The NMFishbowl Podcast: Steve Berkowitz

By Daniel Libit

Berk Podcast Image illustration

Here we are in the final leg of college football’s regular season: teams are battling for bowl eligibility and highly paid coaches are pocketing tidy sums for the on-field successes of their amateur players.

Ah, nothing heralds autumn like crisp air and fringe benefits.

And when it comes to the yearly harvest-time cash grab of intercollegiate athletics, nobody keeps better tabs on the yield than USA Today’s Steve Berkowitz.

Since 2006, Berkowitz, a sports projects reporter, has stewarded the newspaper’s annually updated databases of college coaching salaries and athletic department budgets. The compilations are frequently referenced in multitudes of stories by USA Today and numerous other media outlets; basically, if you cover a college sports beat, you have them bookmarked.

Berkowitz, meanwhile, has cultivated a following in recent years by live-tweeting the various triggered bonuses that college football coaches accrue during the course of the season.

“It’s a function of keeping an eye on a scoreboard during a Saturday afternoon or Saturday evening, and trying to do this without it completely wrecking my life,” Berkowitz tells me in the latest episode of The NMFishbowl Podcast You can listen to our conversation by clicking below (or download it on iTunes here):

If you want to viscerally experience the waywardness of the college sports gravy train, I encourage you to spend an upcoming Saturday afternoon tracking @ByBerkowitz. For example, a few weeks ago, when Fresno State beat New Mexico in Albuquerque, I immediately discovered how personally enriching the victory was for Bulldogs coach Jeff Tedford:

In our ensuing discussion, Berkowitz and I talk about accounting for the exploding money in college sports.

Here are some key takeaways (click the relevant links to jump directly to that portion of the podcast audio)…

Berkowitz on the intractability of coaching contract buyouts: “The reality of these situations within the coaching compensation marketplace has resulted in these agreements being guaranteed. From the coaches end of it, they’re concerned about making commitments to schools and then being fired if they don’t win enough games…And at the same time, coaches also, if they breach their agreements, they or their future employers are required to (make) liquidated damages payments…It is almost never coming out of the pocket of the coach. It is a cost that is absorbed by the school that hires him…”

“I suppose it’s possible that if these schools paid a coach a sufficient amount of money, the coach might be willing to have a contract in which he is not guaranteed anything. But I would tend to doubt that. Coaches are concerned about what comes next for them if they get fired and, as you pointed out, the athletics directors’ contracts with universities are structured the same way…”

“There are a handful of ADs that work for universities on an at-will basis — Indiana’s Fred Glass being one of them. So, there are university procedures that would be involved with their terminations that would be similar to other university employees. But the biggest thing in the way contracts are structured has to do with who has the leverage in these discussions.”

Berkowitz on the history of USA Today’s college coaching salary database: “We did a football head coach salary project in the 2006 season. When we undertook it for the first time, we didn’t go into it thinking that this was going to be something we were going to do annually, in perpetuity…People, I think, sort of knew, generally, that coaches made a lot of money, but when you empirically demonstrated that — and you got all the numbers for all the coaches and put it all together so there was some context to it — people were kind of surprised… So, when we did the football one, folks asked us when we were doing one for men’s basketball. And so we ended up doing one for men’s basketball during the winter of ’06-07, and that also was pretty well-received. So, we decided to do the football head coaches again in ’07. There was some debate [as to] whether we should go back and do it or not. We did it again in 2007 just to see what one year’s difference would look like…

Berkowitz on the how the data sausage gets made:It’s making a lot of open records requests and a lot of follow-up calls behind those open record requests to get information that is missing…We really start this process in late May or early June. So, stuff changes over the course of the summer and schools have different fiscal years when salaries change. So, it requires quite a bit of follow-up work during the course of the summer and into the fall…”

“We obtain [the] private schools’ IRS 990 forms…Colleges and universities are, by and large, organized as non-profit organizations, and these documents require all those organizations to disclose the compensation of their officers, directors, trustees and any key employees. And then (for) anybody who doesn’t fall into those categories…the school or the entity has to disclose the compensation of its five most highly paid people…”

“For a really long time, there were no coaches on Stanford’s disclosure form. It wasn’t until the end of, really, Jim Harbaugh’s time at Stanford that you saw Harbaugh’s compensation disclosed there. There have been a couple of instances where the women’s basketball coach has appeared on the form in one year, because she had a whole bunch of deferred compensation paid out in one lump…”

“But if you are talking about the schools within the Football Bowl Subdivision, by and large the football coach, the men’s basketball coach, the athletic director, and in some instances the women’s basketball coach [are disclosed]…at Boston College, the men’s hockey coach typically is one of the five most highly paid folks. That is where we get the private school information. Those records are lagged time-wise and calculated in a different way than what we do in our calculations for real-time compensation, because what the IRS form does is report that compensation in arrears…Because schools have time or are given lag time from the end of their fiscal years to file their forms, the information is about a year-and-a-half old when we get it. But it’s the best window we have on private school compensation.”

Berkowitz on why the NCAA reporting instrument, despite its flaws or biases, is worth relying on: “The instrument was created and the categories were defined not simply by a bunch of athletics directors, but through a cooperative effort of people in college sports, people who were involved or work for outside accounting firms that audit schools, university business officers…”

“Even folks like Andy [Schwarz] have relied on the data from these NCAA reports or information that the schools report through the US Department of Education Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act…Because of the contentiousness of the issue, my suspicion is that any methodology you bring to it will be questioned by someone who is telling you that you’re doing it wrong.”

“I am neither a CPA nor a lawyer; I am a reporter. And I have to admit to my own limitations in terms of somebody dropping a bunch of raw data and my ability to develop my own personal recipe for what to take.” 

Berkowitz on live-tweeting the college coaching gravy train: “I started doing it on a sort of trial-and-error basis, seeing what people were interested in and it sort of grabbed people’s interest. So, I’ve started to be more active with it, particularly with football…It has been a reader interest thing and an accountability thing…We have the information, so why not put it out?…”

“I wish it could be automated, but we haven’t been able to develop a way to sort of automate that, to trigger this out in real-time…”

“Basically, I’ll sit down once a week and go through the standings and see who is eligible or is going to be or have the ability to be eligible for a bowl game. Because I’ve been through these contracts enough times, you begin to know where different trigger points are for guys, if they get a certain number of wins whether it will trigger out like a contract extension or some other incentive in the coach’s contract. So, just by brute force repetition, I begin to sort of know where to look in a given week, beyond [a coach] just becoming bowl eligible with a sixth win. And so, I sit down every week, at the beginning of the week, and go through it. And I actually sit there and handwrite it onto a copy of that week’s schedule. It is sitting there and using a highlighter and a pen and then watching how the results develop.”

Here are some additional reading materials and useful links…


Featured image by Naval Base Kitsap (NBK) / Flickr