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Pat Fitzgerald now Northwestern's highest-paid employee

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Coaching salaries in college football have increased dramatically over the past few years. It’s a pattern that parallels the massive financial growth of the sport more generally, with bloated TV contracts and media rights deals dumping buckets of dough on athletics programs – and because student-athletes aren’t entitled to anything beyond what’s provided from room and board scholarships (another column for another day), the money, naturally, flows elsewhere – not only to the men charged with grooming those student-athletes into cohesive, selfless, winning outfits, but the lavish facilities those men use as recruiting enticements to lure those student-athletes. Coaches, to be sure, are responsible for a raft of variously important jobs; they’re the ones embarking on cross-country recruiting trips and spending late hours hunkered down in film rooms and priming alumni donations and, most importantly, trying to win football games. They are also – at least for most schools with FBS football – the figureheads of their respective athletic departments. Do you know who Alabama’s athletic director is, or what he looks like? Probably not. But you do know Nick Saban. Point taken.

So, yeah, college football coaches are sort of a big deal, and recently, their compensation has risen to unprecedented levels. In fact, according to a study by Inside Higher Ed, the growth of college football coaches’ salaries at major programs is outpacing that of professors’ salaries at the same universities. Between 2006 and 2011, for example, instructional salaries at SEC schools increased 15.5 percent, from $70, 886 to $81, 758, while the league’s football coaches’ salaries swelled from  $3, 147, 149 to $6, 928, 989. The trend extends to FBS assistants, who whose annual pay has risen 29 percent on average since 2009, according to USA Today, and whose various duties have become increasingly more important as head coaches explore every possible incremental edge in recruiting and tactical acumen, often preferring to take on more “managerial” roles.

(on a side note: the hike in assistants’ pay scales goes a pretty decent way towards explaining why Bret Bielema left Wisconsin for Arkansas).

College coaches at the big-time FBS programs are flush with cash these days, is what I’m saying, and while people will begrudge the sheer volume of financial resources being devoted to athletics at secondary institutions of higher education, and the optics might make some cringe – particularly the trend delineated in the above study documenting coaches’ salaries dwarfing those of academics – the reality is hard to dispute.

That’s a long-winded introduction, but it also provides a pretty good factual backdrop when trying to parse the following information, courtesy of USA Today, about Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald’s salary.

Pat Fitzgerald was credited with more than $2.2 million in compensation during the 2011 calendar year, according to the university's new federal tax return. That is nearly $1 million more than he was reported as making in 2010, and the differential is almost entirely in base pay. 

In addition, Fitzgerald has received a $2.5 million loan from the school as part of his compensation package, and the balance due on the loan grew by nearly $70,000 during the university's fiscal year that ended Aug. 31, 2012. 

The bump in salary shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Fitzgerald has, in a matter of seven years, hoisted his alma mater into Big Ten contender territory, spawning real, actual, reasonable Rose Bowl aspirations for the first time in more than a decade. The Wildcats are winning games under Fitzgerald’s watch, but more than that, Northwestern is perceived as a paragon of academic excellence – a gold standard of how football programs out to be run, of how the “student” in student-athlete can maintain a prominent place within a winning football team’s larger athletic mission. He is a perfect spokesperson for the university, endorses Northwestern and the Wildcat student-athlete ideal at every turn and has, for better or worse, practically worn out the phrase “Go ‘Cats,” to the point where any Fitzgerald press conference not ending in those two words somehow feels incomplete. This pay raise makes the most possible sense – if college coaches salaries have risen on the whole, Fitzgerald certainly deserves to be a part of that trend. He has earned it.

(More recently, Fitzgerald has even inspired an eponymous student tailgate campaign).

What’s even more interesting about Berkowitz’s report is that, for the first time since 2005, Northwestern’s highest paid employee is a coach, Fitzgerald – whose annual pay now trumps the roughly $2 million earned by medical professor Patrick M. McCarthy.

Given the outsized presence football coaches have on college campuses, and the larger growth in coaches salaries’ within the sport of late, this development is not particularly surprising. It’s new territory for a university long recognized more for its achievements off the field than on it (which remains unimpeachably true, to be clear), but it should not be confused as a misguided overpay, or a questionable appropriation of university funds when balanced against the school’s spending on academic employees. Yes, Fitzgerald now earns more than any professor on campus, but take a look around, folks: college football coaches are commanding larger annual sums than ever before. In today’s college football landscape, Fitzgerald’s salary is comparatively well-earned; it’s in perfect harmony with the surge in average annual salaries throughout the CFB coaching profession. The progress Fitzgerald has made in building the Wildcats into a perennially bowl-attending outfit, with an upward trajectory in the fore, is downright impressive. Now, he is merely being compensated appropriately.

For more on the specifics of Fitzgerald’s salary, as well as some other numbers regarding former football coach Randy Walker and former basketball coach Bill Carmody, read Berkowitz’s report in full.