buyout. That buyout will net CSU $2 million from the coach himself, $3 million from Florida, and a guaranteed CSU at Florida game sometime before 2020 that includes a $2 million payoff to the Rams.