BY DAN McCOOL
In college athletic department offices across America, the coach behind the door belongs to a group that averages nearly $70,000 in base salary each year.
Down many of those hallways, though, other coaches cash bigger paychecks than their colleagues in the Olympic sport of wrestling.
A Des Moines Register open-records request for salaries of Division I wrestling head coaches shows that the average base salary at 51 of the 61 public programs in the U.S. that responded - about $69,550 - places those coaches somewhere between the average nurse and a psychologist.
Wrestling coaches, who arguably practice a bit of both of those other professions, say they stay at the side of the mat because of a deep commitment to the sport - not a shot at deep pockets. Others, however, contend that the college athletic pay scale tips too far toward revenue-producing giants such as football and men's basketball.
"Wrestling has been under-funded, under-promoted and under-everything you can say about a program throughout the country, "said former Iowa State coach Bobby Douglas, now an assistant athletic director at the school. "From a size perspective, the sports that are getting compensated all have athletes that are over 6 feet and 200 pounds.
"That's football and basketball. I've never been able to get an athletic director to agree that was a form of discrimination."
Wrestling is a non-revenue sport across almost the entire country, meaning gate receipts do not meet the costs of operating the program.
In the wrestling-rich Midwest, those who know, work with and compete against Iowa State's Cael Sanderson, Iowa's Tom Brands, Oklahoma State's John Smith and Minnesota's J Robinson contend those coaches are worth every dollar and more.
Wrestling coaches, the well-paid and not-as-well-paid, are entering their regular-season stretch runs with eyes on conference meets and the NCAA Championships on March 20-22 in St. Louis, Mo.
"Our strategy as a coaches' association is we want to empower our coaches to be able to do things on their individual campuses that create the perception of much more perceived value, "said Mike Moyer, National Wrestling Coaches Association executive director and former coach at George Mason University. "We have to sell the value of our wrestling programs on every campus across the country. Not just what we bring in the way of wins and losses, but how we help these campuses alleviate financial stress."
Sanderson tops list
A Register analysis of the 51 programs that responded to requests for fiscal 2008 base salaries shows:
- The average salary is $69, 550.16, with six coaches making $100,000 or more.
- Iowa State's Sanderson joins Oklahoma's Jack Spates as the highest-paid coaches, at a base salary of $110,000.
"I'm coaching because I want to help kids reach their goals and I want to bring a national championship back here, "said Sanderson, 28. "That's it. Period."
- Iowa's Brands is No. 8, at $99,750. Brands said the chance to run his own program made him willing to take a pay cut when he left his job as a Hawkeyes assistant to become head coach at Virginia Tech in 2004.
"If a million dollars is going to make me work harder or smarter, I'd better examine my efforts, "he said.
- Northern Iowa coach Brad Penrith is No. 21 at $68,600. He accepted his first head coaching job with the Panthers in 2000.
"I was offered mid- to upper-50s and I asked (athletic director) Rick Hartzell to cut that back, "Penrith said. "He asked why, and I said I wanted to take the rest of that money and invest it into my assistants so I could get some good assistants. (Hartzell) couldn't believe I was going to do that."
- Portland State coach Mike Haluska, a 1976 graduate of Dowling Catholic, is ranked 49th among the 51 coaches, earning a base salary of $37,638 in his second season. Haluksa has no assistants and is concerned his program might get dropped. Haluska formerly worked in the Portland State landscaping department while serving as a head coach at a community college.
"You couldn't pay me $100,000 to leave this job, "he said. "For me, this is a dream job.
"There's been a lot of days that I thought, 'Man, if they give me that landscape job back, I'm taking it.' I do love (coaching wrestling), it wouldn't matter to me if I was coaching little kids or anything."
- The cumulative base salary of the 51 coaches is $3,489,806, or $310,000 less than the guaranteed money, which includes base salary, of football coaches Kirk Ferentz of Iowa ($2.8 million) and Gene Chizik of Iowa State ($1 million).
Brands is guaranteed an additional $20,000 from his camps, while Sanderson also gets an automobile or a $5,000 annual stipend.
Football coaches rule
The average guaranteed earnings of the 120 Division I football coaches reached $1 million before bonuses, perks and incentives, according to a December story in USA Today.
USA Today reported at least 50 football coaches earned a minimum $1 million - nearly 10 times what Sanderson and Spates will earn in base salary as the highest-paid of the 51 wrestling coaches - and 12 earned at least $2 million.
The 331 Division I men's basketball teams seem to have one thing in common with wrestling: The difference between the higher and lower-paid coaches is substantial.
"Obviously, there are guys in football and men's basketball in the elite programs who are making $1 million or more a year, "Jim Haney, executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, told the Register. "Those guys at the lower spectrum of Division I, their base salary may be $100,000."
Women's basketball has 339 Division I programs. Summer McKesson, director of communication for the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, said her group has no recent salary average, but is in the process of hiring someone who would track that type of information.
The women's basketball coaches at all three state schools in Iowa receive a higher base salary than the wrestling coach.
"It's discrimination and it's obviously unfair, "Douglas said, "but the so-called minor sports don't have enough political clout to make athletic directors compensate them properly."
Douglas said his first head coaching job at Cal-Santa Barbara in 1973-74 paid him $7,500. His first salary at Arizona State was $12,000. In his final season as head coach at Iowa State in 2005-06, he earned $140,369.
Sanderson was promoted after Douglas resigned. Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard said Sanderson had the credentials - despite no head coaching experience - that required a significant financial package.
"He's making certainly less than what coach Douglas was making, yet Cael brought to the table a lot in terms of who he was from a marketing standpoint, "Pollard said. "He had demand on his side too, because if it wasn't (at Iowa State), somebody else would have done it. We looked at it and said here's a fair offer."
Sanderson led the Cyclones to a runner-up finish at the NCAA tournament in his first season, and season tickets seals increased from 742 last season to 1,313 in 2007-08.
"The fact we've increased season ticket sales, there is a lot of excitement and we got second in the country (last season) isn't by accident, "Pollard said. "We hired somebody who was able to achieve that, and is compensated for achieving that."
One path to more money
Wrestling coaches as chief executive officers?
That's the thought process National Wrestling Coaches Association executive director Mike Moyer would like to see permeate college wrestling, particularly in the area of increasing financial compensation.
Building successful summer camps or attracting events with significant fiscal return to the community the campus is located in - such as Northern Iowa's hosting the National Duals, which generated at least $2.5 million for the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area this season - are just two of many ways Moyer said coaches could make their program a valued part of the athletic family and, in return, make their paycheck larger.
"Those are the types of things that in the eyes of the administration bring value, "Moyer said.
Portland State's Haluska has a simple wish for his salary.
"If I can give my daughter things that she wants and me and my wife can be comfortable, "he said, "the only thing I'd ask for would be an assistant to give me a little bit more time to enjoy my daughter."