Ian Davison

Free Cars for Coaches in the MAC and Beyond

Ian Davison

In Kent State University’s athletic department, head coaches, and the assistant coaching staff for basketball and football receive cars from the University. That’s 33 in total. How many do professors receive? Zero.

And Kent is not unique. Every school contacted in the Mid-American Conference provides a car or a vehicle stipend to members of their athletic departments. Data for Western Michigan is not available at this time.

In total, 295 vehicle perks are provided to athletic departments in the MAC.

Beyond the MAC

This arrangement is not unique to the MAC. In the Southeastern Conference, the University of Kentucky provides 33 cars. These go to the coaching staff of football, men and women’s basketball, the head coach of volleyball, and the Athletic Director.

Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart, men’s basketball head coach John Calipari, and football head coach Joker Philips each receive two cars. The 12 remaining head coaches of UK’s other sports receive a $400 a month as a vehicle stipend.

UK uses a program it calls -Cars for Tickets-[link to Auto Memo of Understanding Form.pdf]. In exchange for providing a new car or a current-year car with low mileage, the dealership receives two football season tickets and two basketball season tickets for each vehicle they provide.


So why do these universities feel they have to provide cars to their coaches? According to Kent State University’s Athletic Director Joel Nielsen, it’s to stay competitive. “It’s one of those competitive advantage situations where if we weren’t doing it, we’d be at a competitive disadvantage,” Nielsen says. “So by doing it, you keep up with your peer institutions.”

“One of the biggest reasons we give coaches cars is so that they can do their jobs,” says Ohio University Assistant Athletic Director of Media Relations Tom Symonds. “Coaches need cars so that they can recruit. It is significantly cheaper for coaches to own or lease a car rather than pay mileage for recruiting visits. It is also an industry standard.”

Disparity Between Athletics and Academics

The prevailing attitude seems to be that providing these cars helps universities recruit and retain top athletic talent. But what about the academic side, presumably the reason these universities exist in the first place?

We were only able to identify one school in the MAC that where an academic department receives a vehicle. At Central Michigan, the College of Medicine has one car that is shared by the entire department. Their Athletic Department receives 38, the highest in the MAC.

In addition, Central Michigan provides -suggestions-[link to Central Michigan Car Club user guidelines.pdf] to its athletic department on how to build “strong relationships” with the dealers providing the cars. These include inviting the dealers to dinner, providing them tickets to sporting events, inviting them to play a round of golf, and providing their wife and kids with gear (within the NCAA rules of course).

These perks are granted to some of the highest-paid employees at the universities. For example, Joker Philips at the University of Kentucky makes $400,000 a year and still receives two cars through UK’s car program.

Here’s Tom Wistrcill, the Athletic Director of the University of Akron explaining this disparity.

[INSERT AKRON AD – division between athletics, academics]

“You can’t compare the Athletic Department to the English Department,” says John Cropp, the University of Kentucky’s Associate Athletics Director/Administration. “The English Department doesn’t have to make a profit. What the English Department is doing is immensely important; maybe even the most important thing on campus. But you can’t compare the two.”

“It’s apples and oranges,” Cropp says.

Kent State’s Joel Nielsen also doesn’t think the divide between academics and athletics is out of balance. “I think we, being in the MAC, we’ve got a good sense on how to spend money, how much money we need, how to fundraise and how to be responsible to the institution…I would challenge most people to say there is frivolous spending.”

Welch Suggs, sportswriter and Associate Director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics says “In the grand scheme of things, on a global and even national scale it is not right that these coaches receive the highest payments. Education and students should be the HIGHEST priority. In small schools it’s not right that athletic departments are using money subsidized from students to pay for these things that they give to coaches for free.”

“These coaches better walk around campus and say thank you for their cars to every student they see,” Suggs says.

It All Comes Down to Money

Money, and how it is spent, is what it all comes down to. So let’s take a look at how some of these athletic departments get their money. According to Examining the University Bill, a study conducted by Kent State University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, many of these Athletic Departments in the MAC derive much of their budget from student fees.

At Kent State, 62% of the Athletic Budget is pulled from student fees. Akron? 78%. Central Michigan doesn’t receive any of its budget from student fees, but it and Western Michigan are the exceptions in the MAC.

If universities can justify spending some of this money on cars to attract top athletic talent, how can they justify not doing the same to attract top academic talent?

Students paying fees that support these Athletic Departments may want consider if their dollars might be better spent on academics, rather than cars for coaches.


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