Out of all of the people who work for private universities in the United States, who is the highest paid individual? A physicist at Harvard? An economist at Stanford? Nope. It’s USC’s football coach, Pete Carroll. He makes in the neighborhood of $4.4 million a year. That’s a pretty nice neighborhood.

Legend has it that during the Great Depression, in 1930, a reporter asked baseball great Babe Ruth how he justified that he made more money than Herbert Hoover, president of the United States. The Babe supposedly replied, “Why not? I had a better year.” But that’s a difficult justification for anyone to use today. After all, who had a better year in 2008 than Barack Obama? Coach Carroll’s team was ranked third last year. If you or your business were the third best, would you be getting paid more than anyone else in your field?

Carroll is not the only private college coach up there in the financial stratosphere. There are several coaches who earn about four times as much as the presidents of their schools. How would you like to make four times as much as your boss?

Those who work for private colleges aren’t the only ones making big bucks, and not every one of them is gracious about it. At a recent press conference, a reporter, Ken Krayeske, started to ask University of Connecticut’s men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun a question: “Coach, considering that you’re the highest paid state employee, and there’s a two billion dollar budget deficit, do you think … .” “Not a dime back,” Calhoun responded, before the reporter even finished his question. The coach went on, “I’d like to be able to retire someday. I’m getting tired.”

The traditional rationalization for paying coaches so much is that athletic teams can bring huge amounts of money to schools. Connecticut’s men’s and women’s basketball teams make about $12 million a year for the university. Successful teams also bring prestige to a college. Some young kids dream of going to college where their favorite team plays. And when those kids do go there, most of them will pay tuition. All of this probably explains why the athletic department at most universities has a beautiful multi-million dollar facility while a musty closet serves as the offices for the Department of Conversational Lithuanian.

I’m not blaming Carroll or Calhoun or any of the other highly paid coaches in our country for accepting the money that their schools have decided to pay them. But are the schools (and sometimes the state) making the right decision in forking over such big bucks to sports coaches, especially in these difficult times? They could hire 10 or 20 professors for that money. They could give out more scholarships. They could have the mascot’s costume dry cleaned. So, are these big paychecks the moral equivalent of those auto execs taking their private planes to Washington? Is there any way the public isn’t going to see those salaries as obscene these days?

Actually, there is another way to look at paying them so much. If you think of sports as entertainment, maybe people need this kind of diversion more than ever in these awful economic times. When was the era of the wonderful “screwball” movie comedies? It was in the 30s, during the Great Depression. People apparently needed something to help them stop thinking about how empty their pockets were. Isn’t it possible that when a person screams his lungs out to root for his team these days, it helps him forget momentarily that he has to spend all day tomorrow looking for a job yet again?

So maybe it shouldn’t be so startling that a football coach is the highest paid private college employee in the land. What is startling is the guy who’s Number Two. He’s a dermatologist. Columbia University’s David N. Silvers, professor of dermatology, earns about $4.3 million a year.

I guess this somehow must make economic sense to those who run Columbia. Maybe there are millions of boys and girls who have posters of famous skin doctors on their walls. Just as the movie character Rudy dreamt of going to and playing for Notre Dame his whole life, there must be kids who dream of going to Columbia because of Dr. Silvers. And someday those kids will be tuition-paying students. Far fetched? Maybe not. Let’s face it, what is more important to college age kids than dermatology?

Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from “Sesame Street” to “Family Ties” to “Home Improvement” to “Frasier.” He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover. He can be reached at lloydgarver@gmail.com. Check out his Web site at lloydgarver.com and his podcasts on iTunes.