A football scrimmage at the University of Alabama, with head coach Nick Saban analyzing every move (2010).
Carol Highsmith/Library of Congress
origin story / money

How Big Bonuses for Winning Coaches Became a Tradition in College Football

These bonuses are not a reaction to a multi-billion-dollar market that rewards winning – they are the foundation of it.
As college football bowl and playoff games unfold before a TV audience of millions, most of the attention will be on the final scores. Less is likely to be said about certain bonuses that the coaches get for their bowl and playoff appearances.

For instance, when the Fresno State Bulldogs defeated Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 15, the Bulldogs’ coach, Jeff Tedford, already being paid US$1.6 million per year through 2021, got a $200,000 bonus for the win. He would have gotten $100,000 even if his team had lost.

Western Michigan’s Tim Lester gets $25,000 for making it to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl on Dec. 21.

Since college football coaches are already often the highest-paid public employees in their state – their eye-popping salaries often dwarfing even those of state governors – it may seem strange that coaches could collect bonuses that surpass most families’ annual income, on top of it all.

It may also be tempting to think of the bonuses as being a byproduct of lucrative marketing deals that colleges started to get in the 1980s and television contracts that they started to get in the 1990s. But history shows that bonuses for college football coaches stretch back to the early 1900s, well before the invention of television or even the first commercial radio broadcast.

These bonuses create a market for winning that fuels the business of college sports. In my view as a scholar who studies big-time college football, these bonuses are not a reaction to a multi-billion-dollar market that rewards winning – they are the foundation of it.
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