Boise State University's Cinderella football season had just culminated in an improbable overtime win against Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year's Day. As Broncos fans celebrated, Boise State President Robert Kustra cast a quick glance at Athletic Director Gene Bleymaier -- who knew exactly what his boss was thinking.
"We both realized we must go back to Boise and do something with Coach [Chris] Petersen's contract," Kustra said. "This isn't something we are doing because he asked for it. We know we cannot afford to stand still and not reconsider his contract."
Petersen, Boise State's first-year head coach, made more than $660,000 this season, compared with a reported $3.4-million salary for Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops, whose team lost three games.
Two days after the Broncos completed their 13-0 season, the University of Alabama minted college football's first $4-million coach by signing Nick Saban away from the NFL's Miami Dolphins. Saban's pay dwarfs the $572,620 earned by university President Robert E. Witt.
This rise in coaches' pay comes as many universities are also taking on millions in debt to add professional-style luxury suites and private clubs to their stadiums and arenas. The heavy spending already has drawn congressional scrutiny.
Concerns about skyrocketing college coaching salaries surfaced two years ago when the University of Florida successfully lured University of Utah football coach Urban Meyer by offering him $2 million, quadrupling his salary. Notre Dame made a similar offer to sign Charlie Weis from the NFL's New England Patriots -- and later the Fighting Irish gave Weis a 10-year extension that will pay him about $3.5 million annually.
Given the rapid growth in salaries, many sports observers say the price of a winning college coach has nowhere to go but up.
"You'll soon see someone at $5 million and then $6 million," said Gary Roberts, director of Tulane University law school's sports law program. "The figures will keep going up because the dollars that flow from successful football programs are so enormous that universities will keep hiring coaches who they believe will lead them into the promised land."
The pay for popular coaches is akin to "the laws of the auction," said Leigh Steinberg, a longtime Newport Beach sports agent. "At certain universities it's the head football coach, not the president
Said Kustra: "A school like Boise State, which wants to hold on to one of the best football coaches in America, has to reconsider [Petersen's] salary and be as competitive as possible. Even if we can't be as extravagantly generous as some of these contracts we're hearing about."
A National Collegiate Athletic Assn. task force last fall issued a call for stronger fiscal accountability on college campuses. NCAA President Myles Brand said that spending "is not at a crisis stage, and it is unlikely it will reach that point, but clearly there are athletics programs facing economic stress."
NCAA data show that only six Division I-A athletic programs regularly generate surplus revenue. Another half-dozen big-time programs receive modest annual university subsidies, and more than half of big-time programs receive annual university subsidies of 5% or more.
As the cost to compete escalates, Brand cautioned, "the pace means ever-increasing subsidies as well as institutional investments for facilities that could have long-term financial impacts."
The bidding war for college coaches also is fueled by NFL teams. The University of Louisville twice sweetened football coach Bobby Petrino's contract, but it couldn't stop him from leaving for a five-year, $24-million contract with the Atlanta Falcons, making him one of the highest-paid NFL coaches.
Salaries for college football coaches already are augmented by such perks as courtesy cars, private jets, country club memberships and bonuses for improved graduation rates, conference championships and postseason bowl play.
More worrisome, critics say, is the building boom in college football stadiums and basketball arenas.
"When you hire a coach, a long-term contract means perhaps five years," said Peter Likens, president emeritus at the University of Arizona and chairman of the recent NCAA task force. "But when you commit $100 million in bonded indebtedness to build or renovate a football stadium or basketball arena, you're talking a 30-year commitment.
"These institutions are betting ... that the trends of recent years showing very dramatic growth in revenue will be sustained for 20 to 30 years," Likens said. "Economically, that long-term debt is really a very, very serious issue."
NCAA data show that spending at big-time college athletics programs has increased at two to four times the rate of spending elsewhere on campus -- even as the rate of revenue increases slows.