The SEC's issue: Is bigger better?

Even some people in Texas, famous for its bigger-is-better way of life, are shaking their heads in sticker shock from the size of Longhorns football coach Mack Brown's new contract. The university system regents didn't just tweak Brown's $3 million-a-year salary recently. Shortly after he guided the team into one of two berths in next month's Citi BCS National Championship Game, they turned him into the college game's first $5 million-per-year man.

That gives Brown at least one pregame edge over his coaching opponent in the title game. Alabama's Nick Saban gets only $4.7 million annually.

$5 million a year through the 2016 season. A stunning number. So earlier this week, a University of Texas faculty group passed a resolution that calls Brown's deal "unseemly and inappropriate." Not that it means much. Perhaps tellingly, there weren't enough faculty members at the meeting to make a quorum, so their resolution doesn't even qualify as an official on-the-record condemnation.

Some Saban boosters, as it happens, might use the same adjectives to describe Brown's salary, although for different reasons. It is unseemly and inappropriate, they might say, that their man, one of the top coaches in the top college football conference in the land, doesn't make as much as Brown does. And in fact, the University of Alabama saw fit this past September to make sure Saban's salary can at least stay near the top of the college ranks in the future when it included a "market rate review" clause in his contract that will adjust his pay in 2015 to the higher of two averages -- the three highest-paid coaches in the Southeastern Conference or the five highest-paid coaches in all of NCAA football. The more Brown and other coaches make, the more Saban will make.

Welcome to the penthouses of collegiate football, where for decades doomsday scenarios and reform movements from academic leaders have been coming to die. Nothing apparently can touch this bigger-is-better business in which head coaches enjoy rock star status and pull down CEO-esque salaries that routinely dwarf the compensation packages of university presidents. These are the places that billion-dollar television deals (including ESPN's $2.25 billion, 15-year contract), cavernous campus stadiums and no-holds-barred commercialism call home.

The six Bowl Championship Series conferences -- the SEC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-10, ACC and Big East -- generated nearly $900 million in revenues (from all sports) in the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2008, according to their most recently filed federal tax documents. It's comfy at the top.

This isn't your father's college football anymore. More than ever before, the college game is about entertainment and pro-type franchises. It's about generating bucks to pay lordly sums to coaches, about building crème de la crème facilities to entice teenage recruits. And it's about subsidizing the athletic department bill for a cadre of secondary, money-siphoning teams in sports that range from soccer to women's field hockey.

Nowhere is this amateurism-gone-wild more in its glory than in the SEC, even if the Longhorns' latest largesse in Austin does have a Big 12 coach on top of the salary scale right now. Although Texas, Ohio State, Oregon (also known as Nike U) and a handful of others match strides -- and maybe even manage to get a step ahead at times -- with the big boys in the Southeast, the commercialism in college football is more consistently and vividly on display on SEC campuses in towns such as Gainesville, Knoxville, Baton Rouge, Athens and Columbia. From top to bottom, the SEC is as close as it gets to the NFL -- except the players get scholarships rather than paychecks. The SEC is home to eye-popping coaching packages, private jets, the grandest facilities, the largest autumn football crowds and a colorful history of coach-hatin', back-stabbin' and -- too often, at least in years past -- rules-breakin'. The conference's fan base is so passionate, it's as if it birthed the game.

College football's bragging rights rarely have occasion to pack an overnight bag and travel outside the region. The SEC has won the BCS National Championship Game in each of the past three years, and the oddsmakers -- yet another group profiteering mightily off the business of collegiate athletics -- favor Alabama to keep that streak alive early next month in Pasadena, Calif.

But it goes deeper than titles. SEC faithful filled campus stadiums to 98 percent of capacity this fall, the 12th consecutive season the conference topped the country in football attendance. This season, for the first time ever, every game -- conference and nonconference alike -- involving an SEC team was televised. SEC teams even drew a total of 450,000 fans to their spring games in 2009 -- a remarkable average of better than 37,000. That's more than up-and-comers Boise State and Cincinnati attracted per regular-season game in 2008.

The fan bases are so devoted that they pack stadiums regardless of the caliber of the opponent. The result is home schedules loaded with weak nonconference games that translate into easy wins and, in some cases, higher national rankings and bowl dates, a system that helps keep the money cycle alive. This fall, once-beaten Florida fattened up in Gainesville against Charleston Southern, Troy and Florida International. Top-ranked Alabama sold out against FIU, North Texas and Chattanooga.

The fruits of some of that scheduling will be very much in evidence in the next few weeks as the bowl season begins. The SEC consists of 12 teams. Despite the difficulty of playing against conference opponents once the season gets past September, 10 of them racked up enough victories to play in bowl games, including two in the big-money BCS games -- Alabama in the championship game, of course, and Florida, which topped the national rankings for much of the year, in the Sugar Bowl. Only Mississippi State (5-7) and Vanderbilt (2-10) are home for the holidays.

For a coach, the SEC can hardly be called a steppingstone to the NFL, as many college jobs are. In fact, five of the SEC's 12 current head coaches came to the conference from head-coaching jobs in the NFL: Tennessee's Lane Kiffin (Oakland Raiders), Arkansas' Bobby Petrino (Atlanta Falcons), South Carolina's Steve Spurrier (Washington Redskins), Kentucky's Rich Brooks (St. Louis Rams, with a stop as the Falcons' defensive coordinator between there and Lexington) and Saban (Miami Dolphins). The most recent arrival, Kiffin, strode confidently onto the Tennessee campus in Knoxville with four former NFL assistants at his side, including his father, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.

It isn't difficult to put a finger on at least one reason so many accomplished coaches gravitate to the SEC: money. It is the New York Yankees of college football conferences. No other group in the country comes close to the generosity the SEC affords those working the sideline.

"Well, obviously the SEC is nirvana," suggests Bill Carr, a former University of Florida athletic director who runs a search firm that has assisted Auburn and Kentucky in filling head football positions in recent years. "It is an extremely lucrative place to do business as a head coach, and so you get an enormous response [in applications] from the market when a head-coaching job comes open. But the job comes with some pressure. The good news is you get the SEC pay and perks. But you've got to go up against quality coaches and play that schedule, and you might be out of a job in three or four years."

The rewards, though, are definitely worth the risk, especially when the average salary for an SEC coach pushes $3 million a season. And there's almost always a buyout clause to lessen the pain if things go wrong. Mark Richt (Georgia), Gene Chizik (Auburn), Petrino (Arkansas) and Spurrier (South Carolina) each would cash close to a $2 million check if they were fired tomorrow. Les Miles, according to a 2008 contract tweak, is due $18.75 million if LSU decides to part company with him. He also is guaranteed to be paid $1,000 more than the highest-paid SEC coach if he wins another national title to go with the Tigers' 2008 BCS Championship Game victory.

Tennessee was so hot to rid itself of Phillip Fulmer after a 5-7 record in 2008 that it paid a $6 million buyout. This came a year after a 10-win season for which Fulmer had received a contract extension. Then, UT hustled to sign a deal with his successor, guaranteeing Kiffin $14.25 million through the 2014 season. Kiffin will be due $7.5 million if he is fired without cause.

"In the Southeastern Conference for a good long while, from top to bottom, you have seen a conference that is committed from an investment standpoint and also with a high expectation of a return," says Fulmer, a UT grad who coached in Knoxville for 16 seasons. "The budgets have gone nowhere but up. But there is no question that [the University of] Washington is committed to winning. Southern Cal is committed to winning. There are certainly great programs all over the country -- Texas and Oklahoma and Nebraska -- that are spending the dollars necessary to have a product on the field that competes at the highest level. I just don't see the same commitment from top to bottom that the Southeastern Conference has."

That commitment is evidenced in facilities as well as salaries. The SEC is home to eight of the 25 largest college stadiums in the nation. Four campus stadiums top 90,000 in capacity, and Alabama is in the midst of an expansion, soon to join Tennessee in holding more than 100,000 fans.

At least eight SEC schools are affiliated with nonprofit athletic associations, and in some cases -- the Georgia Athletic Association and the University Athletic Association at Florida, for example -- all athletic department monies are run through the association. That setup provides an autonomy that allows many key arrangements to be made apart from faculty or administration interference. It separates athletic finances from the rest of the university and can help limit the school's liability.

According to federal documents filed last year, the Florida association reported almost $105 million in total revenue. That's more than the Big East Conference's reported revenue; more even than the combined total of Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference, the Mountain West Conference and the Western Athletic Conference. It paid $24 million in salaries compared with $17.3 million to cover scholarships for 440 University of Florida athletes.

The SEC reported $65 million in net assets on its most recent nonprofit federal tax filing. And it pays a grand total of $1 a year to rent its two-story conference headquarters building in downtown Birmingham, Ala., an incentive from local officials to stay put.

"I'm the dumbest person in the world for making this statement, because when I go to the Big Ten or ACC to do business, they're going to remind me of this," says Memphis-based agent Jimmy Sexton, who represents four current SEC coaches. "But the SEC just has a lot more money available. They have larger stadiums. They have more advanced giving programs from their alumni base for tickets. They obviously have a better television package [new 15-year deals totaling more than $3 billion with ESPN and CBS]. The job that [SEC commissioner] Mike Slive and those guys have done is extraordinary if you think about it. We're in the greatest downturn in our economy since the Great Depression, and they're setting records.

"Now, not every school that is paying their coach a lot of money is in the SEC. I mean, you got Southern Cal, Iowa, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas. There are plenty of examples of schools that pay SEC-type money, but [the SEC] is clearly where the money is."

In the SEC alone, three coaches -- Saban, Miles and Florida's Urban Meyer -- hover around $4 million or higher in annual income. And as in most major-college programs, the base salary is only a fraction of the total compensation. Saban, as an example, earns a modest $225,000 base from Alabama. Then, the deals routinely are juiced by robust sums for TV and radio shows, apparel contracts, and speaking and appearance fees.

Every SEC football coach earns more than the guy in the corner office who is supposed to be calling the shots -- the university president or chancellor. In Tuscaloosa, Saban earns nearly 10 times more a year than Dr. Robert Witt, the Alabama president. In response to an open-records request from ESPN.com for Witt's compensation package, Alabama provided a single-page letter from the board of trustees spelling out his $487,620 salary and a deferred investment increment of $104,541. The letter is dated Oct. 4, 2007, and university general counsel subsequently acknowledged that "there were no raises given" to Witt in the ensuing two years.

On Sept. 9 of this year, Witt put his signature on an extension to Saban's contract guaranteeing the Alabama football coach at least $42.35 million through the 2017 season -- topping Texas' obligation to Brown in total pay if not annual salary over the remaining length of their contracts. Saban's deal also comes loaded with the typical perks, including cars (two), a country-club membership, use of a Bryant-Denny Stadium skybox and 25 hours of private flight time per year on, in the contractual language, "a non-commercial airline airplane."

In Austin, Brown's existing contract included an annual $150,000 air travel allowance. Bob Stoops' deal at Oklahoma provides 45 hours of use of a private plane.

Maybe those fancy flights are only really "unseemly and inappropriate" when the football program isn't flying quite so high.

The big-money influence in college football isn't confined to the Deep South, of course, any more than Bear Bryant, Shug Jordan and the early gods of SEC sidelines invented football. In fact, two non-SEC powers -- Texas ($87.6 million) and Ohio State ($68.2 million) -- generated the most football revenue last season, according to survey data that schools are required to file with the federal government. But the SEC is home to six of the top 10 moneymakers in the college game: Florida ($66.2 million), Georgia ($65.2 million), Alabama ($64.6 million), LSU ($61.9 million), Auburn ($58.6 million) and South Carolina ($57.1 million).

Brown is the sideline salary champ for the time being. Before the 2009 season started, the $4 million-a-year club included Saban, Meyer, Pete Carroll of USC and Notre Dame's Charlie Weis, who has since been fired and handed a multimillion-dollar parachute to soften the blow. Oklahoma's Stoops is flirting with the $4 million neighborhood, and Jim Tressel of Ohio State isn't far behind. At least 25 college head coaches reportedly earned $2 million or more this season, and nine of them work in the SEC.

Texas is making more than just its head coach wealthy. The Longhorns have one of the game's highest-paid assistants, too, in defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, who earns $900,000 a season. He's been dubbed the head coach-in-waiting, although Brown, 58, has that contract that runs through 2016.

The Horns also have one of the highest-paid athletic directors in the nation in DeLoss Dodds, who commands a $627,109 base salary and is entitled to two separate $50,000 incentives for oversight accomplishments that, in the real world, might be grounds for dismissal if not met. One of those $50,000 incentives kicks in if there are no major conference or NCAA violations during the year; Dodds gets the other if his department remains financially solvent. He also collects a $750,000 annuity after taxes by March 2012 if he completes a current athletics capital campaign and two facilities-renovation projects.

Meanwhile, University of Texas president William C. Powers Jr. gets the use of a car with his employment contract -- one fewer than his athletic director gets. The president's base salary is $600,600 plus $50,000 deferred compensation, according to public records obtained by ESPN.com.

A while ago, it was big news when head coaches started to earn more than university presidents. Now it's an accepted fact of big-time college football life. And the latest trend is for the paychecks and perks once reserved for head coaches to be filtering up to athletic directors of deep-in-the-money football programs. In some instances, they, too, are being compensated nearly as well as or better than the presidents and chancellors who oversee the entire university.

At Oklahoma, athletic director Joe Castiglione's annual package approaches $800,000, at least $250,000 of which is from private funds, significantly more than the estimated $500,000 paid to OU president David L. Boren, a former Rhodes scholar who served Oklahoma as governor and U.S. senator. Stoops earns nearly eight times Boren's salary in Norman.

A review of current Top 25 football programs finds Oregon athletic director Mike Bellotti, the former football coach, also earning more than the school's president. And athletic directors are paid on par with the university presidents at Ohio State, Boise State and Virginia Tech. Among SEC schools, the athletic director is paid more than his boss at Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee; the salaries are similar at LSU and Mississippi.

These are the kinds of numbers that have driven would-be reformers crazy, and the reformers have been at work since the days of Knute Rockne and the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame. College athletics is "a highly organized commercial enterprise," a report by the Carnegie Foundation surmised back in October 1929, coincidentally less than a week before the historic stock market crash muted the debate. In the past two decades, the Knight Commission and Drake Group have taken on the role of the conscience of big-time college sports, reporting periodically on misplaced priorities and the accompanying sins -- overcommercialization, academic fraud and corruption.

Most recently, the Knight Commission called on college presidents and chancellors to moderate rates in the growth of athletics spending, particularly as it relates to coaching salaries. That's perhaps a noble tussle, but results appear to be a long shot based on an ESPN.com analysis of contracts for coaches, athletic directors and university presidents. It's worth noting, for example, that the call for salary speed bumps came two months before Texas made Brown a $5 million-a-year coach and before Notre Dame paid Weis to go away. Weis' replacement, Brian Kelly, coughed up a $1 million penalty to break his own estimated $1.5 million-a-year contract at Cincinnati to leave his Bearcats players and start making probably twice that in South Bend, where the football program is empowered by its own lucrative TV deal with NBC.

"Well, it is a very sad commentary on where we have gotten to with these salaries," says Knight Commission co-chairman William "Brit" Kirwan, chancellor of the University of Maryland system. "And it raises very legitimate questions about the value system we're operating under. … I think we need to find what I would call a more rational and responsible fiscal model. I do feel that the present economic circumstances and the almost certainty of a very slow recovery, especially in higher education in terms of resources, sets the stage for the beginning of some meaningful reforms in the financing of intercollegiate athletics."

Kirwan predicts that deeper budget cutting is in store for intercollegiate athletic programs, which in the past month have seen Hofstra and Northeastern jettison their lower-level football programs. The current model might be sustainable in the SEC with its multibillion-dollar TV deals, mega-stadiums and BCS spoils, but Kirwan believes it won't be throughout much of the NCAA's top tier -- what is now the 120-school Football Bowl Subdivision.

"After you get to No. 25, they are all losing money, but none of them want to feel like they are not going to be competitive," Kirwan says. "So they are trying to hire coaches in competition with the big schools and provide the facilities that will make recruiting competitive for them. It is just a vicious cycle."

Carr, the search firm head, agrees with the latest Knight position on the need to corral compensation, saying coaching salaries have ridden the monster wave of BCS and television money that further fuels the drive among schools to be competitive on the field.

"I don't set the market [for salaries]," says Carr, a former Florida All-American and NFL player. "I'm just saying that in an academic enterprise, I think the salaries are disproportional to the value that is added. Now it may not be disproportional to the revenue generated, OK. But that is not the question. The question is, is it justifiable to pay somebody multiples of millions of dollars to coach a sport?"

Kirwan and the academic crowd say no.

The Knight Commission co-chairman acknowledges that the overemphasis has some of its roots at Ohio State, where he served as president, as well as at the other major powers. But in particular, Kirwan says, he deems the SEC as "sort of the poster child for the financial excesses."

The solution isn't as simple as just juicing up university president salaries. In fact, there was considerable rancor within the academic community after a recent Chronicle of Higher Education report revealed that a record 23 college presidents are being paid in excess of $1 million.

Can't blame the SEC for that, at least. The lone SEC president in the million-dollar crowd, according to federal tax filings, is Vanderbilt chancellor Nicholas Zeppos, who makes almost $1.3 million.

Just consider the economic mismatch at Tennessee's flagship public university in Knoxville, where interim president Dr. Jan Simek, who oversees the statewide university system, has a two-year contract that pays $400,000 a year, apparently with no additional perks. According to a UT board of trustees resolution in July: "Dr. Simek will receive no housing allowance, no expense allowance, and no University vehicle."

Of course, Simek could dial up his football coaches if he needs a ride to the office. According to UT contracts, Kiffin gets two cars; his father, the defensive coordinator, gets two more; and his brother-in-law, quarterbacks coach David Reaves, is entitled to one.

The Kiffin family coaching tree is guaranteed $18.3 million over the life of its contracts. The elder Kiffin is the highest-paid assistant in college sports, guaranteed $1.5 million this year. His $300,000 retention bonus alone, due after the season, isn't far from the interim president's annual salary.

Two other Tennessee football assistants, Ed Orgeron ($1.95 million) and Jim Chaney ($1.17 million), are guaranteed more than $3 million between them for the next three seasons. Public records show that Orgeron, fired as coach at rival Mississippi after the 2007 season, was paid an almost $1.5 million buyout last year by a nonprofit association affiliated with the Ole Miss athletic department. That same year, the same nonprofit association also wrote a $425,000 check to Orgeron's predecessor, current Duke coach David Cutcliffe.

At Tennessee, Orgeron is being paid $650,000 this season to be the assistant coach, defensive-line coach and recruiting coordinator, with the promise of another $25,000 if he attracts a top-five recruiting class to Knoxville.

But not every Tennessee coach is rolling in the dough, apparently. Some of them labor for a scholarship while they take grad school classes and coach as a graduate assistant, a common practice throughout college football because the NCAA rulebook allows a school to have just nine full-time football assistants (and two grad assistants) on staff. Interestingly, though, one of Kiffin's graduate assistants this season is 52-year-old Mitch Browning.

It's been nearly three decades since Browning broke into the business as a wet-behind-the-ears grad assistant at Ohio State. Last year, he was the offensive coordinator at Syracuse on coach Greg Robinson's staff, which was let go when Robinson was fired; Browning is still collecting the final year of salary on his Syracuse contract. Before that job, he was the co-offensive coordinator at the University of Minnesota. He is a widely respected offensive line coach and former finalist for the Frank Broyles Award, given to the top assistant coach in the country.

If it sounds as if the addition of Browning to the football staff pushes the NCAA envelope a bit … well, Kiffin hasn't been shy about making splashes in a number of different pools since he took the job in Knoxville late last year, including engaging in a series of public snipes with Florida's Meyer. His contract, finally signed this fall (he worked with a memo of understanding for the first months of his tenure in Knoxville), includes a clause to which Kiffin agreed that says he has not violated NCAA rules beyond six secondary recruiting violations that had been reported previously.

In recent weeks, reports have surfaced that the NCAA is looking into allegations that Tennessee has used coed "hostesses" to persuade prep prospects to come to their school by befriending the players and traveling hundreds of miles to attend their high school football games. UT officials have confirmed their cooperation with the probe, although Kiffin has denied any wrongdoing.

Also, reports out of Louisiana several weeks ago indicate that LSU is investigating possible NCAA violations in its football program.

Those sorts of potential problems with the NCAA surely have people at SEC headquarters in Birmingham alarmed. For the most part, the conference's teams have stayed out of trouble in recent seasons, but for a time, a number of them had something of a renegade reputation to go along with the big money, success on the field and passionate fan base. Since 1990, in fact, the SEC leads all conferences with 22 programs guilty of major NCAA violations. Some of those transgressions resulted in a three-year probation levied against South Carolina in 2005 for violations committed by the football program under coach Lou Holtz, now an ESPN football analyst.

Alabama, in fact, is on probation, and will be when it faces Texas on Jan. 7 for the national title. Sanctions were handed down in June stemming from the involvement of football players -- as well as athletes from 15 other Tide teams -- in improperly obtaining free textbooks for other students. The lone action imposed against the football program: It had to vacate 21 wins from the 2005 to 2007 seasons under former coach Mike Shula and Saban.

In a 2002-04 run on corruption, six SEC programs -- half the conference -- were penalized for major violations uncovered during lengthy earlier NCAA investigations. The SEC has had at least one school on probation in one sport or another dating back to 1985, a streak unmatched by any other conference. Alabama's probation runs until June 11, 2012, and the Arkansas track program is under that cloud until Oct. 25, 2010.

When Slive took over as commissioner of the SEC in 2002, he made it a priority to clean up the conference's rep. Previously, the former New Hampshire judge chaired the NCAA Division I Infractions Appeals Committee, and early in his career, he was part of a firm that defended schools against NCAA charges. So he arrived well-schooled in the league's cheatin' image.

Slive commissioned a handpicked task force of conference presidents and officials, who reported back on the issue in 2004. Perhaps more importantly, the soft-spoken Northern transplant raised his voice and told the coaches to knock it off, casting their shenanigans as an embarrassment that could be costly for business.

Under Slive's predecessor, Roy Kramer, the SEC had emerged as a national power, but Slive recognized the importance of cleaning and waxing its image if it was to land the TV contracts it now enjoys. Those deals arrived a year ago in the form of $3 billion spread over the next decade and a half.

"I think we have dealt pretty effectively with the off-the-field issues after coming to realize that we couldn't be what we really wanted to be without dealing with those issues, that winning wasn't enough," Slive told ESPN.com a few weeks before the news broke about the Tennessee investigation. "And now the focus is solely on what happens competitively, and that is the way it should be.

"So when we began those discussions a couple years ago about our television future, which ended up successful, we had an environment that was positive."

Maybe it's inevitable, though, that a level of success fueled by deep pockets, huge television dollars and unbridled fan fervor will be accompanied by the kind of problems being investigated at Tennessee. Certainly, that success comes with extra pressure on coaches and administrators. There is little doubt that the demands to win seem to be a notch louder, a notch more insistent, in the SEC than in most other places around the country.

When bigger is expected to be better, maybe that's the price.

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at michaeljfish@gmail.com.