Follow-up: Debating Harbaugh’s Salary

Posted by at 3:09PM

Two weeks ago, I wrote a post entitled, “No, We Should Not Pay Jim Harbaugh More Money.” Not surprisingly, this generated a lively, and mostly fruitful, discussion that included a number of War and Peace-length comments. I want to take this opportunity to highlight some of the points from the comments and also offer a few more rebuttals.

But first, two important items of business:
1. Congratulations to the football team–they’re going to the Orange Bowl in Miami to take on my cousin’s beloved Virginia Tech Hokies.
2. Athletic Director Bob Bowlsby has already offered to “sweeten” Jim Harbaugh’s contract to try and convince him to stay.

Now, back to business. One popular argument in favor of raising Harbaugh’s salary is that it he brings in more money for the school (or, more accurately, the Athletic department, since both his salary and the resulting benefits are essentially self-contained within Athletics). As Tkim writes:

Football has the chance to fund every other program in the athletic department (if Josh, you would actually come to the games). The ROI on the investment is much higher with Harbaugh.

This is true, but using this as reasoning creates a problem. If what matters is the amount of money brought in, there are a number of other obvious ways we can increase this quantity. The first is obvious: we can stop holding our student-athletes to high academic standards. Every year, our athletics program turns away thousands of talented athletes because of insufficient academics. Accepting these athletes would undoubtedly make our football program better and therefore more lucrative, but does that mean we should do it?

My guess is that most, if not all, Stanford supporters would be against lowering academic standards because considerations outside of football are important. Harbaugh himself has been vocal about the importance of putting the student in student-athlete. At other schools, football players are students in name only (see: Heisman-trophy winner Cam Newton of Auburn). But that’s not adequate reason to say that we should allow that.

To say that we should pay Harbaugh more simply because he brings in more money for the athletics department, then, only holds if we believe we should take any action to bring in money for the athletics department. Lowering academic standards would make it easier to bring in more money, but we are not in favor of lowering standards (I think we can all agree that we would rather have Andrew Luck than Cam Newton, regardless of what the Heisman voters think). Therefore, arguing in favor of raising Harbaugh’s salary based on “ROI” is, in my mind, unconvincing.

This discussion leads into the next major repeated argument: economic efficiency. Most commenters agreed I was naive and knew nothing about economics, because economics would solve all of our issues.

Stanford Alum in NYC:

Econ101 — the free market determines value.

Class of ’96:

Relative levels of pay are not a reflection of Stanford’s priorities, but of the market and his talent.

The problem here is twofold: first, market definition matters; and second, economic efficiency could, and probably should, include matters of deontological importance.

Setting aside the important and highly inaccurate assumption that free markets work by themselves, I find it hard to believe that Stanford’s football program is in the same “market” as other big-name football programs. Stanford is not offering the same product as other schools: we are offering students who play football an opportunity to be a student that plays football. We are not, as every other BCS team seems to be (including high-quality academic institutions like Cal and Michigan), a football team for football players with an attached school for everyone else. This distinction carries an enormous amount of value. To assume that the market value for a Stanford coach is the same as that of other schools is to disregard the difference between Stanford and any school that acts like a professional football team.

This pissed off guy should factor into the discussion. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

This value also impacts the salary of a coach. A coach who cares about the student part of the student-athlete (as Harbaugh has claimed and partially shown by not leaving already to go to a more lucrative program on multiple occasions), will incorporate this value into his valuation of a job. To be the coach at Stanford is to be the coach of a football team at a school, not just the coach of a football team. Therefore, the market value is, and should be, different than either NFL salaries or football programs that act like NFL teams. We should compare our coaches’ salaries to those of peer institutions competing at the same level of academics and sports; for football, the closest comparison looks to be Northwestern, which has very high academic standards for football players. Northwestern’s coach makes $750,000–or $500,000 less than Jim Harbaugh currently makes. This comparison is not perfect since there are other factors differentiating Northwestern and Stanford, but it is the closest comparison and can therefore be seen as a general placeholder of where real “market value” lies in this case.

A second consideration is the misconception that “non-economic” principles–such as ethics, fairness, establishing priorities, doing what is right, etc.–are naive, fanciful, and anti-economics. You could argue that demanding the importance of these factors solely on the basis that they exist goes against economics, and you might be right (though I would disagree with you that they are therefore not important). But that does not mean that these factors are not worth consideration even from an economic point of view: “practical” (to borrow a word from commenter Eric) economic thinking is that which tries to maximize welfare given constraints, which include individual’s and society’s valuation of deontological principles. To write off any other consideration besides pure monetary efficiency is far more naive–it fails to take into consideration all aspects of the argument at hand. This includes what makes Stanford a unique and laudable football program in the first place: an insistence on strong academic standards and a school-first mentality.

This guy, despite impressive yelling and reaching, should not factor into the discussion. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

Separately, I want to clarify a point from my original post. I take issue with Alvin Rabushka’s idea that we need to pay millions of dollars for a football coach because “Stanford University clings to the principle of excellence” in all areas of the school, academic or otherwise. I countered with the example that there are an extraordinary number of programs, departments, and activities that are underfunded. Commenters were quick to point out to me that the money for Harbaugh is not zero-sum: Athletics operates on a separate budget from the rest of the school, and therefore an increase in his salary would not take away funding from other places. This is true; what I meant to illustrate with the underfunding example was not that paying Harbaugh would take away from other aspects of the school but rather that the idea that Stanford tries to be the best in every field is a delusion. Even if Harbaugh’s salary is not directly tied to any other part of campus except Athletics, there are still many, many parts of the school that are underfunded and given lackluster attention–and therefore an argument based on a principle of excellence in all fields is based on a questionable assumption. I also would argue that it would behoove the school to concentrate its attention on those undervalued areas, but since that is not directly relevant to the discussion of Harbaugh I’ll shelve it for the time being.

Stanford should not be a football school. It should be an educational institution with a football team. This is, and should be, reflected in the salary of the football coach. To pay him a multi-million dollar salary is to go against these principles (and does not make much sense), conclusions that can be derived from either an economic or non-economic perspective. Harbaugh has thus far been a proponent of this value structure; if he decides he cares more about money or fame–both of which can be very alluring–he is free to go, and Stanford will try to find a different coach more aligned with these principles. If he stays, we’ll be glad to have him (he’s a great coach, after all) at a salary that reflects the following sentiment from Derek Bok: “The quality of football is not the primary objective of the institution.”


18 Responses to “Follow-up: Debating Harbaugh’s Salary”

  1. Danny zuckerman says:

    Sorry Josh, I often agree with you but not this time. Stanford is competing in the same market for Jim Harbaugh and every other coach. We have non-money advantages on our side and different priorities at our school, but if we want to field a good football team (and we do) then we are competing for good coaches, no matter whether the rival schools that might pay them are different or not. The environment and academics at Stanford do not put us in a different market, they are just a different form of value to lure coaches, just like it lures students and athletes away from other schools even it Stanford is more expensive.

    And the ROI analogy doesn’t work at all. Lowering the academic standards hurt the quality of academics at the school – not to mention those admitted simply wouldn’t be able to survive stanfords current curriculum. How does paying a coach hurt the school in any way, if we expect the economic returns to more than compensate the extra salary? Stanford runs the best athletic program in the country, and is one of the only ones that is essentially independent from the school. If they can maintain a high-caliber, highly visible football team, get a good return on investment, provide a source of pride for our school, and help pay for our other world-class teams…how is that against Stanford’s principles? Is it fair that football coach pays more than renowned professor? Maybe not, but that’s th case so we might as well make the best decision we can for our school and team given the opportunity we have

  2. Dave Hayden says:

    What a pile of nonsense. Although paying Mr. Harbaugh more would actually *increase* the revenue to the athletic department, you say we shouldn’t do it because, if increasing revenue is the goal, we would also have to lower standards? Nonsense. It’s a simple question of priorities. We value academic standards more than athletic funding – fine. Here is an opportunity to increase the funding without affecting academic standards. So why not do it? You are trying to fabricate a link between funding and academic standards that simply doesn’t exist in this case.

    Second, you “find it hard to believe that Stanford’s football program is in the same “market” as other big-name football programs.” Okay, but we aren’t talking about the market for the football team. We’re talking about the market for the football COACH. Once again, you’re bringing in tangentially related material in an attempt to confuse the issue which is really very simple: Mr. Harbaugh can entertain offers from other schools. If we want to keep him, we will have to pay a commensurate amount. Simple.

  3. greg says:

    “To say that we should pay Harbaugh more simply because he brings in more money for the athletics department, then, only holds if we believe we should take any action to bring in money for the athletics department.”

    There is absolutely no connection between these two clauses. Really, there isn’t. This is a terrible slippery slope argument, and your credibility is shot. Just because Harbaugh brings in money does not imply the university should take any action to bring in money. There is quite literally no worse “if… then…” statement possible in the context of this article.

    Your comparison of Harbaugh’s salary to Hennessey’s salary is also useless. Obama makes maybe $800k a year; the average football coach makes more money than that. You cannot compare salary to job importance– there is a relative connection, sure, but it’s impossible to quantify “importance” and thereby impossible to draw a correlation. Under that argument, no one should make more than 800k a year (see: actors, entrepreneurs, etc), or Obama should be payed more.

    Actually, after reading both articles multiple times, I disagree with essentially every example and analogy you make. While I do think that Harbaugh deserves a higher salary, I’m not completely close-minded towards people like you who think that a raise is unjustified; I just wish that you could make better, stronger, and more on-topic arguments as opposed to non-sequitur connections and false comparisons.

  4. veritas says:

    @greg: actually, Obama’s salary is $400,000. Check your facts before ranting.

  5. Jeremy says:

    I kinda just skimmed it, but it seems like Josh just hates football. I also find it hilarious that paying Harbaugh more money is going to have any significant impact on the rest of the university. The CS department will be the same. The English department will be the same. Also, Brian Kelly at Notre Dame (I’d say that’s a peer school) gets 3 million a year.

    Josh, please read this article (kinda long, but worth it) about Andrew Phillips, one of our football players, and the tragic death of his father. Pay attention to who Harbaugh is off the field. That’s the man I want coaching my fellow classmates. A great football coach isn’t concerned with only wins, he’s concerned with the future of ALL his players. In my opinion, Harbaugh is worth every penny just for that alone.

  6. Aiden says:

    Football is not central to the mission of any school, so why even have football. For that matter, are any athletics program essential to the mission of any school? I think you’d have to concede that having an athletics program is key to developing a well rounded student.

    So why do we need football at such a high caliber at Stanford? Why not field a dud team? Stanford currently has a unique position in all of major college football. The Cardinal has one of the highest graduation rates (top 5) with the most rigorous admission criteria (only students in the top 10% of their class can even be considered for recruitment). In spite of this, they are now considered one of the top 4 football teams in America. No other college can come close to that combination of academic rigor and success in football. It is because Harbaugh has learned to work within the Stanford system and has developed a formula to thrive with that type of scholar-athlete. His playbook has 360 plays yet his players execute these complex schemes flawlessly. This execution is part of his success and it relies on a more intelligent player. Lowering academic standards will not make the team better; dumber but more talented players won’t work in the Harbaugh scheme. Thus, one reason for having an outstanding football program is that Stanford has demonstrated to the world that it can take high quality students and turn them into a BCS caliber team. Stanford’s success is the antidote to the win-at-all-costs but to-hell-with-the- student attitude that is now prevalent throughout college football.

    There is an enormous rain maker benefit from having a highly visible team. Of course, it engenders more such highly intelligent football players enrolling at Stanford. That will lead to more stories like Andrew Luck: a Heisman runner-up with a 3.55 GPA in architectural design, the epitome of what we want all football players to be like. But it will also lead to other high caliber athletes in other sports enrolling. It also leads to a better student body overall. The year after Northwestern was in the Rose Bowl, applications went up 7%. A similar story occurred at the Univ of Florida after they won the National Championship.

    On the other hand, it will all fall apart if the right coach is not there. Without Harbaugh, the football team will return to the dark ages of just 5 years ago.

    As for the argument that this appears to make football more valued, you must realize that there are certain human endeavors that are clearly more valued than others. Sorry, that is just the way world works because if the world was filled with flower pickers there would not be much of a social structure. Should football be so valuable? There I would have to pause and say No. Personally, I think cancer research should be more valuable but somehow we have evolved a society where entertainers (and football is entertainment, after all) are more valued because they can provide more immediate gratification than cancer research. I can’t change that part of the system, but at least I will acknowledge that we have to operate within the system that has developed.

  7. Class of 92 says:

    ugggh, someone talking about the free market who’s never actually competed in one…

    If you spend some actual time out in the real world, you would find that you can’t “define” your market any old way that’s convenient for you, the market defines the market.

    While it’s convenient for you to define the market for coaches in nice neat syllogisms that work conveniently for your argument, the raw truth is this. Coach Harbaugh is a rare commodity, one that has a) proven results (1-11:11-1), b) proven leadership (just ask his players), c) highest values (read the article in SI about Andrew Phillips.

    You make specious comparisons to underfunded programs and comparisons of highest caliber Div-I coach to other programs. I repeat my previous comparison: a security guard makes $12 an hour. The market rate for a Div-1 coach is $2-4 million. What does one have to do with the other?

    Your last point: Stanford should not be a football school. Wrong question. The right question is should Stanford hold its football program to the same highest standard as it does the rest of its programs?

    Compare Stanford to Northwestern? Should Stanford’s physics department aspire to be as good as San Francisco State?

    You have the advantage of having this soapbox. It comes with some level of responsibility. The real world might actually read some of what you write, and mistake it for how the Stanford community feels.

  8. Julian says:

    People like you make people like me wish I hadn’t come to Stanford.

  9. Adam says:

    Seriously, just stop. At this point, you’re simply embarrassing yourself.

  10. Josh says:

    @Danny and the first other few responders: You write “Lowering the academic standards hurt the quality of academics at the school ” and “Here is an opportunity to increase the funding [revenue] without affecting academic standards. So why not do it?”

    We are all in agreement that lower academic standards, even if it brought in more money, would be a bad choice. Therefore, I am arguing, bringing in more money alone cannot be justification by itself for taking a course of action. We need to consider other factors besides pure revenue in deciding what we should do. That is exactly why lowering academic standards would be a terrible idea.

    Just as the effect on academics is a separate factor to take into account, so too is the implementation and promotion of a value system that allows for us to pay a coach more than his current very high salary of $1.25 million. To not consider this [whether it is right or wrong can be put aside for a moment] is then actively ignorant if you are also considering separate factors such as academic standards. If you do at least consider this factor as well as any others and still believe that Harbaugh should make more money, then we are able to respectfully disagree. At least this discussion has then led to our both being better off.

    As for the Sports Illustrated piece, that’s nice that Harbaugh is a good guy. I never said he wasn’t (I’ve met him, and yes, I think he’s a good guy!).[Sidenote: so are many of the janitors at Stanford, and they are busy being horribly underpaid and screwed over by the University.] The off-the-field principles of a coach can be another factor to consider, and that’s certainly fine. In fact, I think that’s very important, which is why I made the case that we should ensure that we have a coach who does put the student in “student-athlete”; or, in other words, is aligned with the educational goals of the school. I also believe that those coaches are the ones who would realize that a school’s goals are important and therefore would be willing to be a part of our program for a more reasonable price. He would not be the coach who is motivated by a difference between more than a million dollars per year and a couple million dollars per year. You can disagree with that, but it seems strange to me that we should have to be forced to lure in a coach who really cares about students with a price above what is already an extraordinary amount of money.

    On a slight digression, if Harbaugh were to leave to go to Michigan and reform their program into a respectable academic football team and not one in which many of the players have a fake major, I think he’d be adding a lot of value to the world of college football. I’m not saying that I want him to leave Stanford since he has done a good job here and as a student I have a possibly irrational but certainly existent allegiance to the team from my school, but it seems hard to say that we should actively oppose his departure if his goals are to try and improve the educational possibilities of college football. If his goals are simply based on money, then it does not seem that his goals are truly aligned with the educational mission of our school anyways (and therefore we wouldn’t have wanted him as coach). It does not seem absurd to me to try and figure out a reasonable salary for a football coach as an educator (based on considerations that include, but are not limited to, all of the factors I have mentioned in these articles), offer that to Harbaugh, and let him make his own decisions based on that.

    @ 92: “You have the advantage of having this soapbox. It comes with some level of responsibility. The real world might actually read some of what you write, and mistake it for how the Stanford community feels.”

    Yes, this is an open blog, and I have chosen to express an argument. I think the comments speak for themselves in showing that there is a generally more popular, or at least more vocal, sentiment that disagrees with me. The fact that there are differences in ideas on a college campus should be a good thing, and to subjugate the opinion of the minority simply because it is a minority is a very dangerous path to go down. As for the comments here and there that are obnoxious, derisive barbs at me is far less encouraging: the fact that there are student commenters who are willing to dismiss my ideas out of hand without giving them the least bit of thought certainly reflects poorly upon the school. I hope it is only a select few who operate in this manner.

    And @Julian–it’s nice to hear that a simple student like myself can have such an impact on your life. While I respect a genuine disagreement like those of Danny and others, I can’t say that I find your basis of argument all that convincing.

  11. Aiden says:

    “If his goals are simply based on money, then it does not seem that his goals are truly aligned with the educational mission of our school anyways (and therefore we wouldn’t have wanted him as coach).”

    Someday you will be a manager of people, and you will then realize how idealistic but totally wrong that concept was.

  12. Aiden says:

    Let me follow that post up with another bit of reality. You seem to highly value academics, Josh (sorry for sounding so familiar, but this internet thing breeds false familiarity). You’ll be happy to know that most of your profs are some of the most highly paid professors in the country in their respective departments. There was a time when major universities such as Harvard, Princeton and, yes, Stanford thought they could still attract the best faculty using the prestige factor without paying top dollar. That went out the door when faculty started to walk to institutions that would pay more, albeit of less “prestige.” The major universities realized they had to play ball, stepped up and now uniformly pay the highest salaries to profs in the university world.

    Does this have a ring of familiarity for the Div. I-A football world.

    Oh, and those janitors? I can also tell you that they are among the best paid janitors in the Bay Area.

  13. Tkim says:

    I don’t get your rebuttal. Coach Harbaugh has been able to achieve what was once thought as impossible without lowering standards. That’s why he’s special and why he should be paid the market rate to stay at Stanford.

    You provide a false choice in lowering academic standards. No, we shouldn’t, that’s why we need a coach who is able to live up to the same highest standards as the rest of the university without diluting the academic focus.

    And my original position still holds. The best, most efficient, highest ROI way of achieving sustained elite level of excellence in football as we do in all other aspects of our university is to pay Coach Harbaugh the market rate for his talents, talents he can take anywhere, not just to Northwestern.

    If you’re going to make an argument, it helps to be cogent. I think you should concede the point and write about something else… seriously. We hear you, you voiced your opinion, which you’re entitled to do. But it’s illogical. Move on.

  14. Drew Karimlou says:

    Much like there is a huge discrepancy in how much money Harbaugh makes versus how much money he is worth, there is an even bigger discrepancy in how intelligent you think you are versus how intelligent you actually are. Learn about sports before you enter the conversation. This isn’t a CS or Econ problem set, sports is man time, grow up! Although, from a journalistic standpoint, GREAT JOB writing something people will read and respond to, there is this kid in one of my classes who constantly talks about the benefits of sharia law in American society and people respond to him in a similar fashion. Keep up the great work idiot!

  15. Reggie Bush says:

    This is just a ridiculous argument. You should be talking about the parade you’re going to have for him so he wont bail. Give the man whatever he wants. You’re Stanford, you can afford it. You make this argument from the perspective that Stanford football will absolutely be ok without him. With another B-list coach you’re program could very well sink into the abyss for another decade. Don’t fix what’s not broken. Football programs attract top students who desire the full college experience. You cant deny that Stanford loses potential students every year to other top 25 schools with a similar education, hotter girls, better football, and a cheaper price tag. This is a chance to establish Stanford as a major player in the nation’s best conference in the Pac-12. Sack up and stop being a pussy

  16. Red says:

    So despite being able to bring in significantly more to the university than all but two other top football programs in the country (i.e. BCS bowl game payout), which not only helps relieve other funding obligations (i.e. the athletic program), but increases giving to the school in general, this top-notch coach should not be paid market-rate, because a coach at a program with a similar high academic standard and no where near the success makes less?

    What next, a comparison to the Vanderbilt and Duke football programs?

    And just tickle me a bit, why not compare the salary to Cal or UCLA’s?

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