As the college basketball season wound down to a close earlier this year, millions of fans watched the Cinderella dreams of Virginia Commonwealth (VCU), and then Butler, falter under the pressure of better talent. In the end, Connecticut, a longtime round ball powerhouse, cut down the nets in Houston and gave their 68-year old coach Jim Calhoun his third championship.
For Calhoun, the celebration was the culmination of a trying season, which saw his Huskies finish ninth in the Big East. After thirty-plus years of coaching, Calhoun could probably live for another season with a ninth-place finish, but his reputation was tarnished more by charges of recruit tampering within his program, which turned out to be true, resulting in a three-game suspension for next year.
But Calhoun almost didn't stick around for next season. His contract with U. Conn paid him a handsome $2.3 million salary in 2010-2011, plus bonuses with added hundreds of thousands more. Calhoun is a rich man and a Hall of Famer who probably didn't need to face the embarrassment of watching someone else coach his team next year.
However, his base salary paled in comparison to the $3.8 million paid to Kentucky's John Calipari or the $3.575 million shelled out to Florida's Billy Donovan. In fact, all three men were paupers next to Louisville's Rick Pitino who earned over $7.5 million this year, mostly due to a $3.6 million bonus which he earned for.. wait for it.. completing three years of his contract. There is another $3.6 million waiting for him in 2014, assuming he can simply do his job.
It was newsworthy when VCU's Shaka Smart saw his salary quadruple from 325K to 1.3 million over eight years, but in reality, his salary would still be lower than 26 of the coaches from the NCAA tournament.
Oh yes, this does not necessarily count the money coaches make from "camps," shoe deals and TV/radio shows.
Basketball coaches are not alone. Many football coaches enjoy seven figure salaries, free country club memberships, complimentary cars, use of the university plane and such to walk the sidelines of proud football schools like Michigan and Ohio State. In a true story of irony, Buckeye coach Jim Tressel and several of his players fell under the watchful eye of the NCAA sanctioning committee when it was learned that the players may have sold memorabilia for as much as…………...wait for it again.. $2,500.
Oh Mother of Pearl, the humanity!!!
For what it's worth, a university which can produce a football team worthy of making one of the five BCS bowls stands to rake in almost $20 million.
One of the best movies ever made regarding this topic is 1994's underrated "Blue Chips," starring Nick Nolte, with Shaq and Penny Hardaway playing two of the players recruited into a clean program gone dirty after a 15-17 season at the fictitious "Western U." In one memorable scene, a disgusted Nolte, as coach Pete Bell, leaves his watering hole after the appearance of "Happy," a corrupt booster and "friend of the program" who has been selected to make sure that Nolte's three recruits get what they want. As Bell chastises Happy in the parking lot for buying players into the Western programs, an equally disgusted Happy (J.T. Walsh) retorts with a cry that echoes even today. "We owe it to them Coach…………..we OWE it to them!!"
But do we?
In theory, I am sickened by the disparity between what coaches and players receive for their part in being part of a successful college program. Coaches such as Calipari and Pitino seem to leave their trail of destruction behind at every stop. Calipari has been to the Final Four three times, but the first two were vacated after allegations of NCAA violations were found to be true. Bob Huggins of West Virginia left the University of Cincinnati after a DUI charge, and it was later rumored that none of his players graduated.
How does the NCAA respond? By stating that players receive free tuition, books, as well as room and board. Period.
As ably noted by Sally Jenkins in a recent Washington Post article, there is more. Players receive "world-class professional training, the showcase in front of prospective employers, the medical care, the free head-to-toe Nike or Adidas gear, the plush travel and nice hotel rooms..." I might also add the collectable memorabilia (like the kind the Ohio State players sold) and in the case of a BCS football game, swag bags full of watches and other knick knacks.
Originally, I was all for paying college athletes, but Jenkins' article made me engage in deeper thought. Most of the schools in question cost $25-40 thousand a year to attend, as many of the players are from out of state. The athletic gear is worth thousands of dollars a year (i.e. basketball players can expect a brand new pair of $150 kicks every month, never mind the sweats and other apparel). And you can bet that the U. Conn's and Ohio State's of the world do not send their players to the Super 8 to rest for a big game. Their hotels need to include lots of room for the high charged and high balled alumni who tote their vast wealth from city to city to follow their team. Talk about a networking opportunity???
Here's the other problem. We're talking about two sports. Women's basketball is close to becoming the third and completing the trifecta, but I'll wait to see what happens after Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma retire. From the two sports, not everyone is enjoying in the profits. It was interesting to see point shaving charges leveled against a sports betting business that ran in cahoots with the University of San Diego basketball team. I don't recall USD being on the national radar before this.
Problem number two. Most college athletic programs don't make money. Even with football, considered to be the biggest cash cow, only about a dozen or so of the 117 Division I-A (BCS) schools turn a profit. Just doing a quick math check. If 80 players are making an extra $25,000 a year, we're talking about $2 million.
Maybe a few schools could suck it up, but it would affect the budgets of the lower rung teams. A fair share of the money generated goes to help the swimming, cross-country, water polo and gymnastics programs at a lot of these schools. Should they lose the $2 million? And where is the dividing line? Is it just male football and basketball athletes earning the money?
That would put a major league dent in Title IX, and the next sound you hear will be the lawyers knocking each other over en route to the courtrooms around America, ready to sue the big bad NCAA.
And lest anyone forget that this is just Division I. Obviously, the Division II and III schools would lose out even more because they already have to be flexible with financial aid for their athletes.
My own feeling on the subject is that paying athletes would only widen the gap between the have and have-not schools, thereby erasing the chance us fans have of watching the rise of a program such as Boise State football and Butler basketball. Of course, with the NCAA Executive Committee running things, the concept of paying athletes will never reach fruition. Less money for the bigwigs. Probably why we don't have a playoff system in the BCS. Unfortunately, the current system isn't free of corruption either; otherwise, these thoughts wouldn't be discussed so often.