In recent weeks, I have reached out to a dozen presidents/chancellors to get their take on the state of college football. All of them came from big-time academic-athletic institutions of higher learning. All but one believe that the current football climate has a financial grip on their campuses and that change is unlikely anytime soon. The one dissenter holds out some hope for a partial return to sanity.
No one referred to the once-highly charged and publicized “arms race” in college athletics. No one. More than half of them believe the National Collegiate Athletic Association has been asked, for too long, to fend an unruly mob with a switch, and that the environment has been raging for more than a decade.
The truth is, only a handful of major football programs actually make money (NCAA reports 22 made money in 2009-10). Meanwhile, the rest struggle to break even. Even with soaring television income from network and cable networks, greatly increased ticket prices and mounting contributions from alumni and other contributors, big-time collegiate athletics remains a challenging and risky business.
Interestingly, students today are lined up deep to purchase college football tickets, while 10 and 15 years ago, athletic directors feared a possible decline in student interest. It has become “the thing to do” on weekends; some athletic programs even offer the purchase of beer to help off set mounting athletic department expenses.
Let us not forget, marquee football coaches are paid millions of dollars a year — many, many times over what is allotted outstanding faculty members and administrators.
“Our faculty members are entering a season of discontent as they learn about the enhanced salaries and bonuses being given football coaches at our universities, while they admit to facing another lean year for faculty salaries,” one of them declared. The others chimed in to support their colleague.
The facts are undisputable, as reported from recent salary studies:
According to a report by the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, in 2010-11, the average salary for professors at doctoral-granting institutions was little more than $107,000, and according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, there were three public university presidents in 2011 who made more than $1.9 million annually, one who cleared a million, one who made nearly a million, and one who made $845,105.
College football coaches continue to enjoy mounting compensation with 42 of them making at least $2 million a season, a trend that shows no sign of slowing, according to SI.com. That is more than a 70 percent increase since 2006. The highest paid is Nick Saban, Alabama’s coach, at $5.5 million, and he is among the top eight in the powerful Southeastern Conference.
The Associated Press added kerosene to the fire when it reported annual spending by public universities in the six big conferences like the Southeastern Conference and Big 12 had passed $100,000 per athlete — about six to 12 times the amount those institutions are spending per student on academics.
“University presidents are red-faced,” one of the respondents said. Many critics believe that successful football coaches have more sway with governing boards than college university presidents. Despite the perception, I disagree.
But I do believe that university presidents have the right to expect strong trustee backing when they set out to right apparent and egregious wrongs. The queried CEOs agreed. The truth is presidents/chancellors do have considerable power, but their lives are, on average, short — little more than eight years. And remember, virtually all of them assumed their roles for academic reasons, not in order to preside over athletic programs, and they are often ill-prepared to do so. At the same time, many board members who are fixated on football success have longer tenure than campus presidents.
Successful football programs do build substantial loyalty among many alumni, students and fans in general, and they do open doors to potential givers to the universities. Sometimes major gifts go for academic purposes.
But modern-day college athletic programs are complex and defy simplistic remedies; they are a combination of academics, entertainment, business, sports, societal values, and sometimes childlike pride. Exchanges with energetic fans and cerebral professors often turn ugly.
But much is amiss, according to the 12 respected presidents/chancellors, and on that I wholeheartedly agree.