Sunday, March 01, 2009

My Sunday Feeling

Connecticut's Jim Calhoun got a little testy the other night. A reporter chose a Huskies post-game interview to question Calhoun about the propriety of his making a million dollar salary at a state university while the State of Connecticut is running a budge deficit. Calhoun blew his stack which you can see here.

Actually, this is not a bad question but it kind of misses the point. The highest paid state employees here in Arkansas are certain of the men's athletic coaches at the University of Arkansas who are paid higher than the doctors at UAMS or the Governor even. You look at most states that have schools that play in the major conferences in the NCAA and you will see the same thing. Hell, even Vanderbilt is paying Bobby Johnson a million bucks a year to coach football.

Coaches' salaries, like the astronomical salaries pulled down by professional athletes, are what the market will bear. Believe me, the Yankees are making money even with a payroll approximating the GNP of some small countries. As Calhoun heatedly (is that a word?) pointed out, Connecticut basketball returned 12 million dollars to UConn. They are making money. Calhoun's salary is what the market will bear. And the minute he quits making money for UConn that is the minute that Jim Calhoun will be calling games on ESPN alongside Notre Dame firee Digger Phelps.

But the reporter, in his attempt to create a scandal where none exists, missed the boat. First of all, although his angry reaction to the questioning was not exactly his finest hour, Jim Calhoun is considered one of the good guys. I can think of 5 guys in college basketball who are absolute mercenaries. I can think of a couple in football. One of them is employed at Arkansas. Jim Calhoun made UConn basketball and will retire there a legend. Calhoun hardly epitomizes what the reporter was trying to suggest was a national scandal.

Secondly, he missed the point, as I stated earlier. The better question, and Calhoun is not the guy to engage in a discussion of matters much weightier than the 2-3 matchup zone, is whether it is hypocrisy to have colleges essentially in the entertainment business using unpaid labor to generate millions of dollars that have little, if anything, to do with their alleged higher academic purpose. Calhoun's salary is just a symptom of the larger problem.

And here's another question that didn't get asked: Most coaches' salaries are not paid in full by the colleges they work for. There is no way that even a place as rabid about football as say, Georgia, or as nuts about basketball at, say, Kentucky could justify using public funds to pay these salaries. So most of them are paid by the boosters. Here in Arkansas, the coaches salaries are paid by a private entity know as the Razorback Foundation. This presents the second conundrum. If these boosters are responsible for paying most of the salaries-and indeed the UA athletic program itself is entirely self-sustaining and receives no tax money from the State-then who is running the athletic departments? The universities or the booster club?

Vanderbilt recognized this problem a few years ago and abolished the athletic department there. You may insert joke here. In any event, the former AD there is now a Vice-President of the University under the direct supervision of the President. If anyone remembers the psychodrama of the past couple of years involving Frank Broyles and the then Chancellor John White, one can see the beauty of Vandy's way of handling the jocks.

And how many schools running big time athletic programs have followed the Commodores' lead? Exactly zero. The tail wags the dog in Division I men's sports. And that will never change as long as DI ball remains a dirty arms race.

But back to Calhoun. The Governor of Connecticut was not real pleased with his performance the other night. I am certain that the President of UConn heard from her and the AD heard from the President and Calhoun was pointedly reminded that so long as he is at least a nominal state employee he had better show a little more sensitivity to appearances during a time of national economic emergency. Which I predict he will do if given another opportunity.

Because Jim Calhoun is not a bad guy. He's just a symptom of a larger pathology. And that's where the reporter was wide of the mark.

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