Public Policy and Sports

The UT Athletic Department's financial obligations are a matter of concern for taxpayers

Seems like all we have heard for the last week is the complaint about inept CEOs running their organizations into the ground while they're still holding onto a golden parachute worth millions. Well, I'm sorry. Even if the Wall Street bailout package had passed and limited CEO windfalls, it wouldn't cover football coaches.

I would not presume to evaluate University of Tennessee football coach Phil Fulmer's coaching abilities. I leave that in the capable hands of John Adams, Mike Strange, and Jimmy Hyams. But as a matter of public policy, the financial recklessness of the UT Athletic Department requires examination.

Whether you think Fulmer should have been fired last year or last week or ought to be given more time, I think we should understand that UT's action on Fulmer's contract assumes he will be there forever. No matter whether he survives the current disastrous start or not, Fulmer will be leaving the post at some point. His 16-year tenure is an anomaly in today's high pressure college coaching environment. The continuing practice of extending his contract and raising his salary, and thus his buy-out package, ignores reality. It only increases the size of the snowball rolling down the hill.

This year UT gave Fulmer a seven-year contract. Does anyone think Fulmer will be here in seven years? A buyout will involve multi-millions.

It's often said that it helps recruiting for high school kids to know the coach with whom they sign will be there, with a long-term contract. This assumes that high school football players are fools. Every coach that has been fired in recent years had a multi-year contract. Everyone knows the contracts are a farce. If the alumni, the boosters, and the fans decide it's time for you to go, you're going to go. You think recruits don't know the score? Ask the recruits playing at Arkansas about how they like playing for Houston Nutt—the current coach at Ole Miss. Or the recruits at West Virginia who went to play for Rich Rodriguez, who is now coaching at Michigan.

If university presidents had a backbone, they would get together in their role as the NCAA governing board and forbid contracts lasting more than two years. It would stop the checkbook arms race. Multi-year contracts just exact money on behalf of a coach who eventually gets fired. Sports agents, not university presidents, are running college football.

There is also an argument that universities have to agree to multi-year contracts to make sure their coaches don't leave for a better offer. In Fulmer's case, just where do you suppose he can go for a sweeter deal than he has at his alma mater? What evidence is there he would ever want to coach anywhere else?

But all this money is generated by the athletic department, television revenue, boosters, and fans. Who really gets hurt by the outrageous salaries, the golden parachutes, and the contract extensions? It's not like the taxpayers are on the hook.

It is a little-known fact that most Division I schools lose money on football. Schools like UT, and many other SEC schools, do make money. For now.

But what happens when the stands are no longer full? If UT continues to play like Vanderbilt used to play and the fans shift allegiance to UT basketball and the Tennessee Titans, UT won't be generating the kinds of revenues they are accustomed to receiving. They have themselves a rather large budget, with facility upgrades, coaches' salaries, and new construction. It depends on a steady stream of increasing revenue from television, ticket price increases, and booster donations.

If those revenues aren't there, and the expenses remain, it won't be a matter of the athletic department giving the university a "gift" now and then. It will be the taxpayers subsidizing the football program.

That's why the way in which Athletic Director Mike Hamilton spends money is a public policy issue. It is why Fulmer's contract extensions and raises are a matter of public concern. It is an issue that transcends the sports page and sports talk radio.

The media will be watching attendance at the Northern Illinois game this Saturday. Empty seats are worrisome. Not just for Fulmer, but for the taxpayers.