Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Tommy Tuberville gets a raise, faculty gets the shaft? Not exactly.

image In January, Texas Tech University and Football Coach Tommy Tuberville agreed on a new contract that would run through 2015 and increase Tub’s salary from the bargain basement $1.5 million to $2.0 million, an increase of $500,000.

That hasn’t set well with the TTU faculty, as the university is facing a grim funding situation from the Texas legislature, according to an item published yesterday in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.

When Tuberville agreed to take the job last January following former coach Mike Leach’s dismissal, Tech Athletic Director Guy Bailey promised that Tuberville’s compensation would be evaluated following ticket sales and other revenue generating activities associated with the 2010 football season.  Football revenues set school records last fall, and Bailey made good on his promise.

That still sticks in the craw of the academic community at TTU.

A recent pay boost for Texas Tech football coach Tommy Tuberville has miffed some professors whose own pay has stagnated against a spartan state funding backdrop.

Several professors at a faculty senate meeting Wednesday questioned the university’s January announcement it will increase Tuberville’s annual pay by $500,000 through 2015, one of the university’s few raises as it braces for lawmakers to cut tens of millionsof dollars from the university’s revenue.

The five-year $11 million contract guarantees Tuberville at least $2 million per year, up from $1.5 million in the original contract he signed with Tech in 2010.

Others later said the raise shows a priority on athletics over academics.

Meek, like Bailey, said some frustration may stem from confusion about how Tech pays Tuberville’s salary. Many fail to understand that a funding wall separates academics and athletic budgets, Bailey said, so the raise does not directly siphon from academic coffers. Each year, however, academics does subsidize $2.5 million of the athletic department’s budget. Bailey said Tech has reduced that to $2.25 million this year to reflect state cuts and he hopes to slowly wean athletics off that subsidy entirely over the next few years.

But, he added, his office first needs time to untangle federal and NCAA red tape tied to the subsidy.

Wednesday’s faculty discussion touched on an older, broader debate about where and how sports fit at public universities. The question has surfaced repeatedly over the past few years alongside a surge in athletic spending.

“Regardless of the specifics of the money flow, there’s still a question of the symbolism of what this says about the university’s priorities,” said John Curtis, director of research and public policy at the American Association of University Professors, a faculty advocacy group in Washington. “If you’re at a time of cutting academic programs or freezing or cutting salaries for faculty and other employees and you have a raise for the football coach — even if the money is there — it sends a completely wrong signal about where the priorities of the university are.”

In the excerpt above, the underlined statement is the one that has generated the most chatter on sports blogs and message boards, and it’s also the most misunderstood concept in this story. It suggests that the general fund of a public, state-funded university is funding the entire athletic department, including the football program.

People associated with the program and one source close to Tuberville hotly and flatly deny that. While it is true that the athletic department is receiving a subsidy from the academic side of the books, that money is not going into Tuberville’s pockets or the pockets of his assistant coaches. Instead, that money goes to supporting less lucrative athletic programs, such as softball, track & field, golf, swimming, etc. These programs are not revenue generators and, if left to fend for themselves, would likely not survive another season.

At many major universities with large, successful football programs, football funds not only the entire athletic department but in some cases generates a net positive contribution to academics and the general fund.  Additionally, a large, successful football (or basketball) program has the added—but more esoteric—benefit of drawing more students to apply for enrollment.  Students want to go to schools with an exciting, competitive athletics program. It’s part of campus life and it is a major factor in many students’ decision-making process.

Tuberville is a decent football coach. He’s won in the cutthroat competitive environment of the Southeastern Conference. He’s not a great coach, as many Auburn fans would probably agree. He is however, capable of recruiting well and coaching the Red Raiders to perennial 8-4 seasons, a decent bowl appearance and an occasional run at a Big XII division or conference title. He’ll win games, he’ll put a decent product on the field, and he’ll put butts in the seats.

The objective, of course, is to get so many butts in the seats that the football program can drive the rest of the athletic department’s budget and wean it off of the general fund/academic subsidy.

While I’m sympathetic to the plight of the academic budgets, complaints such as those aired by the professors quoted in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal are short-sighted. The priorities of the university have always been about providing a quality education and campus experience for the students making the transition from teenager to young adult. Football is part of that experience at TTU, and if Tuberville keeps winning, it’ll be part of helping to pay for it, too.

But you can’t win if you can’t attract decent coaching, and the only way to attract decent coaching is to pay a competitive salary. It’s not about sending messages about priorities. It’s about economics.

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