NMSU should stand alone in absurd world of college sports
THE WEEKEND COLUMN
We can trace the absurdity of salaries paid to sports figures to 1930.
That was the year President Herbert Hoover made $75,000, or $5,000 less than baseball slugger Babe Ruth.
Asked how he could justify a salary higher than the president, Ruth supposedly replied, “I had a better year than Hoover.”
In all likelihood, Ruth never said it, but the story lives on.
So does the unconscionable practice of universities regularly raising tuition while increasing the salaries of their football and basketball coaches. Even disgraced coaches receive ridiculous salaries from schools all too willing to show the world that their priorities are upside down.
Only last week, the regents at Western Kentucky University voted 6-1 to give new football coach Bobby Petrino a four-year contract at an annual base salary of $850,000.
This is the same Bobby Petrino that the University of Arkansas fired last April, after he put his 25-year-old mistress on the athletic department payroll by rigging hiring procedures.
So twisted are universities that the football coach, not the president, often is the most powerful man on campus.
Penn State set that obscene standard when its tuition was the highest in the country for public universities. Graham Spanier, then Penn State’s president, was making $1 million a year, but he did not have the brains or the brass to fire Joe Paterno, the crusty, iconic football coach who was in his 80s.
Paterno, right, and Spanier cared more about the football program than they did about Penn State or the kids in University Park, Pa.
An investigation by former FBI director Louis Freeh, commissioned by Penn State itself, found that Spanier and Paterno conspired to cover up rapes of boys by longtime assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
Runaway coaching salaries in general and the sordid story at Penn State in particular should be cautionary tales to every president whose university is participating in Division I athletics. All of them should adopt a new management plan.
New Mexico State University, which has a new football coach and is looking for a president, should lead the way. Here is the mission statement it ought to embrace:
Football is too important on most campuses. We will make it less important. No coach will be paid more than a dean or academic department head.
The alumni will say we risk being less than competitive for coaching talent by cutting salaries. It is a risk we will take.
Academics are our priority, and we are making that clear. We will find excellent coaches at a pay scale that makes sense for New Mexico State, a land-grant university on the border.
Further, we will hire only coaches who care about their players' academic progress. We will never pay a cent to a coach such as Petrino, who won a lot of games at Louisville and Arkansas, but lied, cheated and cared only about himself.
Money-grubbing super conferences have nothing to do with education. We will not worry about whether New Mexico State is in one of them. In fact, we don't care if we are in any conference.
We will build the best schedule we can for our sports teams. But our main concerns are the pocketbooks and progress of our students, not who we play on Saturday afternoons.
Our goal is to produce thousands of outstanding graduates every decade, some of whom will change the world for the better. That will be our legacy, not whether Auburn or Southern Cal were on the schedule.
Football and basketball are the most high-profile undertakings at a university with Division I sports programs. But they are not the most important. We know they can be the most destructive if allowed to spin out of control.
Penn State’s scandal is only the latest reminder that football can be too important and that even coaches with saintly reputations can cease caring about what is right.
Education, commitment and decency will be our focus.
We want to win the games we play. We will try to win them all. But never will that enterprise known as intercollegiate sports be more important than what our faculty does each day and what our students aspire to become.
Will New Mexico State or any other university adopt this plan?
Of course not. Their regents will give us a thousand reasons why they cannot cut coaches’ salaries and why they cannot put intercollegiate athletic programs in their proper place.
But university blueprints such as this one ought to be pursued. They show that idealism still exists on campus, even campuses with men such as Spanier, Paterno and Petrino.