March Madness and Star Wars

Louisville coach Rick Pitino is one of 31 college basketball coaches paid more than a million dollars to win games and go to the Big Dance year after year.The final four teams in the NCAA men's basketball tournament squared off last weekend. All four teams are university powerhouses with star coaches who earn millions per year.

Unlike pro basketball, where players such as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are the big draw, college basketball coaches are the program. They live and die by who they recruit, how they play on the court and how they sell to students, alumni and sponsors.

An article in the February edition of the Journal of Sport and Social Issues features research by two Towson University faculty members that questions the relationship between high-paid coaching stars and success on the football field or basketball court.

The researchers say 60 percent of the time, high paid coaches don't change the fortunes of college football and basketball programs. They do make improvements 20 percent of the time, but 20 percent of the time they oversee programs that decline. Not exactly a rousing reason to land a star coach.

However, you wouldn't be able to prove that point with this year's Final Four. Louisville made it to the Final Four under the guidance of Rick Pitino, whom USA Today and Forbes Magazine claim is the highest paid college basketball coach, receiving between $6 and $7 million.

Coaches of the other three teams aren't starving, either. John Calipari of Kentucky and Bill Self of Kansas each earned around $4 million. Ohio State's Thad Matta brought in more than $2.5 million.

Loyal fans and appreciative sponsors probably aren't complaining.

Tom Izzo of Michigan State and Billy Donovan of Florida, whose teams reached the Elite Eight, each receive in the vicinity of $3.5 million. North Carolina's Roy Williams and Wisconsin's Bo Ryan, whose teams also went deep in the tournament, are relative bargains at under $2 million each.

Some deplore the astronomical sums paid to college coaches for what they view as exploiting unpaid college players. Yes, they say, college players get scholarships, make connections and, in a few cases, show the chops to go on to professional teams that pay well.

Like players, most coaches have careers, or at least jobs, that can end abruptly. A losing season, or even a bad recruiting class, can put a successful coach on the skids. A first-round tournament loss by Duke to lowly Lehigh University was blamed on legendary Coach Mike Krzyzewski, the second highest paid college basketball coach, not the Blue Devil players.

Forbes notes star coaches don't reach and stay at their pinnacle without a lot of work. Calipari, for example, has taken three universities to the Final Four (Kentucky, Memphis and UMass), while winning 76 percent of his games.

Pitino, who previously coached at Kentucky, has led his teams to Final Four appearances in four separate decades. His coaching career began as an assistant at the University of Hawaii.

Self started his coaching career as an assistant to then-Kansas Coach Larry Brown. Self replaced Calipari, who left to become an assistant coach at the University of Pittsburgh. His first head-coaching job was at Oral Roberts University, which won just six games in his inaugural season. In his fourth season, he guided the Golden Eagles to the school's first post-season tournament appearance.

Matta is one of just two NCAA men's basketball coaches to post 20 or more wins in his first 12 seasons as head coach. Following his days as a player for the Hoopeston High School Cornjerkers, Matta began as a graduate assistant at Indiana State University. His first head-coaching job was at Butler University.

Whether they deserve it or not, football and basketball coaches are treated and paid like stars. As March Madness intensifies, that isn't likely to change any time soon.