Athletic directors’ salaries on rise

By Gus Bode

But big money means big responsibility

Possible pull-quote:”A lot of times it can feel like you’re a puppet being pulled in all sorts of different directions, but a lot of days you just have to deal with whatever pie hits you in the face,” Hartzell said.

-Rick Hartzell, Northern Iowa athletic director.


Once seen only as a posh retirement position for former coaches and gridiron gods, the role of athletic director has grown exponentially during the last decade.

And with several Division I athletic department budgets beginning to rival those of some professional sports teams, ADs are no longer being asked to work for chump change.

According to a recent study done by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the average annual salary for a Division I athletic director is now $158,200, a near 100 percent increase from 1990, when it was $80,000. But that figure may be inflated by the high number of ADs whose salaries more than double that amount.

More than a dozen ADs currently earn more than $300,000 a year, and the average salary for the six conferences aligned with the Bowl Championship Series is $268,000. But for every Mitch Barnhart, who in 2002 signed on as Kentucky’s AD for $375,000, there are a slew of lower-profile Division I programs such as Missouri Valley Conference members SIU and Indiana State, whose ADs receive far less.

SIU Athletic Director Paul Kowalczyk’s annual salary is $121, 920, well below the national average but nearly $10,000 more than his MVC counterpart Andi Myers, who pulls down $110,000 as Indiana State’s AD. But even though Kowalczyk’s earnings are significantly less than the executive-type salary paid out to Barnhart, he says that his job is still comparable to that of a CEO.

“You’re basically the person in charge of a corporation who has to find a way to manage everything,” Kowalczyk said.

One reason for the recent salary boom is the ever-increasing amount of public scrutiny placed on athletic directors. Myers, who was involved in coaching for more than two decades before coming to Indiana State, said he has never felt as much pressure as she has as an AD.


“It’s tough because everyone thinks they know everything about athletics, and they think they know all the answers,” Myers said.

Myers and Kowalczyk were the only conference coaches to disclose their salaries to the Daily Egyptian, and the MVC is unable to release the information because four schools are private institutions, said conference commissioner Doug Elgin.

According to Myers, other than men’s basketball coaches, ADs are the most visible figures in all of collegiate athletics and are constantly under the microscope. But not every AD is completely opposed to being in the spotlight. Bradley athletic director Ken Cavanaugh said he has no qualms about being such a viable target for criticism.

“There are countless other jobs out there just as hard as the one we have, but they’re not as exposed to the public scope,” Cavanaugh said.

Cavanaugh’s optimism may be correlated to his school’s absence of a football program, which, according to Kowalczyk, can make an AD’s job even more taxing.

“The duties of athletic directors are pretty similar across the board except when it comes to those that have football and those that don’t,” Kowalczyk said. “Football is such a major sport, and it really makes a substantial difference.”

Perhaps the most prominent example of the burgeoning bottom line of ADs is Kansas University, home to one of the nation’s most storied athletic programs. When Bob Frederick arrived in Lawrence in 1987, his base salary was just $74,000. By the time he left 14 years later, it had ballooned to $166,000.

Frederick’s salary was among the highest in the nation during his tenure, but it pales in comparison to those of his successors. Al Bohl signed on to replace Frederick in 2001 for $255,000 a year, only to be fired this spring. After Frederick’s dismissal, Lew Perkins stepped in and inked a deal said to be in the neighborhood of $400,000, far below the $1.1 million doled out annually to new men’s basketball coach Bill Self but still nearly $250,000 above the national average.

With an athletic budget of nearly $27 million, Kansas can afford to lavishly reward its administrators, a luxury not enjoyed by lesser-known schools like those of the MVC. For Kowalczyk, trying to compete with national powerhouses such as Kansas on a budget of just $6.3 million can prove to be a challenge.

“You have to devote a significant amount of time to fund raising, marketing and selling tickets, but you also have make sure you can keep the focus of the program on your student-athletes,” Kowalczyk said.

For Northern Iowa athletic director Rick Hartzell, that means dividing his workday to make sure no aspect of his job receives the bulk of his attention. Hartzell said he spends 40 percent of his time fund raising, 30 percent dealing with personnel issues, 20 percent working with student-athletes and 10 percent on other issues that pop up during the day.

“A lot of times, it can feel like you’re a puppet being pulled in all sorts of different directions, but a lot of days you just have to deal with whatever pie hits you in the face,” Hartzell said.

But not all middle-tier athletic directors’ salaries lurk below the national average. University of Nevada at Reno athletic director Chris Ault’s annual salary is $206,000, enough to put him in the upper echelon of ADs but still far behind that of University of Nevada-Las Vegas head football coach and former athletic director John Robinson, whose salary approached $575,000 annually.

But Robinson, like many ADs, had the opportunity to boost his salary through bonus clauses and performance-based incentives. Barnhart and Tom Jurich at the University of Louisville are among the athletic directors with the most lucrative contract stipulations. Jurich can more than double his annual salary of $226,018 through incentives, earning up to an additional $160,000 annually if Cardinal athletic teams meet all their goals and a $100,000 more if he completes a longevity clause.

Barnhart’s contract entitles him to an extra $180,000 a year through similar bonuses. Barnhart’s incentives at Kentucky are actually smaller than the ones he enjoyed at Oregon State, where he once received a $100,000 bonus after the Beavers’ football team scored a berth in the 2001 Fiesta Bowl.

No such bonuses can be found in the contract of Kowalczyk or Myers, who each are paid a flat rate. But they aren’t the only low-profile university ADs who have missed the bonus boat. The sole supplement to West Virginia athletic director Ed Pastilong is a $50 bonus, which means he would have to work another 36,000 years to approach Barnhart’s bonus.

That is fine with IU professor Murray Sperber, a frequent critic of college sports’ excesses, who said that athletic directors are vastly overcompensated and their robust earnings are one of the prevailing glitches in the educational system.

“ADs are not brain surgeons. They aren’t even as smart or as well-trained as an average English professor,” Sperber said. “Few of them end the year in black ink, and even fewer of them are worth what they’re getting paid.

“If they produced the results that they do in the actual business world, they would be out of jobs tomorrow.”

While the increase may not sit well with Sperber, there is no disputing that AD salaries are on the upswing, as is the pressure on them to produce results. And the trend is likely to continue according to Sperber.

“The pay will keep going up because university presidents and trustees are

somehow convinced that their particular AD is going to turn everything

around and win championships, make huge amounts of money for the school

and run a clean program totally populated by wonderful student-athletes,

almost all of whom graduate from the school,” Sperber said. “As long as people believe

this fairy tale, they will pay top dollar to their AD.”

But for Hartzell, who has been AD of Northern Iowa for four years, the most important thing is being able to keep a positive frame of mind despite the peaks and valleys of his profession.

“There’s going to be wins and losses, and there’s going to be some coaches and players who do everything right and some that make mistakes,’ Hartzell said. “But if you have the right perspective, none of that matters.”

Reporter Andy Horonzy can be reached at [email protected]