College Football Coaches Are Making Millions Off A Useless Metric

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As a part of a project helmed by HKM and Deadspin, we have retrieved and reviewed the contracts of every Division I public university head football coach. In this space, we will look at the academic incentives within these coaches’ contracts and how they were brought upon by the NCAA’s focus on the APR system and refocus on measured academic success.

Beneath the standard thicket of whereases and therefores in Dave Doeren’s contract is a section that might surprise even the most seasoned NCAA critic. Doeren is the football coach at North Carolina State, and his deal there—including $840,000 in base annual salary—is in line with compensation for major-conference football coaches around the country. Except for Section V: “Bonuses.” This part is something special. This part lays out how a football coach—already wealthy thanks in large part to the unpaid physical labor performed by so-called student-athletes—can make more than half a million dollars off the academic work of his players.


Before we get to the particulars of his contract, there are a few terms we need to define. The Academic Progress Rate, or APR, is a team-based measure promulgated by the NCAA in 2003 to gauge the academic progress of student-athletes; the NCAA penalizes teams that don’t hit certain APR benchmarks. There’s also Federal Graduation Rate, or FGR, which measures the percentage of student-athletes who graduate within six years. And then there’s the Graduation Success Rate, or GSR, which is similar to FGR, except that it accounts for the academic performance of transfers.

Now, look at the potential windfall coming Doeren’s way:

  • $50,000 if the team is above the Federal Graduation Rate national football team average
  • $100,000 if the team’s multi-year FGR is in the top 50 percent of public institutions in the ACC
  • $50,000 if the team’s Graduation Success Rate surpasses the national football team average
  • $100,000 if the team’s GSR is in the top 50 percent of ACC public institutions
  • $50,000 if the team’s Academic Progress Rate surpasses the national average for football teams
  • $100,000 if the team’s APR is in the top 50 percent of ACC public institutions
  • $50,000 if one player is named as Academic All-American
  • $50,000 if one player is named ACC Scholar of the Year
  • $50,000 if team’s single year GPA is at or above 3.0
  • $50,000 if team’s cumulative GPA is at or above 3.0

As all these results are cumulative, Doeren—18-19 in three years at NC State—stands to make up to $650,000 a year on top of his salary. According to a review of 169 college football contracts obtained via public records request, this is $230,000 more than any other coach in the nation could make via academic bonuses. By comparison, NC State’s chancellor, Randy Woodson, makes $520,000 in annual base salary.


Dave Doeren has lots to smile about; photo via AP

To be sure I was reading this contract correctly, and to find out why a school would offer so much money by way of academic incentives, I reached out to NC State’s deputy athletics director for internal operations, Michael Lipitz. He responded via email:

Our general approach to head coaching agreements is to be more conservative with guaranteed compensation and more aggressive with incentive compensation. After all, bonuses must be earned through achievement, whereas guaranteed compensation is received irrespective of results. This approach is equitable for the coach and institution. The greater the degree of achievement, the greater the benefit to the institution and the greater the financial reward for the coach.

Coach Doeren’s current contract was completed in February 2014. For this initial 9 month period, he has earned $100,000 of the $700,000 in available academic bonuses, comprised of $50,000 each for achieving a Federal Graduation Rate (FGR) and an Academic Progress Rate (APR) that exceeded the respective national averages for the sport. FGR, GSR and APR are each included in the contract because they are the most generally recognized and widely utilized benchmarks for academic achievement.

The team’s GPA for 2014-15 was 2.79. While this did not trigger a bonus, it did mark an all-time high for the program, which is a positive indicator with respect to the overall academic trend for the team.

“These metrics are designed to be put into press releases”

In tying up its coach’s income with his players’ academic performance, NC State is only responding rationally to the incentives created by the NCAA’s carrot-and-stick-but-mostly-stick regime, which centers around APR. The system is fairly simple: every scholarship athlete earns his or her program one point for staying in school and one for remaining academically eligible. Then all these points are divided by the total number of points possible and multiplied by 1,000, so that a perfect mark would be an APR score of 1,000.


Currently, the system penalizes all schools that fail to meet the 930 threshold, which is roughly equivalent to a 50 percent graduation rate. Per the NCAA website:

The first penalty level limits teams to 16 hours of practice per week over five days (as opposed to 20 over six days), with the lost four hours to be replaced with academic activities.

A second level adds additional practice and competition reductions, either in the traditional or non-championship season, to the first-level penalties. The third level, where teams could remain until their rate improves, includes a menu of possible penalties, including coaching suspensions, financial aid reductions and restricted NCAA membership. The Division I Committee on Academics, which oversees Division I’s academic infrastructure, has the discretion to apply appropriate penalties once teams have fallen below the benchmark for three consecutive years.


Teams must meet the APR minimum to be eligible for postseason play. APR is so deeply baked into the system that this year the NCAA will use it to determine which 5-7 teams are chosen for bowl games.

That 930 threshold was raised in 2011 from 900, despite the evident struggle on the part of a variety of schools to reach even the original mark. Why 930?


“It’s always so fascinating to us—why is the APR a 930?” says Dr. Richard M. Southall, University of South Carolina associate professor and director of the College Sport Research Institute. “I think that, quite frankly, 930 is specifically framed because it’s almost 1,000. The GSR, concurrently, is going to drive up and be 18 to 20 percentage points higher than the Federal Graduation Rate. What both of these metrics are designed to do is to be put into press releases, which are going to end up in the side column in the sports section, so the casual fan and the general public can see that APR scores are trending up and GSR scores are trending up.”

The criticisms of APR on its own terms focus mainly on the way it disadvantages smaller schools, who lack the resources and the academic support apparatus of major programs. Historically black colleges and universities have been hit especially hard. HBCUs serve more first-generation college students—60 percent of the student population—than schools in the Power Five conferences, and they tend to have a less-selective admissions process.


Detail from a presentation on Oregon’s athlete academic center, via ZGF

As noted by the Washington Post, of the 21 athletic teams that will face a postseason ban next season for failing to meet the NCAA’s academic standard during the 2013-14 season, 15 are at HBCUs. And this has been a trend since APR was first recorded.


For HBCUs and select low-resource schools, the NCAA has allowed a year-long extension for the schools to somehow raise their scores to meet the new 930 standard, even though the schools will continue serving the same demographics. If the schools were forced to function under the new standard right now, 50 teams at 21 of the 24 HBCUs would be banned from participating in postseason games.

For the bigger, resource-rich programs, the emphasis on APR plays to their built-in advantages.


“The biggest thing you’re seeing on almost every Power Five campus: You have an athletic academic center. Our campus is no different than Tennessee,” says Mark Nagel, professor of sport and entertainment management at the University of South Carolina and associate director of the College Sport Research Institute. “They have these really, really nice academic centers, where athletes can go in for tutoring, for group sessions, have access to computers—it’s essentially like having your own little academic enrichment center for the athletic department, because that’s what it is. When you have those types of resources and tutors, in many cases, tutors who go on the road with teams … that can make a big difference in passing classes.”

“They’re learning how to play the game,” adds Southall. “The academic support people for athletics know what the deficiencies are for every athlete in that department, and they can put them in courses where their likelihood of success is greater, but it may not be that it’s leading straightforwardly to a degree.


“And the APR can be manipulated easily if you have enough resources to make sure you do a good job—and I use the word ‘good’ not qualitatively, but in the sense of: You can do a good job driving up your APR score as long as you put players in positions to be eligible and be retained.”

On a theoretical level, APR is a measure of classroom achievement, full of good intentions and vestiges of the old ideal of sports as pedagogical instrument. What APR actually seems to measure, though, is the sum of an athletic department’s native resources and its cleverness in deploying them.


“It’s doing what it’s supposed to do,” Southall said. “They can say, ‘We have a metric, we are paying attention to the academic success of those 460,000 athletes who are going pro in something other than sports.’ This is part of a systematic branding and rebranding campaign of the NCAA in response to pressures from Congress, the media, the IRS, etc., etc., so they can say they have put in place an academic progress program.

“Coaches can use this as another way to diversify how they get paid, and they can say they’re getting paid by paying attention to academics,” Southall continued. “But also, as has been said by numerous coaches, ‘We can’t get involved with academics.’ And so the coach gets paid for not being involved in academics.”


The easiest $200,000 anyone in coaching will ever make

It didn’t take long for coaches around the nation to figure out how to profit off the backwards system—now, nearly every major program makes use of academic-based incentives. Here are the particularly egregious:

Gary Pinkel, soon-to-be former head coach of Missouri, can make up $250,000 for meeting the school’s predetermined, undisclosed academic goals, as can Jimbo Fisher of Florida State.


LSU’s Les Miles brings in $200,000 if his team meets just one of the following three stipulations:

  • APR of 960 or higher
  • Graduation rate of at least 75 percent
  • Team GPA of 2.8 or above

Considering all three of those are fairly easily attained for major programs—Miles earned the APR incentive four straight years before plummeting 20 points to an average of 945.67 these past three years—that’s perhaps the easiest $200,000 anyone in coaching will ever make.


Oregon’s Mark Helfrich can make up to $200,000, including a cool $25,000 as long as his team maintains a C average. (It should be noted that the contract explicitly states that these incentives are not cumulative. Sorry, Mark, but you should’ve hired Doeren’s agent.) Here are his incentive marks:

  • APR above 975: $100,000
  • APR between 950-975: $50,000
  • GPA of 3.0 or higher: $100,000
  • GPA of 2.75-2.99: $50,000
  • GPA of 2.5-2.75: $25,000

The academic incentives in the contract for Arizona State coach Todd Graham—who makes $2.8 million in base and additional salary—mainly concern team GPA, with payments starting at $50,000 for a team GPA of 2.5 and increasing by $25,000 for every 0.05 rise GPA, all the way up to a $200,000 bonus for a team GPA of 3.0. APR does make a cameo in Graham’s contract, though: If the team’s APR score is 970 or above, he earns 10 percent of his annual base and additional salary of $2.7 million. That means that Graham could earn $270,000 essentially for making someone else make sure the athletes show up in class.


Todd Graham expresses himself; photo via Getty

Fresno State head coach Tim Deruyter, who is 29-22 in three years with the Bulldogs, can make up to $335,000. His contract starts him out at $75,000 for an APR score of 935—five points above the NCAA’s established minimum—and increases to $120,000 if the score is at 965 or above. As for GPA, Deruyter’s incentives start with a $60,000 bonus if his team has an average of at least 2.6, with the bonus rising to the maximum of $90,000 if the team surpasses a 2.9. Finally, for whatever reason, Deruyter’s contract, like Doeren’s, also includes FGR as a possible incentive, with the head coach receiving $75,000 if the team hits a rate of 57 percent. The bonus goes up to $125,000 if 62 percent of the athletes graduate from Fresno in six years.


It is evident in the contracts that coaches and their agents have been stealing a page from each other, as the majority of coaches with academic incentives are rewarded for reaching multiple milestones, regardless of the true measure of academic success. Bobby Petrino of Louisville, a man who has made creative use of his administrative apparatus in the past, can score $250,000 off his players’ classroom success:

  • $25,000 for team GPA of 2.25
  • $50,000 for team GPA of 2.5
  • $75,000 for team GPA of 2.75
  • $100,000 for team GPA of 3.0
  • $25,000 if team graduation rate exceeds the rate of the university’s male students
  • $75,000 if team graduation rate of scholarship players is 80 percent or higher
  • $50,000 if team APR is 950 or above

Butch Jones, head coach of Tennessee, gets $50,000 for a team APR of 945 or greater, which bumps up to $100,000 if the team hits a 965 APR. However, Jones has the only contract among the ones we’ve reviewed so far that carries a penalty clause. If Tennessee’s APR falls below 930, Jones will be docked $50,000.


Charlie Strong, head coach of Texas, can make up to, but not over, $150,000 on academic bonuses. And Chris Petersen, head coach of Washington, gets up to $125,000, all based on APR.

One contract—that of UConn’s Robert Diaco—flips things around and makes team performance bonuses contingent on academic performance. Rather than granting a bonus for academic performance ratings like APR, GPA, or GSR, the university has structured the coach’s contract in a way that requires his team to meet the NCAA-standard APR score of 930 in order to unlock the various bonuses paid out for things like conference championships or Coach of the Year awards.


Within the context of an APR-horny NCAA, this seems like a sensible contract. While the NCAA won’t outright endorse such a deal, Rod McDavis, Ohio University president and NCAA chair of the Committee on Academics, said in a phone interview that the governing body encourages its institutions “to look for creative and innovative ways to meet the APR standard. So certainly, if that’s been helpful to institutions, then from that institution’s perspective, that would be something they could point to.”

It’s not hard, however, to see the unintended consequences of encouraging coaches to further involve themselves in the academic lives of their athletes. Clem Haskins was “creative and innovative,” too.


“It’s really not doing what people in the NCAA are saying it’s doing.”

Today, APR’s future seems as secure as damn near anything else in sports. It has been implemented in Division II and III as well and seems well on its way to becoming the industry standard. “I’m delighted with the recent results, and I hope this is a standard in place for years to come,” Rod McDavis says. “Because I think it’s accomplishing the goal for which it was created, and that is to ensure that more of our student-athletes graduate with college degrees.”


But there’s a funny denial at work here. The fact that APR incentives were so swiftly commoditized and adopted around the country is a tacit acknowledgment that many coaches do indeed have power they shouldn’t have over the academic performance of their charges. But to address the sources of that power openly—to address the shotgun marriage between higher education and big-time revenue sports that is the actual root cause of low graduation rates and dreary classroom performance—would raise questions the very existence of the NCAA. So instead we have the APR bonus, a bribe paid out to coaches in return for sending their athletes skylarking through college and thus better maintaining the fiction that higher education and big-time revenue sports have anything to say to one another.

“What does the APR actually do?” asks Mark Nagel. “There’s nothing wrong with what it does. It measures what it does. The fallacy comes in when you start to say, because of that number, that it means something. What it means is, were they eligible and were they retained? That’s all it does. It has nothing to do with education. It has nothing really to do with graduation, either. It’s really not doing what people in the NCAA are saying it’s doing. And I think 95 percent of reporters and 95 percent of people don’t care about reading the article to actually find out.”


Nick Martin is a reporter based out of Durham, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @NickA_Martin. Top photo via Getty.