Friday, January 22, 2010

Was Calipari Worth Every Dollar . . . and More?

Posted By on Fri, Jan 22, 2010 at 11:44 AM

A new book, "Varsity Green," by Mark Yost, suggests that high-paid college coaches like John Calipari are well worth their multimillion-dollar salaries.

The book examines, among others, former Cincinnati coach (and Memphis arch rival) Bob Huggins. And the chapter titled "The NCAA: Cartel or Mafia?" should be irresistible to Tiger fans. A sample: "The NCAA's front business is amateurism" but its real business is "extortion."

"Bob Huggins is, himself, a national brand. And in many ways he made us a national brand too," says Bob Cavello, athletic director for business development at K-State, where Huggins coached for one year after leaving Cincinnati.

The University of Memphis gets fragged by Yost in the Huggins chapter: "Historically, K-State has been one of the leading public institutions in production of Marshall, Truman, and Rhodes scholars. In short, K-State was no Kentucky or Memphis, where basketball ranks first ahead of everything else, and bio lab is a distant third or fourth on the college president's list of top priorities."

Memphis had Calipari for nine years before he bolted for Kentucky. The basketball program was floundering under former Coach Tic Price, going 13-15 before Calipari was hired. Attendance increased, first at The Pyramid, then at FedEx Forum. The Tigers put together a big win streak and a NCAA Tournament Finals appearance. Of course, those accomplishments are in jeopardy because of NCAA violations involving Derrick Rose. But the Tigers are arguably as much or more of a national brand in college basketball as Kansas State, as evidenced by near-sellouts at home and on the road this Cal-less season.

Yost argues that coaches like Huggins not only boost athletic programs, they "breathe life into a school's brand and marketing power." Money flows in from Nike contracts, apparel sales, booster donations, season ticket sales, and television appearances.

What is less clear is the cost of a losing program or a disgraced program.

After Tommy West was canned as football coach, I suggested the University of Memphis Sparks Bureau of Business and Economic Research do a timely study with full disclosure of the costs and benefits of football and basketball, and perhaps take seriously West's suggestion that UM should either buck up or give it up. That didn't happen, at least not yet, but "Varsity Green" fills some of the void.

Such a study would be a feast for fans, students, and non-fans. I made my last college tuition payment for my youngest child last year. Her private college, Elon, doesn't play big-time football, but plans to put more money into its football program. One factor is the positive impact football has on recruiting male students in general, not just athletes. Colleges want to avoid the tipping point of a male enrollment of below 40 percent.

My oldest graduated from Tennessee. No need to rehash their troubles in the Kiffin debacle. Closer to my heart, my alma mater, Michigan, is trying to recoup a huge investment in "The Big House" in Ann Arbor but has had two straight losing seasons under Coach Rich Rodriguez. I like to delude myself sometimes into thinking I'm above the irrationality of fandom. My family and friends know better. Go Blue.

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