For some colleges, more cash (and they’ll need it)
Posted On July 11, 2022
Sorting through the modest array of Pac-12 options following the UCLA/USC hejira to the Big Ten – expansion? contraction? extinction? – I’ve been thinking again about the ways money has driven college sports to a state of utter chaos.
A couple of old quotes are especially striking, from the current and former athletic directors at Washington State.
“I don’t think there’s anything more important to Washington State and to our alums,” WSU AD Pat Chun was quoted in 2019, “than our affiliation with the Pac-12 Conference.”
And then this, two years earlier. Bill Moos entertained USA Today for a lengthy story on how a have-not school had tried to forge a path to relevancy in big-time college football. In reference to the five-story, $61-million football facility and the $65-million premium seating/press box renovation, Moos said, “I convinced the president (the late Elson Floyd) that we have to invest right now, or we’re going to get left in the dust.”
Today, then, it’s not improper to ask: What if you get left in the dust anyway?
That’s a distinct possibility for the Cougars, still trying to dig out from a deficit that accumulated to more than $100 million, and for Oregon State, which is, as we speak, positioning rebar and securing rivets on a Reser Stadium addition – one that will allow the Beavers to put a best foot forward for visitors like, you know, New Mexico and Wyoming.
This is the gloomy outlook, for sure, but it may also be the most realistic one. It could even encircle the Pac-12’s favored children, Oregon and Washington. I’m still of the notion they’ll find a seat at the Big Ten table – that’s one will need a couple of leaves for enlargement – but surely there are no guarantees.
What is now grievously clear is how fragile is the foundation upon which college football is constructed, and how dubious the proposition is that investment in facilities and coaches is a hedge against irrelevance.
You have to ask this question of WSU administrators, from athletic directors to presidents to regents: If you knew back about 10 years ago that the Pac-12 would a decade later suddenly be devoid of LA schools, would you do this facilities thing all over again? Or if you’re Oregon State, would you demolish that west grandstand last winter and remodel it if you thought you were going to be playing in the Mountain West in a couple of years?
Surely there’s a case to be made that you needed it anyway, that if you’re going to keep playing college football, even outside the Power Five, it had to be done. And nobody saw the USC/UCLA haymaker coming.
Willingness by administrators to throw cash around is stunning. Check out USA Today’s annual database of football coaches’ salaries, and you’ll find that the school buyout last fall if Texas A&M had chosen to fire Jimbo Fisher was an astounding $95 million. Sure, it wasn’t going to happen, but if A&M had gone 1-11 in 2021, and the alums had come howling, the school would have had to pay Fisher $95 million to be gone.
Similarly, if Indiana had chosen to cashier Tom Allen, it was on the hook for $30 million. Yeah, Indiana was No. 12 in the Covid-shortened 2020 season, finished 6-2 . . . but $30 million?
Meanwhile, the agreements with some recent Northwest basketball coaches should resonate.
When Chun untethered Ernie Kent from WSU’s rolls in 2019, the Cougars owed him three full seasons of salary — $4.2 million. That’s what Moos arranged, apparently concerned he couldn’t find anybody else good enough to go 22-68 in Pac-12 games.
This might sound familiar at Oregon State. It owed Craig Robinson $4.2 million when it fired him in 2014, three years before his contract expired.
At Washington, athletic director Jen Cohen thought she had hired somebody indispensable when Mike Hopkins proved he could win with Lorenzo Romar’s players. He got a six-year, $17.5-million deal in 2019. Then the Huskies went 15-17 and 5-21, and surely more than one booster suggested to Cohen that she’d gotten in over her skis. But the Huskies still owed Hopkins $12.2 million, so lately, UW basketball has been mostly about being respectable enough to keep Hopkins in his job, while trimming the buyout annually. Such a noble endeavor.
The point is that college athletic spending long ago edged into “reckless” on the prudence meter and sometimes touched “frivolous.” And when spending gets out of control on a widespread basis, you get things like UCLA’s $102.8-million deficit over a three-year period (which included the revenue-killing pandemic).
Biggest money, made and spent, is in football. Of course, there’s no governing body, no oversight, no czar speaking for the good of the game. The only socialism in college sports is loosely exerted by conferences. And that evaporates when bell-cow schools split the scene abruptly, going off to reap perhaps 2-3 times the TV money.
The NFL has a salary cap and a draft and shared revenue, and that’s how Cincinnati and Buffalo can compete with teams in New York and Los Angeles. In college football, you’re on your own.
In the NFL, there’s a commissioner. In the college game, there’s nobody – no ceiling, no direction, nothing like governance. And for the peasants, no safety net, while the biggest conferences go about seeing who can hoard the most houses and hotels.
Breaking the bank is a nice, quick fix. But the spending cycle is ever-escalating, treacherous and, we see now, leaves even the monoliths ever thirsty for more cash. You can almost hear them now: “Save us from ourselves!”