Coaching Salaries Spiral Out of Control
Arizona State implemented furloughs. Utah State did the same for all of its 2,995 employees the second week of last month. That followed layoffs at Clemson. Small schools like John Carroll University in Cleveland aren't immune as it, too, forced unpaid vacations on employees.
All across the country, universities are feeling the pinch of the recession and taking drastic and painful cuts to deal with it just like so many other employers in the country. The president of the University of Kentucky announced early this year that the school would have to trim at least $10 million in spending and freeze any hiring.
Apparently, the Kentucky president's message excluded his athletic department, which Tuesday was set to hire a new basketball coach, John Calipari, at an average annual salary upwards of $4 million when including incentives, or about twice as much per year as the guy they just hired two years ago, Billy Clyde Gillispie, and recently dismissed.
It was just a few weeks ago during baseball's Winter Meetings when the Steinbrenners and their Yankees were being criticized for doling out hundreds of millions of dollars in free agent contracts to a handful of players. ESPN.com's Buster Olney wrote that a high-ranking MLB executive said: "Are the Yankees aware the country is going through a recession? Are they crazy? They're going to ruin the sport."
It is time to ask that of college athletics, especially the basketball coaching department.
After all, there appears to be no sanity, let alone sensitivity, around the basketball gym. It makes it almost grossly inappropriate that college basketball next weekend is landing its grand show to Detroit, arguably ground zero for the national recession.
The Final Four is, undoubtedly, a nice diversion for the tens of thousands in the Detroit area so hardboiled by this country's economic collapse. Maybe some of the millionaire coaches, who will be using the weekend as their annual convention, will chip in a few bucks to buy the folks who can't afford to get into Ford Stadium some tickets.
The University of Virginia was forced to cut back its budget campus-wide this year and next year but its athletic department just spent roughly $2.5 million to buy out the remaining contracts of two basketball coaches -- the one it decided to dump, Dave Leitao, and the one it targeted as a successor, Tony Bennett, who was atWashington State. Then it signed Bennett for around $1.7 million per year.
It is true that basketball on the college campus is one of two sports called revenue-generating. The other, of course, is football. It doesn't matter that in many cases the phrase revenue-generating is more a misnomer, or wishful thinking, than anything else. Schools and their boosters and fans continue to dump millions upon millions not so much into those programs as much as into coaches' bank accounts in the great chase for the national championship, or some facsimile thereof like the Bowl Championship Series title in football.
This is taking the win-at-all-cost mindset in college athletics to an even lower level.
Kentucky's deal with Calipari will make him the highest paid college coach in the country and he's never even won the national title.
Of course, it isn't winning or not that winning the national crown that even matters in this argument. It is the spending spree for coaches at universities, particularly public universities, while they are cutting back on what is supposed to matter most, the education of young men and women.
For this to be going on in this atmosphere is nothing short of obscene. It was bad enough last year, before everything went to hell , when we learned that Kansas State pushed an assistant -- I said assistant -- basketball coach's salary over $400,000, ostensibly for having recruited the would-be player of the year, Michael Beasley, who promptly left the school for the NBA after just his freshman season. The Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, a national group of faculty, decried the news.
"Higher education should quickly rethink the merits of this professional athletics model before it becomes a benchmark for the next round of athletic budget escalation and further separation of athletics from academics," the COIA protested. "While we believe this to be true irrespective of economic circumstances, it is a particularly compelling matter when state budgets are surely going to be adversely affected by the financial turmoil in the country."
Even Larry Eustachy, who was caught on camera partying the night away with coeds while the basketball coach years ago at Iowa State, realizes how inebriated his business has become. Now rehabilitated at Southern Mississippi, Eustachy a couple weeks ago refused a $25,000 bonus.
"I feel like the Donner Party going over the pass," Eustachy told The Associated Press. "I just felt particularly during this recession that we are in and the situation our school is in, it just didn't go right with me to accept anything above and beyond my normal contract. I'm not trying to make a statement."
It's too bad he wasn't trying to be heard. His brethren would look a lot better heeding his words.
Kevin B. Blackistone is a panelist on ESPN's Around the Horn, the Shirley Povich Chair in Sports Journalism at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, and a former award-winning sports columnist for The Dallas Morning News. He currently lives in Silver Spring, Md.