College football's highest-paid coaches earn millions, fly private at taxpayer-funded public universities

Clemson University head football coach Dabo Swinney leads a field of top-earning college football coaches employed at public universities that count on subsidies derived from taxpayers to help cover operational costs, according to a USA Today analysis released this week.

Swinney, who led the Tigers to two national titles in the last three seasons, outpaces all other college football coaches with $9.32 million in total pay. All of the top 10 highest-paid colleges will earn at least $6 million this year, and all 10 work at public universities. Average compensation for Football Bowl Subdivision rose nine percent to $2.67 million this year, USA Today reported.

State money is just one of several sources public universities use to cover expenses. But rising pay for college coaches is regularly cited by critics of the NCAA’s refusal to compensate student-athletes, including South Carolina State Rep. Justin Bamberg, who plans to introduce a bill in January that would allow the state’s college athletes to earn endorsement money.

“South Carolina is home to the highest-paid college football coach in America,” Bamberg told FOX Business earlier this month. “Why is it that the coaches’ pay can change, the ticket prices can go up, the jersey sale prices can go up, the NCAA and the networks get to sell advertising space during the big games and everybody’s making astronomically more money, and the college athlete is still stuck in the hole of ‘just be grateful that we’re letting you play.’”

Salary and bonuses are only part of the deal for college football’s top coaches. USA Today found at least 15 coaches at public universities had access to a private jet, including six coaches in the Big Ten Conference alone.

College football and basketball coaches were the highest-paid public employees in 39 of the 50 states as of last year, according to an ESPN analysis last year. Swinney signed a 10-year contract extension with Clemson worth $93 million last April.

In 2017, Swinney earned more money than all 50 U.S. state governors combined.

University of Alabama head coach Nick Saban ranked second in college football with total pay of $8.86 million this year. University of Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh ranked third at $7.5 million, followed by Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher ($7.5 million) and University of Georgia's Kirby Smart ($6.9 million).

Most top college athletics programs in the “Power Five” conferences rely on revenue generated by their football and basketball teams, including media rights deals, to fund their departments. Public money generally accounts for a small portion of their overall budget. Some athletics programs at top schools are self-sufficient, generating revenue that covers operating costs such as coach salaries.


For example, Clemson drew just $5.5 million in institutional and governmental financial support in 2017, according to data from the Knight Commission.  That year also marked a decline in state spending on public colleges and universities by nearly $9 billion from 2008 levels, the year of the Great Recession.

USA Today's full breakdown of 2019 college football coach pay can be viewed here.