DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Well, the Final Four is set in the men's NCAA tournament. The University of Louisville is among the contenders. Last year, Louisville's coach Rick Pitino was paid $6.1 million. The salary for Mike Krzyzewski, the long-time head coach at Duke, was at just over $4 million. This time around, though, Duke did not get too far in the bracket, falling out in the first round.
And this got us thinking. How often do big coaching salaries translate into big wins? And to help us answer that question we sat down, as we often do, with NPR Science Correspondent Shankar Vedantam.
Shankar, welcome as always.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: So, $6 million, $4 million, what are these schools getting for that kind of money?
VEDANTAM: The conventional view, of course, is when you pay someone a lot of money that you're getting something in return for it.
VEDANTAM: You expect that you're team is going to win more, maybe you're going to win a championship or at least you're going to get into the Final Four, that you're actually going to improve. These two sociologists, Bill Tsitsos and Howard Nixon, they work at Towson University. They've just published an analysis in the Journal of Support and Social Issues. And they looked at the top 25 highest paid coaches in college football and basketball. And they said, do teams playing for these coaches actually win more games? Here's Tsitsos.
BILL TSITSOS: Overall, we found that most of the programs with the highest paid coaches in football and basketball experienced no change in their athletic performance and ranking, either over the short term or over the long term.
VEDANTAM: So what Tsitsos and Nixon have found is about one in five teams does actually improve, does win more games. But three in five teams essentially stay the same in the rankings. And here's the shocker. One in five teams actually does worse when they have one of these top paid coaches.
GREENE: Wow, not the kind of results you would expect. I guess I'm wondering about other types of value. I mean, if you have a high paid big name coach, does that generate excitement? Do people think that this is going to be great?
VEDANTAM: Yeah, it's possible. I was actually talking about this with one of my tweets on Twitter, and, you know, they actually raised the possibility that what you're getting from one of these high paid coaches is that you're getting a lot of excitement.
You know, the analogy might be in the art world. When you pay $100 million for a painting, part of the excitement and the pleasure of the painting is that you paid $100 million for it. And so it may be that with Rick Pitino and Mike Krzyzewski what you're getting is the pleasure of, you know, like owning a Van Gogh.
But there are a couple of other things that I should say, which is that it's possible that what colleges are doing is they're paying market value for these coaches, which many of them could probably find jobs in the NBA and they would leave if colleges didn't pay them this kind of salary.
The question is, what happens if you actually did pay a coach only say $100,000? And I think what would happen is that if you pay a coach a modest salary and your team loses, administrators open themselves up to accusation and blame that they didn't do enough for the team. You pay a coach $4 million and you still don't do very well, you at least protect yourself from accusation and blame.
GREENE: I'm just wondering if any of this is consolation to Duke fans this year. So, Shankar, I can hear some fans pointing to certain programs as the exception. I mean, they would tell you that when the right coach came along with a big price tag, I mean, a team's fortunes changed. Do the research show examples of that?
VEDANTAM: Well, I think the research shows that on aggregate, that doesn't happen very often. But, you know, Cinderella stories do happen, but by definition they're Cinderella stories. They're fairy tales.
In fact, it's interesting, because Bill Tsitsos himself told me that he follows college football. And a couple of years ago, once Towson University got a highly paid coach, the team started doing much better. And he tells me he got swept up in all of the excitement.
And I think what that shows is the power of the anecdotal experience over the scientific data, that given the choice we often go with the anecdote, even though the scientific data is pointing in a different direction.
GREENE: All right. Shankar, thanks as always.
VEDANTAM: Thanks so much, David.
GREENE: That's NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam, who regularly brings us all the latest social science research. You can follow him on Twitter @HiddenBrain. And while you're at it, you can follow this program @NPRgreene and @MorningEdition. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.