PSAC West schools commonly outspend eastern foes
When Jason Makrinos was the Slippery Rock football program's recruiting coordinator from 2010-13, he had a strategy for plucking players from eastern Pennsylvania.
“I would say, ‘Look, there are three reasons why you should look at Slippery Rock even though you're in Philadelphia,' ” said Makrinos, now co-defensive coordinator at Duquesne. “ ‘No. 1, we're successful. No. 2, Slippery Rock's admission standards are on par with private schools. No. 3 is the fact that we have more scholarship money, and that's probably the biggest reason why you should be interested.' ”
Little is equal when it comes to universities in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, and money spent on coaches is no exception, especially when talking about the three traditional revenue sports: football, men's basketball and women's basketball.
A Tribune-Review analysis of athletic department spending during the past five years found that the five public schools in the PSAC West division routinely and significantly outspent their nine counterparts in the PSAC East in coaches' salaries and scholarship equivalencies.
Because those 14 PSAC universities are funded by the state, salary information is public record. Private schools such as Mercyhurst and Gannon are not required to disclose salary information, although they're routinely among the leaders when it comes to raising money for scholarships — information provided by the PSAC.
Schools are not permitted to dole out state money as scholarships, so it's incumbent upon coaches to raise enough to attract top athletes.
The Trib found that:
• During the past five years, PSAC West schools spent an average of 41 percent more — about $106,000 per school — on football coaches, 48 percent more ($51,000 per school) on men's basketball coaches and 24 percent more ($25,700 per school) on women's basketball coaches.
• During that same period, PSAC West schools generated an average of 267.5 scholarship equivalencies in the three revenue sports — 114 more than the PSAC East's average between 2009-14.
• Cal (Pa.), which won the Dixon Trophy last season as the PSAC's top athletics-performing school, spent on average $2.16 million on all of its coaches over the past five years — nearly 30 percent more than No. 2 West Chester and 4 1⁄2 times as much as Cheyney, which ranked last.
Western schools traditionally have spent more than their eastern counterparts, said PSAC commissioner Steve Murray, who has been with the league since 1993 and in his current position since 1998.
It's a matter of simple math, Murray said.
There are more kids in the East, so western schools — who not only compete with Robert Morris, Duquesne, Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia but also themselves — need to spend more to remain competitive.
“With the volume of schools in the eastern side of the state — the schools practically bump into each other — there's plenty of talented athletes to go around,” Murray said.
John Luckhardt fought this battle when he was Cal football coach from 2002-11.
“There are fewer kids to pursue (locally), and there are more people pursuing them,” Luckhardt said. “The competition to get those kids is challenging.”
There's a blueprint that successful programs follow, Edinboro athletic director Bruce Baumgartner said.
“Scholarships allow you to get good players,” he said. “Salary allows you to keep good coaches. Good coaches allow you to build a program or tradition.”
Frank Cignetti Sr. coached football at IUP from 1986-2006 and, like his successors, engaged in fierce — and expensive — recruiting battles.
“Say I've identified a player, and he's being recruited by Duquesne, Robert Morris, St. Francis and Youngstown State,” said Cignetti, now 76. “If you don't have some money to offer him, you're not going to be in the competition.
“Even back when I was coaching, you had to have money to compete in the West.”
Financial incentives aren't limited to athletes, said Luckhardt, referring to a school's commitment to coaches' salaries.
“Just as it is with trying to get the best players, if you want to get the best coaches, you're going to spend the most money for something you value,” Luckhardt said. “Because Western Pennsylvanians value sports, I think you're more inclined to make that kind of investment.”
PSAC football, men's basketball and women's basketball programs have made 47 NCAA playoff appearances over the past five years. Eight times a PSAC team reached the NCAA Division II quarterfinals or beyond. Six of those teams hail from the PSAC West.
Investing in success
For the 2013-14 athletic year, IUP spent the most of any PSAC school on football salaries: $467,000. Cheyney spent $519,000 on all of its coaches.
But based on enrollment figures provided by the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, Cheyney of the PSAC East spent more on its coaches per student (about $356) than anyone in the conference by a wide margin. Lock Haven spent the second-most in 2013-14 on its coaches per student at $275.
Cheyney, which boasts the smallest enrollment of any PSAC school, devoted more of its total salary payments — 70 percent — to the big three sports during the past five years than any other conference school. IUP ranked second at 57 percent.
Lock Haven of the PSAC East was last at funneling coaches' money into revenue sports at about 30 percent.
Deciding where to spend on salary at IUP is a matter of prioritizing wins, athletic director Frank Condino said.
“For our men's basketball program, the goal is to compete on the national level,” Condino said. “For some of our (other) programs, the goal is to compete on a regional level.
“Sometimes you're willing to invest more to compete on the national level as opposed to regional or state.”
IUP football coach Curt Cignetti, Frank Cignetti's son, said coaches, especially those in the revenue sports, are some of the most prominent figures at universities and deserve what they're paid. In Curt Cignetti's case, he pocketed $132,300 — most among PSAC football coaches — in 2013-14.
“I think all head coaches — football, men's basketball or women's basketball — are the face of the program and represent the university,” Cignetti said. “They develop relationships and promote the university.”
Some salaries are skewed by summer camp success. West Chester swim and dive coach James Rudisill made $213,700 in 2013-14, though only about $71,800 of that was base salary, according to the State System of Higher Education.
For others, such as Slippery Rock football coach George Mihalik's $107,900 salary, the compensation covers his coaching and teaching responsibilities.
More money and scholarships, however, can't guarantee success, said Jeff Wilson, the East Stroudsburg men's basketball head coach.
“Schools like IUP, California or Gannon can go out and get more players, but they can also make more mistakes,” Wilson said. “We can't make a lot of mistakes.”
Wilson hasn't made many.
East Stroudsburg is 112-39 over the past five years without ranking higher than sixth in salary spending in the PSAC.
Part of that has been Wilson's ability to raise scholarship money. His program was first or second in the PSAC East in scholarship equivalencies each of the past five years.
Coaches who can raise money make themselves more attractive to their schools, but paying coaches exorbitant salaries doesn't necessarily equate to wins or fundraising dollars.
Millersville, for example, spent an average of $332,500 on its football coaches' salaries over the past five years — ranking fifth or higher in the PSAC every year — but the Marauders have only an 11-44 record to show for it.
Meanwhile, Millersville handed out an average of 6.2 football scholarship equivalencies between 2009-14, well short of the PSAC East average of 10.2 and far from the PSAC West mark of 23.6.
Clarion men's basketball also has struggled to raise scholarship money. Before retiring after last season, longtime coach Ron Righter and his staff were paid on average $159,200 over the past five seasons. That ranked among the top five in the PSAC during that span. Clarion accumulated a 60-73 record. But between 2009-14, Clarion was last or next to last in the PSAC West in scholarship equivalencies.
Edinboro women's basketball, on the other hand, gets plenty of bang for its buck. While Cal and IUP have combined for eight No. 1 finishes in spending on basketball — men's and women's combined — the Edinboro women have ranked seventh in spending on average.
Yet Edinboro compiled a 121-31 record with three PSAC West titles, three PSAC championships, an NCAA Division II Atlantic Region title and another appearance in the region championship game.
“Our coaches at Edinboro have competed above the curve for the most part,” Baumgartner said. “Above resources.”
Cal has been the leading spender on all coaches' salaries each of the past five years and four of those five in revenue sports spending. But the Vulcans do not have a PSAC title in basketball or football to show for it, only the Dixon Trophy.
Still, Cal athletic director Karen Hjerpe doesn't have a problem with her institution's return on its investment.
“I don't think we could be any happier,” Hjerpe said, “with the sports we have and what we're doing.”