"I watched Real Sports with Bryant Gumble the other day" is not a great way to start a column, but that's how this one begins. The HBO "60 Minutes of Sports" special profiled FBS-level athletics and its ultimate cost to universities struggling to keep up with the Oregons and Alabamas. The story touched on Eastern Michigan's financial struggles (more on that later), but it focused mostly on a couple of professors from Rutgers who were tired of seeing academic resources drained for opulent athletic facilities and obnoxious coaches salaries.
First of all, the campus faculty is almost always the group opposed to unchecked athletics. After all, it's the professors working in 1970s-era science labs and moldy classrooms with wheezing AC. You can't blame professors for feeling marginalized at what is supposed to be an institution of higher learning.
Here's another reason for faculty to be peeved: according to Real Sports, in 41 of 50 states the highest paid government employee is a head football coach. Forty-one out of fifty!
In my state of Arkansas, the most highly paid state employee is Arkansas head football coach and personality Bret Bielema, at a reported $4M. The second-most handsomely paid state employee is Arkansas' basketball head coach, Mike Anderson at $2.28M. Making sure these guys get paid is the state's fourth highest compensated employee, AD Jeff Long at a bargain price of $965K. (Arkansas State's head football coach, Blake Anderson, isn't hurting either at $700K plus incentives).
That's a ton of coin, considering the University of Arkansas' president only pulls down $500K per year.
But it's not just salaries. Earlier this year, Long petitioned the state for a $160M bond to remodel the football stadium so that the university could "...provide a variety of options for fans. Reducing prices in the upper level of the stadium and providing a lower priced standing room only ticket will give every Arkansan an opportunity to cheer on the Hogs. (emphasis mine)"
Bear in mind that Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium is never really sold out. The University of Arkansas still wants the state to loan them the money so fans can afford to sit in the upper decks or stand.
About 288 miles east of Fayetteville, Arkansas State University is doing everything it can to remain in this ridiculous arms race. In the past two years, the A-State Athletic Department has built an $11M "student activity center" (AKA Indoor Practice Facility) and completed a $7M press-box renovation to Centennial Bank Stadium. Still in the queue, a $12M football operations complex. Football, just like every other sport at A-State, does not generate the revenue to cover its costs. So how is it funded?
"We raised it," said A-State AD Terry Mohajir in an interview with the school newspaper, The Herald. "It’s all private dollars."
Mohajir has said that "athletics is the front door of the university," and he's right. Going to football and basketball games is part of a complete college experience that brings the university more students and visibility. It also generates the nostalgia critical to securing those big alumni donations.
Just as A-State was building indoor facilities and upgrading its stadium, the school was expanding its campus with a new Humanities building and Sorority Row. Student housing has both improved and grown dramatically. A new osteopathic medical school opens on campus this Fall. Though the athletics budget has grown (to nearly $30M annually), so has its academic and lifestyle infrastructure.
Athletics and academics can feed each other – if the balance is right.
Which lead us to the University of Idaho, who recently announced its intentions to drop from FBS- to FCS-level athletics. "Our relevance will be complemented by our football program," said University President Chuck Staben, "not defined by it."
When the Sun Belt declined to bring Idaho into the conference early this March, it clamored the death gong for a program too small and too isolated to find another FBS conference or go it alone as an independent. The Vandals grabbed their football and returned to the Big Sky.
For 20 years, the football Vandals have averaged less than 4 wins per season and were left out in the cold (along with New Mexico State) when the WAC dissolved in 2012. The Vandals accepted a less-than-ideal "football only" invite to the Sun Belt, only to see the arrangement fold once conference officials fully absorbed the weight of the Vandal problem: Idaho was too damn far, didn't win enough, and it didn't spend enough money (about $19M annually).
Meanwhile, the Big Sky was doing just fine. And it was comprised of all of Idaho's geographical buddies: Southern Utah, Montana, North Dakota, Montana State, Idaho State and several programs to which Chuck Staben could affordably drive a bus full of volleyball players. By leaving the Big Sky, where the Vandals had won 8 football titles, Idaho had abandoned all of its rivalries.
So why exactly did Idaho leave in the first place?
Once you drive a BMW, it's hard to go back to buying a Honda, even if you can no longer afford luxury wheels. A Honda is a great car, but man, that German engineering is hard to let go. And it's not just the way your Beamer drives; it's the looks you receive stepping out of it. People know you're a playa.
It takes confidence for a man to trade in his 5 Series for an Accord.
Idaho did what many of us, for lack of fortitude or forethought, cannot: step back into a situation that fits. About 2,100 miles east of Moscow, Idaho, the Eastern Michigan Eagles are considering following Idaho's lead. The Eagles spend about $34M, which is roughly the standard in the MAC, but it is subsidized more than 80 percent.
For the past 19 years, the Eagles have enjoyed one winning season. One! In 2009, they were a perfect 0-12. Eastern Michigan joined the MAC in 1972, but it has just one conference championship (1987) to show for it. Last year, the Eagles reported the lowest attendance of any FBS program: 4,897 souls per game. The Eagles aren't winning, and there are no fans to care.
At the urging of students and (surprise) faculty, EMU was recently urged to move to Division II, or even Division III, in football.
"It is a losing proposition," says faculty member Howard Bunsis, "Always has been, and always will be. We hardly raise any money for football, and our attendance is the lowest in the country."
Real Sports also visited Eastern Michigan, and it portrayed the university's football program as a parasite that literally took food from its students' mouths. (Real Sports spent several uncomfortable minutes discussing the University's unfunded campus food pantry.) But EMU authorities are sticking to their FBS guns, releasing this statement in response to the concerns:
"We have absolutely no plans to eliminate football or move into any other division or conference. We are pleased to be a member of an outstanding conference, the Mid-American Conference, where all of our sports and our talented student athletes have the opportunity to compete at the highest levels with neighboring institutions in the Midwest. Any headlines or claims that Eastern is considering dropping football, or reducing our support of the program in any way, are false."
If you're an FBS program, you are, technically, a member of the same fraternity as Oregon and Michigan and Alabama and Texas. It would punch quite a dent in your ego to admit that you simply cannot afford to drink with these guys every night.
But consider the slope EMU must climb to be relevant even in its own city. Michigan, the Horrendous House of Harbaugh, is a 16-minute drive. The state of Michigan is home to five FBS football programs, two of which play in the mighty Big 10. Securing the second-best or third-best or even fourth-best talent in the state is a Herculean task. Even in football-rich Michigan, that has to suck. Why not drop down and enjoy the thrill of competing?
It's hard to give up that BMW. Take another look at EMU's statement in response to calls for dropping down: "(We) have the opportunity to compete at the highest levels with neighboring institutions in the Midwest." The Eagles haven't competed since the 1980s! Real Sports just made your campus look like a soup kitchen!
You're not competing, EMU. You're clinging.