$1 million is a lot of money.
And when it’s being spent or promised by a public body in Nebraska, the public ought to know why.
That’s been a longstanding principle under Nebraska law: giving citizens access to public records, especially when money is involved. It’s at the heart of making state and local government accountable to the public.
But when it comes to Nebraska football coach Scott Frost and his recently revised contract, the University of Nebraska and the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office are saying that the public doesn’t have a right to know what it will take for Frost to get a $1 million raise.
We think that’s wrong.
To recap what Husker fans know all too well: Frost initially was hired on a seven-year contract, later extended through 2026, that pays him $5 million a year. None of his four seasons so far have ended with winning records; this year, the Huskers were 3-9.
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Despite those weak results, Nebraska’s athletic director, Trev Alberts, decided to keep Frost as head coach for another season. But the two agreed that Frost’s base salary would be cut to $4 million, and Frost also accepted a sharp reduction in the buyout that UNL would have to pay him if he’s fired.
That “second addendum” to the contract also includes a provision that says Frost’s salary could go back up to $5 million — and another year would be added to his contract — if he and the team succeed in hitting performance metrics upon which Alberts and Frost agreed. Unlike the contract itself, however, those criteria have not been disclosed.
For many Nebraskans, what probably matters most is whether Frost can restore the Huskers to football glory. But Nebraskans also have a right to know the details of what NU, as a public body, is expecting to see from the state’s highest-paid public employee in exchange for millions in additional pay.
If Frost hits those undisclosed metrics, he’ll not only receive an extra $1 million annually for the rest of his contract, from 2023 to 2026, but his contract extension for 2027 will be give him $5 million more. So on top of the $20 million Frost would receive through 2026 if he keeps his job, $9 million in additional public money at stake.
Last week, the Attorney General’s Office agreed with NU that the metrics don’t have to be disclosed under the state’s public records law because they fall under an exception for certain personnel records.
We think this view is too narrow. After all, Frost’s contract and addendums are considered public records and are posted online by the university. Those public documents spell out other bonuses that Frost would earn if Nebraska wins the Big Ten or goes to a bowl game or — dare we dream? — captures a national championship.
Past Nebraska coaches also have had the criteria for their bonuses disclosed. Beside extra money for winning games and titles, for example, Bo Pelini had the ability to make an extra $25,000 depending on his team’s average graduation rate.
Alberts himself is in line for bonuses if NU hits clearly defined, publicly disclosed goals for both academic and athletic success.
Frost’s “metrics” should be treated the same way. Eventually, the public will see on payroll records whether Frost receives the extra money, but that’s not the same as knowing what he had to do to earn it.
Nebraskans wouldn’t want the State Department of Education to spend money on a consultant using undisclosed criteria in the contract. They wouldn’t want the Department of Roads to use hidden metrics to determine whether a construction company will be paid $10 million to replace a bridge — or twice as much.
That’s not how accountability works.
We’ve editorially supported the decision to retain Frost next year, and like many Nebraskans we’re hoping that it works out.
We just think Nebraskans should expect their university’s leaders to disclose what constitutes necessary improvement for giving a big raise to their 15-29 football coach.