Price tag for coach may be high

Brian Bakst

and Joel Sawyer

University President Nils Hasselmo said Friday that the school will do whatever it takes to attract a top-notch football coach to replace Jim Wacker, who announced his resignation Tuesday.
“We’re going to hire the best coach in the country,” Hasselmo said at his monthly press briefing. “We want to go to the Rose Bowl and have a football team that is as competitive on the football field as we want our athletes to be in the classroom.”
Gov. Arne Carlson last week said it might take a salary of up to $1 million a year to attract a top-caliber coach. Hasselmo agreed.
“We will pay what it takes to get the coach that we want and who we think can succeed,” he said. “I don’t know what the (pay) range is, but we’re operating in a particular market and we will pay what it takes in that market to attract the very best.”
The proposed $1 million figure would put the new Gopher coach in an elite class of highly paid coaches, and would be a significant raise over Wacker’s $300,000 salary for this year. The move signifies the University’s commitment to build one of the top college programs in the country.
“We want to be on top in football as we want to be in everything else,” Hasselmo said.
Only a handful of coaches are believed to receive a salary that approaches the $1 million mark. Among those reported to make that amount are University of Florida’s Steve Spurrier, Florida State’s Bobby Bowden and Notre Dame’s Lou Holtz. All three of these coaches have brought tremendous success to their schools and filled their athletic department’s coffers through increased game attendance, endorsements and television contracts.
A high-priced coach would pay off at Minnesota only if that coach could attract the kind of recruits and generate the kind of excitement necessary to make the program successful and profitable, Hasselmo said.
Recent Big Ten football history shows that it doesn’t necessarily take a big name or $1 million salary to turn a woeful program around. Northwestern’s Gary Barnett and Wisconsin’s Barry Alvarez are good examples.
Both coaches rose from relative obscurity as highly regarded assistant coaches to lead their football teams to respectability.
Barnett, who was an assistant at Colorado before coming to Northwestern, resurrected the perennial doormat Wildcats and led the team to the Rose Bowl last year.
Alvarez, who served as an assistant to Holtz at Notre Dame, did the same at Wisconsin, leading the Badgers to a 1994 victory in Pasadena. They each reportedly make about $600,000 a year.
But Rose Bowl-bound John Cooper, the head coach of Ohio State, is only slated to make $400,000 this year. Ohio State, which is ranked No. 2 in the country, finishes at the top of the Big Ten almost every year even though it often loses many of its top players to the NFL before they graduate.
University Athletic Director Mark Dienhart said he has not begun narrowing his list of potential successors. “Right now it’s a matter of trying to do my homework,” he said. While Dienhart has no target date in mind, he said he would like to have a new coach in place before recruiting picks up in January.
“That person could be an assistant coach and could be someone that is currently a head coach, and there’s no set price tag that carries along with it,” he said
No matter what the salary will be for a new head coach, that individual will have to be a good fit on and off the field for Minnesota, Dienhart added.
The coach, Dienhart said, will be “somebody who shares the values we have for our program, someone who will do things within the rules, with kids we can be proud of, someone who is concerned about the education of student athletes, someone who is concerned about Minnesota not just because of salary but because of the type of institution we are, the type of state we are and the type of people we have.”
The University’s men’s athletic department generates close to $18 million a year. Its 1996 operating budget is about $15 million. The money used to pay a new coach would come from funds created by the athletic department.
“Remember, this is not taxpayer money,” Hasselmo said. “This is money generated by the University. Men’s athletics is totally self-financing.”
It is likely that the athletic department’s revenues would increase significantly with a successful football program. “Football is the sport that has the greatest revenue-generating potential, but it also has the greatest attention bestowed upon it,” Dienhart said.
The excitement and community-building associated with a winning football program not only draws larger crowds to the stadium but could translate into stronger financial support from alumni, he added.
After the Rose Bowl, Northwestern saw a 600 percent increase in merchandising sales, an increase in season ticket holders and a 21 percent increase in student applications.
Although the pressure to succeed will be high for Wacker’s replacement, Dienhart said the expectation to win will not be unrealistic.
“The expectation, regardless of who you hire, is to move the program forward,” he said. “Ultimately, our goal is to be a program that is consistently bowl eligible — with six wins or more — but the key is improvement.”
Hasselmo said the football program should not be judged any differently from anything else at the University.
“Quality is serious business,” Hasselmo said. “I don’t want anything mediocre at this University.”