Another Cal Athletics Moment

With our intercollegiate athletics department’s typical management finesse, we extended our football coach’s contract about a year ago…and fired him this week. He walks away with about $6m in severance, but that’s OK because we’re just finishing up the zillion-dollar severance payments for the previous coach, and the AD who is now at Penn State, so there’s lots of money just lying around that would otherwise be wasted on fixing classrooms, or scholarships for non-athlete students who just play sports for fun and don’t put any eyeballs on TV commercials. The intercollegiate athletics program at Cal costs about $30m a year (net), a sixth of a $180m campus deficit; a task force of alums, faculty, and staff is working on proposals to fix this.

The athletic director shares a set of insights that deserve attention, and translation:

We are continuously evaluating our program and looking for ways to make it better – whether that’s through additional academic support, recruiting, facilities, staffing, culture, leadership or anything else that can help our football program succeed. [1] Primarily, we want what’s best for our student-athletes [2] and have a head coach in place who is fully committed to our program  and our university [3].

….Our objective is long-term financial sustainability for our department. In order to do this, we understand that investing in football is critical [1]. We believe that this change will reinvigorate the program, stimulate lagging ticket sales and renewals, and energize our donor base. [4]

….We want to win championships. The success of our football program is vital to both our department and our university community [5], and its influence can be felt well beyond Berkeley.

1: Almost everything in this list costs money, and we intend to keep spending it no matter what that task force says, or what weird mission the outgoing or incoming chancellor thinks a university has.  It’s our tradition of a decade here at Cal to keep throwing money at a mediocre football program, and we take our traditions seriously. Sooner or later, maybe as little as $6m later, inshallah, the larger forces of big-time college sports will abate, the bleeding will stop, and we will reach some sort of equilibrium, right?

2: To be clear; we retain the services of the conditioning coach who killed one football player, sent another to the hospital, and cost us $5m in a liability settlement. We certainly aren’t going to rein in practice times so they can sit around in classrooms or labs, or do a bunch of wussy problem sets. “What’s best for our student-athletes” is not what people outside the cult might think the phrase means.

3: This is just sports PR blather, of course, the language of press conferences and after-game interviews; $3m college coaches are fully committed to their careers and if anything, expect their employers to be committed to them with limitless staff, facilities, money, and perks. Pete Carroll’s effortless leap to the Seahawks from the shambles he left at USC is instructive.

4: Chronicle reporting is occasionally sloppy, and in this case we are not informed whether Williams clicked his heels together three times and closed his eyes as he said this last.  Nor whether the “we” actually includes any living person on earth with a three-digit IQ.

5: This combines a statement of fact with a religious utterance based on faith. No, it’s not vital to the community, not even close, though its ruinous cost certainly inflicts a lot pain on the rest of us. My department just completed a faculty search and not one of the candidates asked about the prospects of the football team or even knew our record. We lost a prof to Stanford a few years ago, and in all our discussions of his move he never once brought up Stanford/Cal football. I have talked to dozens of undergraduates and grad students over the years and not found one who came to Cal because our football (or men’s basketball) teams were better than those at other schools to which they were applying. I have been here semester after semester, talking to colleagues in social science, humanities, and hard science across that university community, and the salience of football in our socialization, community spirit, and plain water-cooler schmoose is similar to the salience of pro wrestling. Big-time sports may be ‘vital’ for Clemson or Florida State, but not for us.

What can we expect in the near future?  The new coach will need to do some really desperate recruiting of defense players at the least, and develop a quarterback (unless he decides to bring in a graduate transfer ringer as Dykes did this year).  The program will be even less attractive to high school stars, however, so I have probability of about 0.3 that we will be reading about recruiting violations of the type fictionalized in the memorable movie Blue Chips, or recruiting and oversight failures of the type that recently humiliated Baylor. Meanwhile, ticket sales will keep going down, the athletics deficit will grow, and the new chancellor will find his feet stuck in the big muddy from his first day.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.