For their upcoming appearance in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., members of the football team at the University of North Carolina will receive a hat, a souvenir football and their choice from more luxurious gifts - among them headphones, an X-box video game system, a mountain bike or a recliner.
"I might actually get that," Giovani Bernard, a Tar Heels freshman running back, said of the recliner. "Because I might be moving into a (new) place - I might need a recliner."
The Tar Heels' football coaching staff will get gifts, too - but they will be much more expensive. For helping lead UNC to the postseason, 11 members of the Tar Heels' staff will receive a combined bonus totaling $215,000 - with $25,000 going to Everett Withers, UNC's interim head coach. Withers' overall salary was $360,000 this season.
Over at N.C. State, head coach Tom O'Brien - whose annual salary is $1.8 million - will receive a bonus of $50,000 for coaching the Wolfpack to the Belk Bowl in Charlotte. The Wolfpack's offensive and defensive coordinators will each receive an extra two months' salary, and the rest of the coaching staff will receive a bonus of one month's pay.
The bonuses that N.C. State will pay to its football coaching staff will be in the range of $300,000.
While appearing in a bowl game is profitable for head coaches and their staffs, the schools generally break even or lose money on the trips - especially to lower- and middle-tier games. It is often the coaches' bonuses, which make up a quarter or more of bowl expenses, that put the schools' bowl ledger in the red.
N.C. State's athletic department lost money in 2008 when the Wolfpack traveled to Birmingham, Ala., to compete in the PapaJohns.com Bowl.
According to records the university provided to the NCAA, the trip to Birmingham cost N.C. State $1,057,580, including coaches' bonuses. The Atlantic Coast Conference, meanwhile, provided N.C. State with $1 million to cover bowl-related expenses - which left the Wolfpack nearly $60,000 short of breaking even for the trip.
The coaches received a total of $326,825 in bonuses for leading the 6-6 Wolfpack to the postseason.
The bonuses that N.C. State paid that year represented roughly 30 percent of its bowl-related expenses, and the university paid those bonuses out of the $1 million budget it received from the ACC.
"Paying the bowl bonuses for coaches should naturally be paid out of the bowl expense account provided by the conference so that it doesn't impact the regular (athletic department) budget," said N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow, who became the N.C. State AD in 2010.
But the bowl expense account doesn't always cover the full cost of a bowl trip - especially when schools use those funds to pay out bowl bonuses. UNC's trip to the Meineke Car Bowl in Charlotte in 2009 cost $1,307,787. The trip was more than $307,000 over the budget; that year, UNC paid $395,406 in bonus money.
Overall, a bowl profit
Bubba Cunningham, the athletic director at North Carolina, said bowl bonuses have been a part of coaches' contracts for as long as he can remember.
"If you look at most contracts for Division I coaches, they're going to get one-twelfth their annual salary to participate in a bowl game," Cunningham said. "And the justification is it's an extra game and it's an extra month of preparation to get the kids ready to play. "
Cunningham is quick to make the distinction between the money that a school might lose on an individual bowl trip and what an ACC school gains overall once the conference equally disperses bowl revenue to its 12 members. The conference, which handles the payments from bowls, gives each school an expense allowance for its game. Separate from that, each school gets a payment from the conference's overall bowl revenue.
The exact dollar amount that the ACC will receive from its bowl tie-ins for this year isn't yet known. Still, the ACC will receive $28 million from the Bowl Championship Series because Clemson and Virginia Tech will play in BCS bowls.
If the payouts for the ACC's remaining six bowl games are split approximately evenly, the league's other bowl-bound teams would generate approximately $14 million for the conference. The total take this year could be $42 million, meaning each school would get at least $2.5 million from the ACC's participation in bowl games.
"So depending on how you want to divide the numbers, you can say, yeah, you're losing money," Cunningham said. "And you might on an individual game. But you're not in the total amount of bowl revenue that you're going to get."
More for players?
Critics have taken aim at a system that makes coaches richer while the status quo remains for players.
Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sport management at Drexel University in Philadelphia, said in an interview that coaches' bonuses are out of proportion with the rest of football's financial framework. She argues that coach pay and bonuses should be adjusted downward, while players should receive more aid than current scholarships offer.
"The levels of these bonuses just begs questions," she said. "Coaches are benefiting tremendously. The players are not."
The contract for N.C. State's O'Brien awards him $50,000 for the fifth ACC regular season win, and another $50,000 for each league win after that - a goal he did not reach with this year's 4-4 conference record. A bowl game is worth $50,000. A league championship or a trip to a top-tier BCS bowl game is worth $200,000.
If he meets a certain graduation rate level, it's also worth $50,000.
Staurowsky said the bonuses are more money than the governors of most states are paid, and that others in higher education do not get such substantial bonuses for doing their job. Gov. Bev Perdue's salary is $139,590.
Staurowsky and others have also studied the difference between what a full scholarship pays to athletes and what universities report to the federal government as the "cost of attendance," the price of attending the university for a year.
In October, the NCAA adopted a change that would have allowed schools to add a $2,000 stipend to players' scholarships, but so many schools objected that the stipends are now on hold. Staurowsky and others say even that much for the players would not be enough.
A recent study performed jointly by Staurowsky and the National College Players Association found the shortfalls that leave players without enough money to cover the true cost of school are greater than $2,000. The study was based on 2009 data from the universities.
"The notion that some college athletes would feel compelled to accept under-the-table payments in order to survive, while the system of pay for coaches continues to escalate, even during an economic downturn, offers an important context to better understand what is at stake with the issue of the scholarship shortfall," the study says.
At both UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University, the scholarships paid for football players do not cover the cost to be a student, according to Staurowsky's research. The shortfall for each football player was $2,556 at UNC and $2,324 at N.C. State, according to the study.
"This is why you hear stories about players not making ends meet," she said. "It costs more to attend a school than the scholarship offers."
A gap in benefits
Both schools have experienced recent NCAA violations that underscore Staurowsky's research.
At UNC, players accepted trips and jewelry that the school and the NCAA say violated rules of amateurism, leading to lost scholarships for the football program, probation and the firing of former coach Butch Davis.
At N.C. State, a basketball player, C.J. Leslie, sat out three games this year for receiving what the NCAA describes as "impermissible" benefits. A friend of Leslie who is a former N.C. State athlete had loaned him a car after an accident and also helped a relative of Leslie with apartment fees.
Staurowsky's study calculated a total team shortfall for all football programs - the combined gap between actual cost and scholarship aid for all 85 scholarship players - and compared them to coaches' pay. At UNC and N.C. State, the total team shortfall was about $200,000.
She called the gap "striking" and noted that coach bowl bonuses at most schools could cover the difference.
At East Carolina University, Athletic Director Terry Holland said incentives for low-level bowl games are not necessary. He said the standard around the nation is for a coach to receive about a month's pay for a bowl trip.
"But we do not do so here at ECU," Holland wrote in an email. "Our bonus program is based on factors that we believe are more important to us in the long term."
That includes, according to Holland, conference record, season tickets sold, longevity of tenure in the job and money raised by the Pirate Club - the school's booster organization.
UNC recently introduced Larry Fedora as the Tar Heels' new head coach. Fedora, who will come to UNC from Southern Mississippi, will be due a bonus of one month's pay if he guides the Tar Heels to a non-BCS bowl. If he leads UNC to a BCS game, he'd receive an extra two months' of his base salary - or nearly $60,000. Fedora will receive $1.7 million annually but his bonuses are tied to his annual base salary of $350,000.
Bernard, meanwhile, seemed excited about the possibility of taking home a new recliner. The Tar Heels' freshman running back spoke with a smile about the gifts he and his teammates will receive from the Independence Bowl.
"It's something that we definitely don't take for granted," he said. "Because we're going to a bowl, we're not with our families during Christmas ... we're definitely happy about it."