The Season of Giving in College Football
This is, of course, the giving season, something most us mark by scouring the Internet during work hours to find the lowest price on an ever bigger screen TV that won’t arrive until March. It’s the giving season in college football as well. More specifically, this is the time of the year when especially big time college football programs tell their struggling head coach that they’re done at the end of the season, and then they give them some exorbitant buyout balloon payment to no longer coach the team.
The most recent pink slip/giant holiday check went to Dan Mullen of the University of Florida. After losing six of 11 games so far this season, including last Saturday to second tier Missouri, Gator nation and its legion of big spending boosters had had enough. So Florida AD Scott Stricklin told Mullen he was welcome to finish out the season, which he won’t, and he also gave him $12 million – six million now, and a million a year over the following six. This, by the way, adds to the over $13 million Florida has paid it previous two coaches for not working, great work if you can find it. Mullen isn’t alone in his arrangement. Clay Helton was fired at USC this fall and will get approximately $10 million. Ed Ogeron will get $17 million from LSU. The list will go on and on, and most of it comes from public universities, who make up the lion’s share of big time Division I football programs. The same happens at the top of the college basketball world, although perhaps with just a bit less fervor and extravagance than on the gridiron. But overall, public, FBS universities have paid more than $500 million for head and assistant coaches in football and men’s and women’s basketball to not coach their teams, according to a public records search done by ESPN. That’s over a half a billion dollars from state subsidized universities towards employees that are no longer working for their employer. Think about that when you’re putting money in your kids 529 this winter.
There are lots of explanations for how and why this happens and where the money comes from. In many, although certainly not all or even most, these extra dollars are a confluence of generated athletic revenues and booster dollars. So when the University of Texas is dissatisfied with the quality of product on the field, which they should be, there’s generally a very wealthy Longhorn alumni who’s willing to pay the exit fee to allow the School to find its new apostle – who more often than not is no better than the last guy. And there is an argument, whether reasonable or not, that a high performing football or even basketball team will generate enough extra revenue to make up for whatever the buyout may be. So by that logic, not firing an underperforming coach is actually more expensive than the alternative. Make of that what you will.
There are general truisms that should be acknowledged in all of this madness. Like the reality that big time college football is a zero-sum game. Meaning if one team in the SEC wins more games, another will lose more. That’s how sports work. Which also means that for every successful coach, there’s going to be one in the dog house. This goes on forever, rinse and repeat. There’s also a reality that some programs have a natural advantage or disadvantage. Just ask, I don’t know, Vanderbilt about that. And there’s the unspoken truth that one of the easiest ways to win is to cheat a little bit, which everyone ignores until they don’t. So there’s really no end to this insanity of hiring a coach, eventually becoming frustrated with a coach, and then firing a coach and paying him a ton of money to do nothing.
But there is one solution. Get state legislatures to collective ban this practice, which is only there as another tool in the arms race of recruiting the best coaches to your campus. Have universities pledge that coaches only get paid when they work, like the rest of us. And stop competing with the NFL for administrative talent. That makes a lot of sense, and would be one simple step in bringing college sports back from Crazyland. And of course, none of this will ever happen. Because if we’ve learned one thing about big time college football, a pastime I adore, the one word we’ll never hear is less, especially when it comes to winning and money.
Which means for the foreseeable future, this time of year will always be the giving season in college sports.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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