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Broken Beyond Repair
June 12, 1995
An open letter to the president of Miami urges him to dismantle his vaunted football program to salvage his school's reputation
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June 12, 1995

Broken Beyond Repair

An open letter to the president of Miami urges him to dismantle his vaunted football program to salvage his school's reputation

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No one is mistaking Coral Gables for Palo Alto. Which is a shame, because if it weren't for your football team's excesses, there might be reason to do so. You have added faculty, lifted the board scores of incoming freshmen and raised $517 million in a five-year fund-raising campaign. Even as you have done away with the recreational-education and physical-education majors in which football players were often stashed, an enhanced academic support system has helped the team's graduation rate climb steadily, topping out in the respectable low 70's the last time the NCAA checked. We sat in your office in 1991 and heard you rightly celebrate your decision to do away with your football dorm, over the objections of Johnson and your then athletic director Sam Jankovich five years ahead of the NCAA's deadline for phasing them out.

But precisely because you have proved that you can be an effective president, you should be able to summon the courage to shut down the football program. Oh, the boosters will surely howl in outrage. Some trustees will, too. "That to me is an irresponsible suggestion," says Ron Stone, an insurance executive who is a member of the board's athletic affairs committee. But then your trustees just don't get it. One of them, former U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce Charles Cobb, actually characterizes the men who have presided over your athletic department over the past 15 years as "disciplinarians."

The trustees won't be an easy sell. You butted heads with the board back in 1984 when you proposed rescinding the admission of anyone, football players included, who didn't take seriously your Freshman Institute, a six-week summer orientation program for the academically deficient. Jankovich and Johnson protested that no recruit would sign a letter of intent if the school could abrogate it a few months later. The trustees lined up against you, and you lost that battle. There was even a confidential memo sent around the athletic department that read in part, "[Stiffer academic standards] could mean that our department could become another Rice or Northwestern—what a thought!"

But get your board to ponder this: What positives has football brought to the university? And could they possibly counterbalance the persistent, numbing negatives? Football has produced an operating profit over the past few years, but—to quote Tad Foote again—"profitability is fundamentally incompatible with the essence of a university. A department of philosophy will never be profitable, but without one, there is no university." Besides, your membership in the Big East means that you can now share in that league's huge take of NCAA basketball tournament revenue, which would help tide your athletic department over. Sure, the Big East admitted Miami because it wanted a piece of the bowl and TV revenue from its football team. But if you were to shutter your football program because it is rife with corruption, the league could hardly excommunicate you without looking like a bunch of unprincipled gold diggers.

In fact, getting rid of football would help you achieve your goal of transforming Miami into a first-rate private university in an urban setting. Several studies have found that athletic success by itself has no effect on alumni giving. On the contrary, according to at least one study, when winning is accompanied by the outrages with which you have become all too familiar, football glory may actually discourage contributions. In 1986, the year after Tulane shut down its basketball program in the wake of a point-shaving scandal, donations to that school leaped by $5 million. Wichita State raised $26 million in a special drive in '87, the year in which it dropped football. In roughly the same period during which your football program dragged Miami's name through the mud, another urban, private university has gone big-time—raising huge amounts of money, going on a building binge and raiding the Ivy League for faculty—without big-time sports. And no one has any less respect for NYU because it doesn't field even a club football team.

Other schools have abolished a major sport for far less cause than you have to do so right now. After all, the Tulane point-shaving allegations were never proved in court, and when the NCAA sentenced SMU football to a one-year death penalty in 1987 (the school voluntarily added a second year), it was primarily for flagrant and recurrent violations committed by boosters. Your football team is malignant, recidivist and scarcely integrated into your campus. Your city has the Dolphins and hardly needs a jayvee pro team. Your alternative—to field a national-title contender in a town known for lax living and easy vice, while South Florida's warring newspapers continue to look for any misstep they can find—is no alternative at all.

So do it. Get rid of Dee. Call Davis into your office and offer him a new job managing your overhauled athletic department. Tell every player on scholarship that you will honor his grant-in-aid if he wants to stay on as a regular student. Embark immediately on a fund-raising drive; you'll be astonished at how many alumni will open up their wallets in response to your courage. Then wait a decent interval. At the University of San Francisco, where renegade boosters were responsible for the Dons' basketball program being hide-strapped with back-to-back probations, president John Lo Schiavo closed down the sport in 1982 and waited three seasons before bringing it back. He was careful to hire a staff as committed as he was to his vision of the university and to keeping boosters at bay. SMU has brought its admission standards for athletes into line with those for the rest of the university, and the Mustangs' graduation rate has achieved respectability. If you do it right, when the time comes to bring back football at "this generation's Stanford," your students and alumni will walk tall again.

"As president I take full responsibility," you said last week. "The buck stops with me." If you really believe that, don't even think about resigning. Think instead of Robert Maynard Hutchins. Think of Senator Fulbright. Think of your own words. "Those with responsibility for the academic mission of universities—faculties, deans, provosts and presidents, not coaches, athletic directors and alumni associations—must lead," you wrote in 1982. "Universities exist for teaching and research, not winning games."

As your de facto athletic director, Luther Campbell, might put it, You've talked the talk. It's time to walk the walk.
Sincerely,
Alexander Wolff

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