Free flights give top coaches needed getaways

By Jeff Latzke

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Dec. 31 2010 11:16 a.m. MST

There's a quiet place in Georgia where Nick Saban can collect his thoughts when the pressures of coaching Alabama football start to add up.

Getting there isn't that hard as Saban's contract allows him to use a private plane for his personal use, which includes sneaking away from the Crimson Tide when he can.

Several of the nation's top college coaches have such a clause in their multimillion-dollar contracts. They say it's particularly valuable in a profession that has seen Urban Meyer step down at Florida amid concerns about his health and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio miss a month after a mild heart attack.

A few days away seem infinitely more valuable than the company cars, golf club memberships and free tickets that come in many contracts. Instead of dollar signs, it's about peace of mind.

"If we didn't go to the lake and I couldn't go to Rabun County and stand on the side of the hill and sit on a log and look down and think a little bit, I don't think I'd survive much longer in this business," said Saban, who led the Crimson Tide to the national title last season.

"I need that. I need to do that every now and then. ... I'd raise a lot more hell than I raise."

College coaches already are frequent flyers while hopping across the country to recruit their next batch of players. But in addition to paying for flights that are directly related to the business of college athletics, universities are taking an extra step to accommodate vacations for their coaches.

Saban's contract — which pays him $4.63 million this year — allows him personal use of a plane for 25 hours at the university's expense. Oklahoma's Bob Stoops gets 45 hours, Iowa's Kirk Ferentz gets 35 and Ohio State's Jim Tressel gets 20. Michigan State men's basketball coach Tom Izzo got 25 hours of private plane use in his most recent contract, while Dantonio and women's basketball coach Suzy Merchant also have access to flights.

Other championship-winning coaches, including Texas' Mack Brown and LSU's Les Miles, don't have similar deals, and Meyer didn't either. Nor do the coaches in the BCS championship game — Auburn's Gene Chizik and Oregon's Chip Kelly.

Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said schools can just as easily tack more money onto their coaches' contracts and let them pay for the flights on their own. Stoops' last deal included a bump in salary to $3.875 million this year, plus a $800,000 bonus on Jan. 1 — in addition to 10 more hours of plane usage per year.

Castiglione considers the perk a creative form of compensation.

"It gets to the quality of life, the ability of individuals in certain jobs to make sure that they take care of themselves, have their priorities in order, be with their families when they can," Castiglione said. "We know they're away from their families an extensive amount of the year."

Saban said he still talks to recruits, watches film and does "all the things that we do" even when he's out of town. But there's a relaxation factor that comes with getting away to be with his wife and kids.

"It's just a time issue," said Saban, who logged four trips from Tuscaloosa, Ala., to northern Georgia in the offseason. "You work so many hours that having the opportunity to make a 10-hour trip a two-hour trip is really beneficial because of all the time spent in terms of what you do.

"It's a tremendous benefit. We really appreciate it. It helps me do a lot of other things."

Tressel made three separate trips to Sarasota, Fla., in 2008 but none last year. His only trips on record this year are to Washington, D.C., and Willoughby, Ohio.

Stoops used almost all of his 45-hour allotment last year at a cost of just under $125,000 to Oklahoma. He made trips to Las Vegas, Vancouver and his home state of Ohio, but his most frequent destination was St. Augustine, Fla., a place he says has "always been special to me."

"We're seven days a week, six or seven months a year. When I do get time to take my kids or to travel, a lot of times I have to be back to get with my players or the program," Stoops said. "I can't be gone as long. It's a more efficient way of maximizing your days when you do go travel, and getting back quickly."

For him, flying commercial isn't an option for that type of getaway.

"You're using a day to travel and a day to come back. Now, I'm not going because I'm not able to," Stoops said. "So, in the end, (it's necessary) for my family to be able to enjoy some things and still be back here soon enough to do what I need to do."

AP College Football Writer Rusty Miller and AP Sports Writers John Zenor, Larry Lage and Luke Meredith contributed to this report.

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