The economic dissonance in big-time college athletics can be observed in the macro: a multibillion-dollar amateur enterprise where athlete NIL is now permitted but direct compensation is not. Or in the micro: UCLA men’s basketball coach Mick Cronin’s effort last fall to get reimbursed by his school for a nominal rental car fee.
First, keep two pieces of data in mind: Cronin stands 5-foot-7—so, not a tall guy—and he is paid $4 million per season—so, a well-compensated guy. He runs a program with operating expenditures between $9 million and $11 million per year, according to financial disclosures the school has made to the NCAA.
Also worth considering: Cronin led the Bruins to last year’s Final Four, the program’s first March Madness semifinal appearance since 2008. (His team enters Thursday’s tourney game against Akron as the No. 4 seed in the East Region.) Typically, coaches in this position rarely need to explain what they’re costing their university. And for the most part, Cronin hasn’t.
The coach put in dozens of expenses for reimbursement last year, which Sportico obtained through public records requests. But only one bill came with a formal explanation: the $49 he paid Hertz to upgrade to an SUV while on a September recruiting trip in Wichita.
“Coach’s physical stature is such that it does not fit comfortably into smaller vehicles, making lengthy trips involving many hours in the vehicle extremely fatiguing and uncomfortable,” a UCLA administrator wrote, describing Cronin. “While recruiting, it is important to coach is placed in the best position to represent the University while recruiting high profile prospective student athletes.”
UCLA ultimately comped the vehicle upgrade, as part of a $1,889 disbursement to Cronin that covered his out-of-pocket recruiting expenses over the course of a week. (A Bruins spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.) Sportico obtained the documents while making public records requests of dozens of D-I schools for the reimbursements made last year to their highest-paid athletic department employees.
Though Cronin’s legroom entreaty stood out, it was not the only thing of note within the pile of Uber receipts and mileage calculations. To wit:
- In addition to his $8 million salary, Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari recouped a $1,645 night at the Ritz Carlton and a $633 room at the Beverly Hills Hotel. (A UK spokesperson noted the “expense account” clause in Calipari’s employment contract, which entitles him to be reimbursed for “all reasonable and necessary expenses” that are in conjunction with his coaching duties.)
- Did beef tallow fuel Cincinnati’s scrappy College Football Playoff run last year? Between June 13, 2021, and June 20, 2021, Bearcats coach Luke Fickell racked up a $18,063 in charges for five separate meals at Prime Cincinnati steakhouse. (A Cincy spokesperson said they were for recruiting visits.)
- Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin was reimbursed $1,487 for a pizza truck he hired to come to his home for a VIP party during the weekend the Gators played Alabama. (A UF spokesperson noted that hosting the gathering at Stricklin’s house helped “to create a more personal, relaxed environment and the pizza truck was a cheaper option than hiring a traditional caterer.”)
- Rutgers AD Patrick Hobbs was reimbursed $8,712 for various golf outings with donors in 2021.
- While he was head football coach at Fresno State, Kalen DeBoer, who now coaches Washington, was reimbursed $237.31 and $439.20 for what was described as “wives lunch(es) paid for with donor funds.” (An FSU spokesperson said that DeBoer’s contract provided for a once-a-year spouse trip to an away game.)
Sportico will be publishing short business highlights throughout the three-week NCAA tournament.
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