Providing perks like cars and country club memberships for top leaders and coaches, according to many connected to the University of Nebraska and big-name athletic programs, is part of the game.
Through donations and private money, 94 NU administrators and athletic staff — and one coach's wife — get cars, gym or country club memberships, or both.
The 80 cars, ranging from economical sedans to luxury SUVs, are collectively valued at least $2.25 million, according to a World-Herald analysis. Memberships for 50 employees range from gyms valued at $50 to $60 a month to country clubs with $5,000 initiation fees, $10,000 down payments for golf memberships and hundreds a month more in dues.
The list of 94 people receiving the privately funded perks extends from the prominent coaches of revenue-generating sports down to less-publicized teams. It was released to media outlets Wednesday by the watchdog group Common Cause Nebraska. It periodically requests the lists from the university because it believes that too little is known about the broader incentive program.
Foundation and university officials said the cars, memberships and related expenses are paid for through a mix of private money: the NU Foundation's athletic discretionary fund, alumni support organizations and area car dealers in Wheel Clubs associated with the Lincoln and Omaha campuses.
Jack Gould, Common Cause Nebraska's issues chairman, believes that the public should know who is funding such perks at the public university.
“When you begin to see more and more private money going to public officials, where do the loyalties lie?” Gould said. “The public needs to know how this money is being used.”
But for others, the boost from non-state funding gives a competitive edge in recruiting and retaining talent.
NU Regent Hal Daub said he respects Gould's point, but he thinks that the perks have value and are well-monitored by athletic and NU Foundation leaders.
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“I think we do a pretty good job now of casting a critical eye on useful ways to attract and retain good people while using money that is not devoted to scholarships,” said Daub.
Chris Anderson, spokeswoman for NU athletics, said Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst was unavailable for comment.
She said via email that athletic staffers' cars were provided through the Wheel Club program, under which car dealers from throughout Nebraska donate cars or leases and can take a tax deduction for doing so.
Gas and insurance are paid for by the individuals driving the vehicles, she said, and decisions about who receives which benefits are made by the athletic director.
The athletic director oversees the discretionary fund at the NU Foundation used to pay for most of the benefits, according to a foundation spokeswoman.
The foundation's total assets are $1.9 billion; it gave $174.7 million to the university in the last fiscal year during a record year of fundraising.
The additional benefits are needed to remain competitive, Anderson said in an email.
“Providing our coaches and administrators everything they need to be successful is an important tool used in recruiting the best and the brightest talent,” Anderson said.
The university's president and chancellors, as well as head Husker football coach Bo Pelini, have the fringe benefits written into their often-scrutinized contracts. But the bulk of the perks go to coaches at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln or the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Salary records show that more than half the employees getting the perks make six figures or more.
Pelini gets a Lincoln Country Club membership and 2012 Nissan Armada — and a 2011 Nissan Quest for his wife — on top of a nearly $3 million salary.
But numerous assistant coaches of sports from softball and volleyball at UNO to wrestling and swimming at UNL also get cars, something that experts say is growing increasingly common at colleges in the big five sports conferences.
The records provided by the university list the types of cars and memberships but no information about the value of the benefits or the funding sources.
To analyze the car values, The World-Herald used the invoice prices from autotrader.com that dealers would have paid to manufacturers, though actual retail values of all the cars would certainly be higher. Many of the cars were directly donated by dealers.
The value of the perks varies widely from person to person, though.
While the UNO assistant women's volleyball coach drives a Volkswagen Jetta (invoice price $14,923), the assistant athletic director for football at UNL drives a Range Rover (invoice price $70,684).
The Range Rover for Jeff Jamrog, UNL's assistant A.D. for football, for example, could cost up to $23,000 over the invoice price, or about $93,000, on the car lot, depending on the options included.
The 2009 Porsche Cayenne driven by Harold Maurer, chancellor for the University of Nebraska Medical Center, had an invoice price of $37,910 but would have sold for between $44,600 and $123,600 when it was new.
Maurer referred questions to the foundation. Jamrog did not return a call for comment.
And though some leaders such as NU President J.B. Milliken get memberships to exclusive Omaha and Lincoln country clubs, UNL assistant football coach Ross Els has his relatively modest membership to the YMCA paid for.
UNO President John Christensen and NU vice president for university affairs Sharon Stephan take monthly car allowances instead of a vehicle.
Milliken did not respond to a request for an interview through a spokeswoman.
The level of perks for athletic staff has become a high-dollar case of keeping up with the Joneses, said Robert Malekoff, associate professor of sport studies at Guilford College and a former Division I coach.
Any college in the big five conferences faces the same sort of pressure, Malekoff said: the pressure to offer a better deal than the next school when it comes to keeping good coaches.
That big picture of compensation is what's making the cost of college athletic spending unsustainable and may cause onlookers to question an institution's priorities, he said.
“I think they can point to the idea that this really isn't costing any money, and that may or may not be fair,” Malekoff said. “But we still need to look at salaries being one of the big issues.”
Jack Crowley, who sits on the board of the nonprofit Husker Athletic Fund, a fundraising arm of the UNL athletic department, said the arrangement is decades old and very common in major athletic programs. He said the cars are important because the coaches' jobs don't end after practice.
“I think it helps the coaches to have a vehicle available to them so they can get to different events, give talks and all the things they have to do beyond coaching,” Crowley said. “I think they (the donors) feel good about our athletic program and the way things are being done. They feel good about supporting it.”
Brian Hastings, president of the NU Foundation, said the foundation funds the cars for administrators, as well as insurance and other expenses. It all comes from unrestricted nondonor funds, he said.
The rest of the cars come from other groups, such as the Wheel Club, he said.
“We exist to support the university and help the university advance,” Hastings said.
World-Herald staff writer Andrew Ward contributed to this report.