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Blog: Compensation caps–grin and Bear 'em?

The brave new worlds of healthcare and healthcare economics got me thinking about legendary University of Alabama football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant.

First I was assigned to write an article on voters' approval of a local ballot measure in California that capped executive pay at the public healthcare institution in Google's hometown, El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, Calif., at twice that of the state's governor.

The El Camino Hospital pays CEO Tomi Ryba a $695,000 base salary to run its 361-bed, two-campus institution, and—eight days after the election—its board approved a $137,815 performance bonus (PDF) for her.

In contrast, Gov. Jerry Brown makes almost $174,000 as the state's CEO, but the California Citizens Compensation Commission—as part of state austerity measures—has knocked that down to $165,000 starting next month.

The hospital board has authorized taking legal action to challenge the ballot measure's directive, which would reduce Ryba's salary to $330,000.The referendum, known as Measure M, passed by a 51% to 49% vote, despite the hospital's contribution of $179,000 (or $5,000 more than Brown was making) in a campaign against it.

But hospital CEOs are not the only executives of public institutions whose salaries are being scrutinized. Maybe it's a function of 24-hour sports programming, but college football and basketball coach salaries are now also getting their fair share of criticism.

And this brought to mind Bear Bryant.

Bryant coached the Alabama Crimson Tide to a 232-46-9 record between 1958 and 1982, and I had heard he capped his own contract with the university by stipulating that he be paid $1 less than the school president's salary. To make sure that this wasn't just an urban legend, I called the university.

(Bryant, by the way, coached his final game—played against my alma mater, the University of Illinois—in the Liberty Bowl on Dec. 29, 1982, so we Illini fans were subject to countless Bryant career retrospectives before kickoff finally arrived. The coach went out a winner, 21-15, and then died of heart failure just a month into retirement on Jan. 26, at age 69. … But I digress.)

It took more calls than I expected, but eventually I was connected with Ken Gaddy, director of the Paul W. Bryant Museum in Tuscaloosa, who confirmed that my recollection about Bryant's contract was true.

Gaddy added, however, that Bryant supplemented his income with personal appearance fees and media contracts.

I don't see hospital CEOs opening car dealerships anytime soon or hosting regional television shows that attract the same size audience as local football coaches do. But if voters continue to push back against escalating salaries, healthcare executives may have to keep all their options open if they want to keep the compensation levels they've grown accustomed to.

Follow Andis Robeznieks on Twitter: @MHARobeznieks.
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