Why High School Coaches Make $150k: The Economics Behind the Real Friday Night Lights

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It's astonishing how deeply life in Texas organizes itself around high school games on Friday nights, and college games on Saturday afternoons. You may have seen Friday Night Lights, and the truth isn’t that far off. Texas football, I’ve come to believe, is a prism through which issues of race, class, culture, and money can all be viewed. And the economics of it reflect a whole lot of that. This is part of what I’ve learned covering that world as a newspaperman for so long.

I'd been at the Austin American-Statesman for a while when I got a new beat: a roving sports features reporter. What’s funny is that I wasn’t even a big sports fan. When Kevin Durant was a freshman sensation at the University of Texas, I wrote a piece about his childhood on the rough streets of D.C. and the people who helped him blossom into a basketball star—his coaches, his mother, and his friends from the hood. I also wrote about the UT quarterback Vince Young’s father, who was in prison in Richmond, Texas, outside Houston, and what it was like to witness your son’s football glory, while locked inside a cell. But somehow I came to write an awful lot about, and experience an awful lot of, Texas high school football.

The economics of high school football in Texas are pretty unusual. At first they seem a little crazy. On Friday nights, out in the Dallas suburbs, the Allen High School football team plays under the lights in a beautiful redbrick stadium that was built for $60 million. Outside of Houston, perennial powerhouse Katy High School’s facility was completed for $63.5 million. Not to be outdone, Allen’s neighboring rival McKinney has just broken ground on what will eventually be a $70 million stadium. But if you look at them the way these towns and schools do, those numbers start to make a certain kind of sense.

Coaches can be rewarded with a country club membership or a brand-new truck from a local Chevy dealer. There’s nothing underhanded about this—it’s simply what the market will bear.

The first thing you have to understand is the formative in-state rivalry that sparked everything that was to come.

In 1910, the regents of the University of Texas moved the school’s campus to forty glorious acres near the Colorado River, just north of the state capitol in downtown Austin. They envisioned an august, widely revered institution, modeled after the Ivy League colleges of the Northeast, which they decreed would be “the finest public university in the land.” But in 1876, a hundred miles to the east, in the town of College Station, Texas A&M University had been founded, a school that focused on the study of agriculture and mining. There couldn’t have been a steeper cultural divide: a school of city sophisticates pondering philosophy, engineering, the arts, and other academic disciplines, and a school of rural tradesmen who concentrated on farming. These clashing identities found a suitable battleground for their fierce rivalry: the gridiron.

Every single year from 1915 to 2011, the Texas Longhorns and the A&M Aggies football teams fought it out on the field, and Texans across the state grew up supporting one school or the other, and looking at their rivals with jealousy and disdain. Long before the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans became heralded NFL franchises, or colleges like Baylor, TCU, Texas Tech, and the University of Houston built successful football teams of their own, kids in Texas dreamed of growing up to play for Coach Darrell Royal’s University of Texas team or Coach Bear Bryant’s squad at Texas A&M. As the rivalry grew in stature, a passion for football spread to towns in every corner of the state. Years and decades passed, and Texas became known, along with California, Florida, and Ohio, as one of the nation’s hotbeds of high school football talent—and before long, any exorbitant sums spent on coaches, facilities, and stadiums actually felt quite sensible.

Wealthy school districts also build top-notch academics. But you won’t hear a guy at the Dallas airport bragging about his son’s or daughter’s Model United Nations team. You hear him say, “We’ve won two high school football championships.”

People accept these economics because communities believe that a successful high school team can be an engine for economic growth, attracting new businesses and new families to the area. And teams have become a source of enormous community pride. Now, to be fair, wealthy school districts like the ones I mentioned also work to build top-notch fine-arts programs and academics. But you won’t hear a guy at the Dallas airport bragging about his son’s or daughter’s Model United Nations team. You hear him say, “I live in Southlake. Maybe you’ve heard of Southlake Carroll? We’ve won two high school football championships in the past ten years.” It’s worth it to them to pay more in taxes to build a fancy stadium that will bring in elite coaches and attract top players. You hear people say, “Westlake just spent $6 million on new free weights, so we’re gonna spend $7 million.” In recent years, apparel companies like Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour have rewarded successful high school teams with lucrative contracts.

Winning coaches have become highly sought-after commodities, well worth their hefty salaries. High school head coaches can make as much as $150,000 a year. And top teams employ as many as ten full-time assistants, with salaries close to six figures, an amount that goes a long, long way in some parts of Texas. Beyond their salaries, coaches can be rewarded with a country club membership or a brand-new truck from a local Chevy dealer. There’s nothing underhanded about this—it’s simply what the market will bear. If you don’t shower your coaches with generosity, they might very well entertain an offer from a rival school. Communities learn to keep their coaches happy so they don’t go sniffing around for other opportunities. And the most successful coaches are often drafted into the college ranks. David Bailiff began his career coaching high school in New Braunfels, Texas, before moving to college; he now earns more than $800,000 a year as the head coach at Rice University. Art Briles was known for his “run and gun” offense at Stephenville High School, where he won numerous state championships. He jumped to college coaching and eventually became the head coach at Baylor, where his salary reached over $5 million a year; he was recently fired for his part in a cover-up of some terrible things members of the football team did to women on campus. Of course, parents look for coaches who will not only win games but also be positive role models for their kids. A coach who sets the right example can be forgiven if he doesn’t bring home a championship, and a coach who wins but is not perceived to be a quality person can find dwindling support in the community.

Building state-of-the-art facilities also became a way to inspire the most promising blue-chip players to move to a district to pursue the sport. In the past twenty years, talent has migrated from urban schools like Dallas Carter to suburban schools like Southlake Carroll and Austin Westlake. Last year’s state champion, Lake Travis High School, is from a wealthy suburban area west of Austin. Lake Travis boasts its own indoor field, so players can practice year-round, and a vast weight room that looks like a brand-new Gold’s Gym. Quarterback Charlie Brewer, who led his team to the title, had been playing with his receiving corps—all of whom are bound for Division I programs—since they were in grade school. In peewee football, at the age of six and seven, Lake Travis youngsters begin learning the high school playbook; by the time they’re seniors, they’ve had ten years to master it. Even as second graders, their coaches include active UT assistants and people like Gale Gilbert, a former NFL quarterback.

Beyond the formal training players receive from their coaches, an industry of specialized training has sprouted up. Lake Travis is home to two separate “speed academies”, which focus purely on teaching kids to run fast. Quarterback camps pop up like 7-Elevens. It’s not uncommon for players to have a private strength and conditioning coach or a motivational therapist. An arms race has ensued. Parents who want their children to succeed on the field—and perhaps, they may believe, by extension, in life—often feel that pumping money into football tutoring is the only way for their kids to keep up.

Despite their magnificent resources, affluent districts don’t always have a lock on the championships. In 2015, a team from inner-city Houston, Galena North Shore, upset Westlake to win the state title. When you have smart, committed coaches who are knowledgeable about the game, and players who are willing to put in the hard work necessary to build a winning team, anything is possible. It’s the exception, not the rule, but sometimes the economic underdog can still emerge victorious.

As new science uncovers the dangers of concussions for high school athletes, I’m sometimes frustrated by the stubbornness of many parents and coaches, and their and unwillingness to confront the risks involved with football. Participation numbers are down for peewee football but haven’t shifted in high school yet. For now, players who have spent their lives preparing for a high school football career seem unlikely to drop the sport just when they're about to get the chance to play on that big stage—to be part of the high school football team is to be a member of an elite class of people in your town. And that's true not just for the players but for their parents as well. So until that culture shifts, it’s unlikely that a Will Smith movie or a Sports Illustrated article will change people’s behavior.

And even as someone who worries about the effects of violence in football, I’m still out every Friday night cheering on Dripping Springs High School, our local team. Tickets are only a few bucks apiece—schools understand that packing the stands is important. I bring my whole family. The booster club cooks bratwurst and burgers; the middle school cliques hang out in the bleachers; grade school kids play catch with Nerf footballs in the grass beyond the end zones; and the marching band and cheerleaders and drill teams put on their extravagant halftime show. A Friday night high school football game in Texas is the essence of what any community aspires to be—diverse, inclusive, friendly, and optimistic. And even if you lose a game, there’s always next week, there’s always next year.

As told to Davy Rothbart exclusively for Wealthsimple.

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