It turns out the financial crisis might include a medical breakthrough. At several public universities, it has cured tone-deafness.
As state budgets swirl toward the sewer, lavishly compensated college coaches are being ordered to take time off. Their bosses sometimes even use the term "furlough," expressing their solidarity with the commoners.
Like other employees at Arizona State, football coach Dennis Erickson and basketball coach Herb Sendek will each be forced to take 12 days off, saving $20,800 on Erickson's base salary and $13,600 on Sendek's. Athletic director Lisa Love has furloughed herself for 15 days.
|Arizona State's Herb Sendek will have to take 12 days off by June 30, saving $13,600 of his $292,000 base salary. (AP)|
But it's hard to look at these numbers without noting the obscenity of $50,000 a week going to four members of a public university's athletic department. Supporters like to point out that many athletic departments support themselves entirely, with no help from the university. (Love said that ASU athletics receive nominal support from the state.)
At some point, though, even the most profitable athletic department receives a handout from its school. It doesn't really matter if it happened 100 years ago. The teams still owe their existence to the school and the state's taxpayers. Who knows? If the original funds had been invested elsewhere, thousands of people might line up to watch varsity Scrabble and chess instead of football. If women had been able to vote back then, we might have a BCS for figure skating and a March Madness of midwifery.
You think that's crazy? Ten years ago, I'd never have imagined that a dinner conversation with my brothers-in-law could segue from the Red Sox to the Steelers to Top Chef without a hitch. (Actually, that's not entirely true. They left me in the dust when they started to talk cooking.)
So let's just say that any athletic department's claims of independence would probably flunk a history exam. Once it has been set up as the vehicle for millions in revenue and played in a stadium on public land, the football team can hardly feel entitled to skirt its original patron's wishes. As parents like to say: "As long as you're under my roof, you live by my rules."
And for years now, athletic departments have been pretty indulgent parents, especially toward the grown offspring. The NCAA, so vigilant about every stray dime in a player's pocket, has never seriously weighed salary caps for coaches.
It's tempting to think that the protracted contract struggle between Mike Leach and Texas Tech reflects a new fiscal prudence, but he has reportedly been offered $12.7 million over five years. The hold-up appears to be more about a battle for control. The school doesn't want to commit to Leach and then see him flirting with every BCS school set in a prettier locale than Lubbock. This is roughly the same point of contention that got Boston College's winning coach, Jeff Jagodzinski, fired for interviewing with the Jets.
But let's look forward to next year, and the next round of turnover among coaches. With the country firmly in a recession and state budgets getting hammered, does an athletic director dare fire a seven-figure coach with a year left on his contract to hire a coach for a heftier seven-figure deal? At what point does the booster money stop flowing and start trickling? Do the swim teams and wrestlers face the ax, while the football team still stays in a hotel the night before a home game?
Miami football coach Randy Shannon has already stepped up with some bargain travel ideas, saying that the Hurricanes will forgo planes and take buses to Central Florida and South Florida, at a savings of $140,000.
There is a lot more that schools can do to save money or increase revenue from their athletic programs. Granted, raising ticket prices is taboo right now. But what about opening the facilities to a broader range of users? I am shocked at the number of schools that keep their pools and weight rooms off-limits to outsiders. On a visit to Tucson last fall, I walked by the University of Arizona's competitive pool several times and saw it completely empty. The recreation center's pool was available for $7, but only if you were accompanied by a student or employee.
A student obligingly signed me in on the night I wanted to visit, and I went to the locker room and found it nearly empty. This is not uncommon on public campuses.
So why not bump the fee to $10-$15 for unaccompanied visitors instead of wasting valuable resources? The extra funds could save an entire team. Or the football coach's country club fees -- money that can facilitate schmoozing time with boosters. Some sacrifices are simply unacceptable.
Gwen Knapp is a sports columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle.