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Mike Fish Straight Shooting

Money over morals

Crazy firings, hirings prove winning isn't everything, it's the only thing

Posted: Friday December 10, 2004 3:42PM; Updated: Friday December 10, 2004 3:42PM
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  David Cutcliffe
Ole Miss fired David Cutcliffe after his first losing season -- without No. 1 draft pick Eli Manning, no less.
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

I don't get it. I struggle to understand the star-struck infatuation with Urban Meyer, the prettiest coach in The Swamp. OK, he has won big in brief four-year career as a head coach -- at Utah and before that at Bowling Green -- but he wasn't at either school long enough to win with his own players. And this fashionable, yet incomplete body of work outside of the pressure cooker earned him a seven-year, $14 million ticket to the University of Florida?

Wow, wait 'til you see the reworked numbers if the new ball coach wins an SEC title or a national championship. Or imagine the bundle Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley might have thrown Bob Stoops' way if he'd shown even a speck of Gator love.

But, hey, this is the silly season of college football. It's firings and hirings. It's college presidents, even a good Father at Notre Dame, acting like impetuous sports geeks and whacking coaches.

It's the likeable Ron Zook, Florida's previous overpaid head coach, getting polished up and resold as a hot item at Illinois. It's David Cutcliffe released after doing a creditable job at Ole Miss -- winning seven or more games the last five years and earning SEC Coach of the Year in 2003 after leading the Rebels to a 10-win season. It's 17 coaching changes and counting, or an almost 15 percent turnover rate.

With 117 teams playing Division 1-A football, it doesn't take an MIT math whiz to grasp that everybody can't win, let alone win big. So coaches are forever vulnerable. Even more so now with big-time programs morphing into entertainment enterprises and the bottom-line ruling.

"What you're witnessing here is a challenge to the integrity of the university itself,'' cautioned William Friday, former president of the University of North Carolina and chair of the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. "And what you have is an administrative process that is yielding to outside pressure. This is stimulated enormously by the pressure of money. The real danger here is of losing control over the enterprise by yielding to outside pressure, not only from the dissident fan, but from the commercial television interest themselves.''

Yes sir, patience is long gone from the collegiate game. Maybe five-year plans existed when Ara Parseghian walked the sidelines in South Bend, but not any longer. Notre Dame tired of Tyrone Willingham after three seasons. The same goes for Buddy Teevens at Stanford and Gerry DiNardo at Indiana, the former stomping grounds of NCAA president Myles Brand.

All this shuffling and scheming is, critics say, about the colleges' search for money. For coaches, it's brought healthy salary spikes. But along with fattening the bank account and keeping the wife happy, it's got them hunkered down to win early and often -- or else.

If you don't believe college football is first and foremost about making a buck, which presumably goes hand in hand with winning -- you're wrong. Check out the trail of head coaches pushed aside because they fell short of expectations. Or dig deeper and catch a glimpse of the latest graduation rates.

Student-athletes? Talk about hypocrisy and speaking from both sides of your mouth. If educating college football players topped the agenda, about half of the head coaches would be out of a job.

The Knight Commission, among the groups keeping an eye on college sports, has lobbied hard to ban teams from bowl games that fail to graduate at least 50 percent of their players. Based on its study released Friday, 27 of the 56 teams wouldn't be bowl-bound. And only three of the eight in BCS games would be eligible -- Southern Cal, Michigan and Virginia Tech.

When academic shenanigans have been exposed in the past, schools routinely have portrayed the graduation numbers as flawed because they fail to account for transfers. Not so fast. Here, the study delved deeper and found half of the bowl teams graduated fewer than 50 percent of their transfers and junior-college players.

Once again among the overall graduation leaders is Notre Dame, which fired Willingham with three years left on a contract paying him more than $1 million annually. The worst offenders include Pittsburgh, where Walt Harris fell into a BCS bowl by virtue of a Big East affiliation; Texas, where Mack Brown is his team's chief lobbyist and one of the country's best-paid coaches; and Louisville, where Bobby Petrino's on-field success has him on most every short-list when a job opens.

Who cares about education or sweats whether a kid graduates? Coaches don't lose their seven-figure gigs over academic indifference -- as long as they win big. And keep the boosters off the president's back.

Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.

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