Letter to the Editor | Cut Coach Fitzgerald’s pay

The Wildcats football team has morphed from purple pride to red-faced shame, with its 1-7 record, including humiliating losses to Ohio State and Indiana. Daily reporter Peter Warren compared NU’s 2019 season to the 1930’s Dust Bowl. In this century’s biggest understatement, coach Pat Fitzgerald said: “We haven’t had momentum created for our offense.”

No kidding. The only bowl bid NU is likely to get is an invitation to the Toilet Bowl, if such a post-season event actually existed.

When Division I football and basketball teams suffer losing streaks, it’s common for angry alums and students to cry: “Fire the coach.” That’s not appropriate in this case, but reducing Fitzgerald’s compensation is, for both fairness reasons and tax purposes. Private universities are not bound by the same disclosure laws when it comes their athletic staff’s pay. However, USA Today revealed earlier this year that Fitzgerald received $5.1 million in 2017, according to the latest data available. NU athletic director Jim Phillips also received nearly $1.57 million that year — not exactly minimum wage. Fitzgerald ranked among the nation’s top 20 highest paid college football coaches and was in the top half of all 14 of the Big Ten’s football coaches. Winning teams pack stadiums with fans, attract lucrative TV contracts and generate revenue that benefits their schools’ athletic and academic programs. Fair enough. Pay based on performance is a top rationale for coaches’ compensation — so how do you justify a coach’s fat paycheck when his team collapses big time?

I believe coaches should be paid on a sliding scale, based on the team’s current performance. NU can’t legally cut Fitzgerald’s pay, because his contract extends to 2026. However, he can take a voluntary annual pay cut to $1 million until he gets better results.

I feel he should do this not only out of decency but also to help NU comply with a new tax law.

Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, all private, non-profit institutions, including universities, must pay a 21 percent tax on the salary of any staffer whose yearly pay exceeds $1 million. The employer, not the employee, pays the levy. By dropping his salary below the law’s threshold, Fitzgerald can save NU over $1 million in taxes, plus $4 million in compensation costs, by my own estimates (I majored in journalism, not math). NU could potentially use this money to bolster student mental health services and increase aid to low income students for tuition assistance, textbooks, winter clothes, food and other basic needs.

I salute Fitzgerald’s achievements as an NU football player and coach. As a linebacker from 1993-96, he twice won the Bronco Nagurski Trophy and Chuck Bednarik Award as the best defensive player in college football. He played on NU’s 1996 Rose Bowl team, the Cats’ only trip to Pasadena since 1949. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008. Two years prior at age 31, he was named NU’s head coach, becoming the youngest football coach in the Big Ten at the time. From 2006 through 2018, NU won 96 games, including 56 Big Ten contests and played in nine bowl games. He recruited top high school players who also met NU’s tough academic standards.

That’s a lot to be proud of. However, to quote an old Hollywood adage: “You’re only as good as your last picture.” In Division I sports, you’re only as good as your current season, and 2019 really sucks. Football requires sacrifice, in body, mind and heart. It may also require financial sacrifice. How about it, coach? Will you take a hit for NU’s team?

— Medill Alum Dick Reif (‘64)