Have we gone clear through the looking glass and into the land of jabberwocky? Are coaches merely grotesque cartoon figures sent onstage to make us laugh with cynical derision? People say. Hey, Rick, loosen up, enjoy the show and stop all the complaining. I've tried, believe me, but it doesn't work. Some real mischief is being done in the realm of college football, a lot of it by coaches, and it can't be ignored.
As I sit in Memorial Stadium in Lincoln with 73,649 Nebraska fans, all I can see is an undulating sea of red above the turf. Red sport coats, red dresses, red Stetson hats and ball caps, red bib overalls, red shoes. There is so much red that my mind loses focus for an instant, and I don't know where I am. I could be at Ohio State, Georgia, Alabama, Oklahoma or Arkansas, and it would look just like this—red. This disorientation happens to me more and more at these giant collegiate convocations: Lincoln, Columbus, Athens, Tuscaloosa, Norman, Fayetteville, the wave of red means a whole lot of green. Even more than the ritual of this gathering, the cash outlay is what strikes me—the sense that the expense of all these trappings is no big deal to these fans compared with what their money has bought them: bonding, ceremony, entertainment, catharsis. The money for tickets, parking, pennants, Herbie Husker hats, $50,000 red motor homes, whatever, has been spent freely and joyfully. The university is responsible for this splurge of spending; it has produced a football team, as other universities have, that carries so much emotional freight for so many people that it has become a daunting economic force.
It would seem obvious, then, that universities make lots of money off big-time football. They don't. The cash raised by ticket and souvenir sales, parking passes and the like bypasses the university and goes to its semi-independent subsidiary, the athletic department. The athletic department uses the revenue to support itself and, when possible, to extend its tentacles further into the heart of the university by building more structures and increasing its staff and responsibilities, so that if there's a downturn in the amount of money generated by the football team (and to a lesser extent, the basketball team), the shuttering of gyms or the laying off of staff or the cutting back on scholarships would seem unfair and socially repugnant.
In such a dire situation the poor wretches in the athletic department would get lots of sympathy, which is the next best thing to cold cash. Sympathy allows athletic departments to concoct more ways to make green-backs, such as pursuing that 12th game on the football schedule or getting corporate sponsorship. Athletic directors are great impersonators of poor, overburdened administrators just trying to make ends meet.
TCU athletic director Frank Windegger, who has served on the NCAA Council and is currently on the CFA's board of directors and athletic directors' committee as well as on the board of the National Association of College Directors of Athletics, insists that big-time football must add another game to stay solvent. "Sixty-two percent of Division I schools are in deficit budgets," said Windegger last year, "and it's not going to get better on its own. It was a real signal to me when Michigan was $2.5 million in the red. You're talking about a team that can put 100,000 fans in the stands, and if they can't meet a budget, then what is everyone else supposed to do?"
God, it's so sad, you almost hesitate to ask why Michigan's athletic department can't squeak by on its $20 million annual budget (one of the largest in the nation), or why coaches and athletic directors can't take a teensy-weensy pay cut. But they must have their reasons, and, anyway, those are other issues. Let's stick to the university itself here.
The school knows better than to ask for any of the football program's revenues. Reach into that cookie jar and you get your hand hacked off. But the university can expect to get some of the overflow or splash-off from the sport; as the delirious fans throw their money at the sacred football beast, doesn't the school get the errant dime here or there? Well, no. A great deal of revenue goes to the surrounding community in the form of restaurant, motel and souvenir expenditures, which benefit the university only as goodwill. So what do the schools get out of big-time football? Where is their cut? After all, if a university is going to profane itself so openly, demonstrate to all that it is nothing but a house of platitudes, it ought to get paid for such embarrassment and degradation.
So—of course!—the money comes in indirectly. That's how it is. It seeps in in the form of gifts from alumni and fans who are so smitten with the football team that they feel compelled to give money to the sponsoring institution. Not right there on the spot, maybe, but within a reasonable amount of time after the monumental goal-line stand or bowl-game blitz. To the university's general fund. To its math and chemistry departments. To its building and housing funds. To its fine arts center and student newspaper. That's how it happens, right? Wrong.
Let's check the facts. In the Jan. 13, 1988, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Douglas Lederman, a senior editor there, states: "Proponents of big-time sports have long held that a visible, successful sports program adds to an institution's financial well-being. They argue that a winning, big-time program attracts students, fosters institutional name recognition, and stimulates state aid and voluntary giving.... But most of the fund-raisers and scholars who have studied the relationship between athletic success and fund-raising are skeptical."
In the January 1985 issue of Currents, the journal of the Council of Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), UNLV's Frey wrote: "Within the last decade there have been a number of empirical examinations of the relation of athletic success to fund-raising outcomes. The basic conclusion...is that there is no relation between athletic success and any measure of voluntary financial contributions. In fact...athletic success often has the opposite effect—it depresses contributions."