As if any more proof were needed, last week's events at Michigan State demonstrated once again that too many of the nation's universities still don't have big-time athletics in proper perspective. Heading into the 1990s, Spartan football fans had every reason to feel optimistic. In alumnus George Perles they had a coach who turned around a program that had gone 10-23 in the three seasons before his arrival in 1983. Under Perles, the Spartans were 46-33-3 and played in five bowls, including the 1988 Rose Bowl, in which they beat Southern Cal. Michigan State boosters hoped that the Spartans might regain the grandeur of 1952, when they won the national championship, and of 1966, when only a 10-10 regular-season tie with Notre Dame kept them from the title.
Understandably, then, the school was shaken in January when Perles began serious discussions with the New York Jets about a reported five-year, $3.75 million offer to replace Joe Walton as coach—despite the fact that Perles had eight years remaining on a 10-year deal with Michigan State. He had received that contract not only as a reward for his performance but also as a means of persuading him to end a flirtation with the Green Bay Packers, who in 1988 offered him a $2.25 million deal for five years.
Nonetheless, well aware that a contract is but a minor impediment to a coach with road fever, Michigan State president John DiBiaggio said that if Perles wanted to accept the Jets job, he was prepared to let him go. DiBiaggio, however, underestimated the lengths to which the board of trustees was willing to go to keep Perles in East Lansing. What happened is a sad commentary on the priorities of a major university.
In December, Spartan athletic director Doug Weaver announced his intention to retire on July 1. At the time, Perles said that he would like to add Weaver's job to his duties as football coach, but DiBiaggio demurred, saying he opposed someone's being, in effect, both employer and employee. Still, on Jan. 23, with Perles about to jump to the Jets, the board figured that the best way to retain Perles would be to grant his wish. So, instead of simply voting to hold Perles to his contract—with an implied threat of legal action if he broke it—or abiding by DiBiaggio's wish to let Perles go, the board defied DiBiaggio and voted 5-3 to offer Perles a one-year trial as athletic director, without additional pay, while he remained football coach. The board did vote to deny the Jets permission to enter into a contract with Perles, but the coach got what he wanted.
The trustees' vote came at a rare special session, and it disregarded prescribed university procedure, which called for a national search for a new athletic director, compliance with affirmative-action guidelines and a final recommendation of a candidate by DiBiaggio. The trustees defended their hasty action by saying that "continuity" was needed in the athletic department.
The vote was greeted by hisses from many students and faculty at the public meeting, and the next day's Detroit News carried the headline PERLES 5, DIBIAGGIO 3. Immediately after sending his regrets to the Jets, Perles began trying to mend fences, saying that DiBiaggio "is the boss, and I'll try very hard to show him and his office the respect it deserves." But DiBiaggio mourned the indisputable fact that athletic expediency had prevailed over administrative integrity. "I am concerned that a message has been sent nationally that intercollegiate athletics is an area set apart," he said.
It is, indeed. Two weeks ago, when South Carolina state legislators tried to uncover details about the forced resignation of Clemson coach Danny Ford, they were told that the school's buyout of Ford's contract—an amount that could surpass $1 million—was none of their business. Only when state representative David Beasley persisted, saying that the sum included taxpayer money, did Clemson, a public university, agree to open its books. Beasley said that the Clemson situation was "a sad commentary on the relationship between athletic departments and universities nationwide," and he could just as easily have been talking about Michigan State.
Perles said he was confident that after a year DiBiaggio would be impressed with his "hard and successful work," but that's beside the point. How Perles performs as athletic director isn't nearly as important as how he got the job. Still, Perles can be forgiven his opportunism, a disease common among coaches, more easily than the board can be pardoned for the shabby way it relinquished its responsibility to find the most qualified candidate for such an important job. The coddling of Perles does a grave disservice to Michigan State and proves that the seemingly incurable disease—overemphasis on athletics—remains epidemic.