How tax payers pay a $500,000 pension for a former athletic director

In this Nov. 20, 2015 photo, University of Illinois students walk across the Main Quad on campus in Urbana, Ill. The university admitted instate students with slightly lower ACT scores this fall to boost its enrollment of students from Illinois. (AP Photo/David Mercer)

The University of Illinois gave a huge pay raise to its longtime athletic director close to a decade ago – and it became an example of the increasing salary race to lure college coaches and administrators. The raise Ron Guenther received was a quiet depiction of how this salary race can cost the state’s struggling pension funds years down the road — as Guenthers’ annual university pension clocks in at $500,000 a year</

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The pension is part of a bigger debate on how much state taxpayers should subsidize public pensions – including the small set of retirees who paid significant sums to oversee or coach college sports teams. The debate is now growing at the university – along with research from a professor at the campus.

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U. of I. professor Jay Rosenstein is a documentary filmmaker best known for a 1997 film criticizing the use of Native American mascots for sports teams, including at U. of I. His latest project has focused on the cost of college athletics – spending five years looking into the salaries and pensions of U. of I. coaches and administrators.

Rosenstein used a mix of records obtained through the state’s open records act and other information gathered by the Better Government Association advocacy group to conduct an investigation he’s called “The Multi Million Dollar Head Fake.”

He claims the salary arms race was sold to taxpayers as a win-win: that the university could pay big bucks to keep and lure talented people, who in turn could produce a program that would bring in more than enough money to cover those higher salaries.

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Instead, Rosenstein says the university and its students subsidize the program, and taxpayers contribute to large pension tabs years later. He tabulated the cost of retirement checks for 18 former U. of I. coaches and sports administrators at more than $2.6 million a year — and Guenther tops that list.

“You see a coach get another $200,000 or $300,000 raise, and people would say, ‘Well, it’s ridiculous, but they (the athletic department officials) are paying out of their own money and I guess it’s OK.’ Now you see, when they give a raise like that, they were handing the taxpayers a bill.”

The university’s athletic department said it’s not that simple….or is it? To learn more about Rosenstein’s findings, you can visit him here.

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