Penn St. illustrates outsized influence of sports

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Joe Paterno, Rick Pitino and Mack Brown _ millionaires all and many times over. Their bosses? Go ahead. Try to name them.

Even if you can _ Graham Spanier, James R. Ramsey and William C. Powers, for the record _ they’re not household names. When it comes to their salaries, it’s as though they’re working in different worlds, not on the same campus.

There are more than 90 football and basketball coaches making more than $1 million a year, including Brown, who tops out the football list at around $5 million at Texas, and Pitino, who brings in more than $7 million at Louisville. Meanwhile, there are only 10 presidents at the nation’s 185 largest public universities taking home more than $725,000 annually.

Call it an imbalance of priorities or tipping the scales, but it happens all across America when multimillion-dollar athletic programs become the face of a university instead of the other way around.

“There’s such an emphasis on building and expanding and paying top salaries that it’s all tilted toward raising money,” said Fisher DeBerry, who coached football for 23 years at Air Force and now serves as chairman of the American Football Coaches Association ethics committee. “Sometimes we lose the true essence of what we’re doing out there. The true meaning of college sports is to help kids gain an education and become better people and find their place in society.”

If that’s become lost on the schools, it’s also lost on the public.

“You go anywhere in the world and mention Penn State and the first thing they say is, `Do you know Joe Paterno?’” said William Asbury, the vice president emeritus for student affairs at Penn State, who also serves on the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a watchdog group that seeks to keep the influence of sports at big schools in check.

Paterno is so closely tied to Penn State, aside from its football program, that he’s likely to remain synonymous with the school for a long time, despite being fired two weeks ago in the aftermath of the child sex abuse scandal involving his former assistant coach.

The name UConn is almost a parenthetical reference next to the names Geno (Auriemma) and (Jim) Calhoun.

UCLA? That’s John Wooden.

Florida State? Still Bobby Bowden.

Alabama? If you’re not talking about Nick Saban’s success in the present, you’re talking about the teams Bear Bryant coached in the past.

Now, try to name a celebrated professor or research breakthrough at those schools.

“It’s an imbalance,” said Allen Sack, a Penn State alum and president-elect of another reform coalition, The Drake Group. “It’s mass commercial entertainment, and it can be wonderful. But it’s within the university. It’s inevitable that when you have such an incredible venue for people to gather, and you get the collective euphoria you get, that’s going to cause some problems because of its tremendous power.”

In some cases, coaches have almost completely stopped pretending it’s about an education _ most notably in college basketball, where players are allowed to attend school for a single year, then leave for the NBA. Two seasons ago, Kentucky had four key players who left after their freshman year.

“College basketball will never get back to the integrity that it had until the NCAA” rewrites the rule to make players stay for at least three years, former coach Bob Knight said earlier this year.

Maybe the most telling single quote to come out of a year filled with scandals _ at Auburn, UConn, Southern California, Miami, Ohio State and elsewhere _ came from the Ohio State president, Gordon Gee.

Gee, whose $1.8 million salary is the highest for a public-university president, was asked if he was going to dismiss the coach, Jim Tressel, in the wake of growing allegations that he covered up the problems in his program.

“No, are you kidding?” Gee said with a laugh. “Let me be very clear. I’m just hoping the coach doesn’t dismiss me.”

Tressel, long considered a model citizen among his coaching peers, did eventually get fired. And the disturbing echo of Gee’s statement _ which he said later was a lame attempt at humor _ wasn’t lost on anyone: At many schools, the football or basketball coach really does hold more sway than the president.

“Frankly, even before some of the latest scandals, several key leaders in college sports were all saying college sports is at a crossroads, a tipping point,” said Knight Commission executive director Amy Perko. “We’re at a moment in time where we need to define what this enterprise is really all about.”

While the NCAA keeps trying to sort out its mission, the schools themselves have spent the last few years engaging in conference realignment.

The process has been, by and large, a set of clumsy, money-driven decisions that has very little to do with schools’ locations or the welfare of the so-called “student-athletes” and everything to do with expanding conference footprints, signing better TV deals and _ always, always, always _ making more money. Exhibit A: By adding two teams in the Mountain Time Zone, the Pac-12 quadrupled TV revenue. Exhibit B: The University of Texas is running its own TV network, which in many ways is leading to the slow disintegration of the Big 12.

“I think the general rule is to let the athletic departments run on their own and to hire good people to manage those,” said University of Oregon professor Nathan Tublitz, a member of the Coalition On Intercollegiate Athletics, a faculty group seeking reform.

“The problem is, they generate so much money, they become such a big business, that some of the values of the institution are not being followed when the athletic departments make decisions.”

This strange values system exists, Tublitz says, because of the money and the fame that successful sports programs can shower upon a school.

At Penn State, for example, the football program produced almost $73 million in revenues over the past year.

Tublitz points to a study from about 10 years ago that was circulated internally by his school president: Of all the headlines mentioning the University of Oregon in the state’s largest newspaper, The Oregonian, 72 percent dealt with sports, 18 percent dealt with deaths of alumni and others with connections to the school and the rest was divided equally between academic and nonacademic issues on campus.

“I don’t know that there’s an ultimate solution,” said Asbury, the Penn State rep on the Knight Commission. “I don’t know that we’ll go back to the days when athletes really were students first and athletes second.”

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