Opinion: Role of college athletics grows

December 5, 2013


For my 23 years as a university president/chancellor, I encouraged increased emphasis on intercollegiate athletics, believing at the time that the reasons were well founded. In the main, they were.

At Illinois State University, Will Robinson was the first African-American head basketball coach in Division 1 history and he coached Doug Collins, the school’s only consensus All-American and No. 1 pick in the 1973 NBA draft. Collins, a professional all-star guard, remained close to ISU. The college was also a pioneer in women’s sports and was one of America’s three leaders in producing elementary and secondary school teachers.

I reasoned that a brighter light would benefit the Illinois State image, assist in student recruiting and help raise more private funding, especially for student scholarships and women’s sports. It worked well.

At West Virginia University, I learned quickly that the state’s 1.8 million residents regarded winning athletic teams as essential, especially in football and men’s basketball. Always sensitive to unfair belittling from outsiders, the Mountaineers were especially proud of their favorite son Jerry West, who was a consensus All-American guard and gold medal winner for the United States in the 1960 Summer Olympics. No athlete has contributed more to Mountaineer lore, and, as a player with the Los Angeles Lakers, he could not be stopped.  In 1966, West was voted as one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history.

When we had a head football coach opening in 1980, WVU was under enormous pressure because of a controversial decision to build a new 65,000-seat stadium. We were beginning to raise significant amounts of money for academic purposes, a clear beneficiary of athletic success.

We reached out to Don Nehlan, quarterback coach at the University of Michigan under Bo Schembechler. He completed a 20-year tenure at Morgantown with a record of 149-93-4, the most wins in school history. He coached l5 first team All-Americans and was inducted into the College Football of Fame in 2005.

Moving to Kansas University as chancellor was different because KU was atop the academic ladder as a member of the Association of American Universities, regarded as America’s premier research schools. And it still is.

But to not recognize the historic role of men’s basketball would have been an unforgivable sin in the collective eye of the 150,000 alumni. Thus, I was heavily involved in the selection of head basketball coaches, along with athletic directors Monte Johnson and Bob Frederick.

Partially on the advice of Dean Smith, famed University of North Carolina basketball coach and a KU graduate, we went with Larry Brown in 1983 and Roy Williams in 1988. Both posted extraordinary records at Kansas and were inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame. KU also produced football All-Americans Gale Sayers and John Hadl who went on to have Hall of Fame careers in the NFL.

KU built one of the 10 largest endowments among state universities during my 13-year tenure.  

When I left academia in 1994 for the presidency of Major League Baseball’s American League, I still thought college athletics could be a force for good, especially with the sweeping academic reforms being put in place for student classroom performance. The NCAA seemed frozen, however, when it came to addressing skyrocketing expenses for athletic programs. Not many college and university presidents were anxious to say that much either. Too many seemed to fear fan, alumni and public reaction. I did speak out, but to mixed responses

Much of college athletics was no longer sport; it was pure entertainment, in the stands and on the television screens. Network and cable agreements became astronomical in value while in-person attendance continued to rise. Much of college sports became market driven.

Despite continued growth in overall income, only 25 to 28 schools are likely to make money this year, universities like Alabama, Texas, Michigan and Oklahoma. Some pundits envision the day when college football will exceed the NFL in attendance and revenue. Amazing!

The last straw for many may have been when we recently learned that college football coaches’ salaries were up 90 percent since 2006, this in a time when state legislators have decimated state university budgets. And faculty salaries have been frozen for all practical purposes.

Clemson’s football coach makes $2.5 million while the just announced new president will be paid $775,000.

The beat goes on, only with increasing volume.

— Gene A. Budig was a president/chancellor at three major universities and of Major League Baseball’s American League. Alan Heaps was a vice president at the College Board and known for his work with writing and teachers.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.