Are College Presidents Like Football Coaches? Evidence from Their Employment Contracts

College presidents and football coaches are frequently criticized for their high compensation. In this paper, we argue that these criticisms are unmerited, as the markets for both college presidents and football coaches exhibit properties consistent with a competitive labor market. Both parties’ compensation varies in sensible ways related to the size of the programs they manage, as well as their potential for value creation. Successful college presidents and football coaches can greatly increase the value of their schools well beyond the amount they receive in compensation. If these higher education executives’ compensation is the result of a competitive labor market, and they do not capture compensation in excess of the incremental value they create, the overall welfare of their universities is increased.

To shed light on these issues, we engaged in a comprehensive examination and comparison of college president and football coach compensation levels and employment contracts across FBS Division I universities. We found a number of noteworthy results. First, we see large differences in job tenure of these two groups: university presidents stay in their jobs significantly longer than football coaches. Second, we observe that football coaches are paid significantly more and their pay is rising at a much faster rate than college presidents. Third, larger schools pay these top executives much more than their smaller counterparts, especially for football coaches. Furthermore, Power Five conference schools pay their coaches far more than the other football conferences. Finally, we note significant differences in the structure of the college presidents’ employment contracts compared to football coaches’ contracts.

For each of these major findings, we provide a detailed analysis of why they exist and how they can be explained by economic theory.