OP-ED | In the Football Business, You Have to Spend Money to Make Money
Dabo Swinney’s Clemson Tigers defeated Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide, 35-31, to win the national college football championship on Jan. 9. These two teams are national football powers, having met in last year’s title game, too.
When the University of Connecticut named Randy Edsall its head football coach two weeks ago, Husky fans rejoiced, seeing the once and future coach as the savior who would lead UConn to the football promised land now occupied by Clemson and Alabama.
Well, not really.
In fact, many saw the hire as a desperate attempt to make UConn relevant in the major Division-I (FBS) football landscape. Some even suggested the university abandon bigtime football altogether.
“It’s time for reflection and change. Scale back the program into a division that’s less demanding of resources and attention,” wrote Hartford Courant columnist Kevin Rennie. “Just because policy-makers and sports boosters got it wrong two decades ago when they made the expensive plunge into FBS college football, there is no reason to extend the error.”
Given the state’s current fiscal crisis, Rennie has a point. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced last month he was “cutting $20 million in education funding to municipalities and eliminating $30 million in funds for local construction projects” to reduce Connecticut’s $1.5 billion budget deficit.
Fred Carstensen, director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis, expounded on the topic in an email to me: “Connecticut’s economy is in horrible condition, with household real income contracting (about 5 percent since 2010), total employment now below the level of 1989, real output still billions below the previous peak in 2007, all of which translates into an enormous budget deficit.”
The state, quite simply, is in dire economic straits, not exactly the time to spend money on a flailing football program, including the $3.4 million required to buy out deposed coach Bob Diaco’s contract.
Enter Randy Edsall.
Originally hired in 1999 to marshal Connecticut football into Division-I from Division I-AA, Edsall saw success, compiling an 11-year record of 74-70 with five bowl appearances. The problem was the way he left the program.
“After leading UConn to the 2011 Fiesta Bowl, the high-water mark in the program’s history,” reported the New York Times, “he did not speak to his players or fly back with the team after its loss to Oklahoma. Instead, he flew to Maryland, where he was introduced as the Terrapins’ coach.”
Edsall called the position at Maryland his “dream job,” but the coach was fired in his fifth season with a miserable 22-34 record. Now, just over a year later, he’s back at Connecticut. But would a scorned Husky nation welcome back a prodigal son?
As Hartford Courant columnist Jeff Jacobs explained, “Edsall 2.0 needed to apologize to the fans that Edsall 1.0 had alienated. He needed to apologize to the former players whose trust he had broken in the hours after the Fiesta Bowl in January 2011.”
And so he did.
“Almost six years ago, I made one of the worst decisions, in terms of how I left UConn,” Edsall said. “I just hope I will be able to earn the trust back of all you wonderful fans, because what I’m doing now is I apologize for how I left. It was wrong. I take full ownership and accountability.”
Is Edsall’s return good for the state? He’s no Nick Saban or Dabo Swinney, but that might be why Edsall is the best fit right now for UConn. He’s basically a big time football bargain at a base salary of $1 million dollars, which puts him at No. 73 on the list of 128 FBS coaches. Compare that to Saban’s salary of $6.9 million or Swinney’s $4.8 million.
Even as a successful Division-I basketball school, UConn sports still lose money, including $2.7 million on last year’s national championship women’s program http://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-financial-impact-of-championship-basketball/. Very few athletic programs at any level, in fact, make money. Only 24 of the 128 FBS schools turned a profit in 2014, according to the NCAA.
The fact is, football can be a linchpin of D-I athletic programs. A 2014 Hartford Business article noted that “regional and national big-time college athletics programs show their revenues and margins are driven by football. Syracuse, for example, earned $33.2 million in football revenue in fiscal ‘12-13; Boston College raked in $22.9 million; Duke earned $24.1 million; and Texas made $109.4 million.”
As the saying goes, you have to spend money to make money. By hiring Edsall, at least, UConn has decreased the $1.8 million salary it would have paid Bob Diaco this year – his exorbitant buyout notwithstanding. But still, Edsall will need to deliver the goods rather quickly.
“The bottom line is that Edsall may face a short fuse,” concluded Carstensen. “If he can’t turn the program around and deliver bowl games and some serious national exposure, the trustees may have to bite the bullet on the millions in annual subsidies for which there is little visible return.”
As a big believer in second chances, I say give Edsall a shot. Average attendance at Rentschler Field was near capacity during his first go-around at UConn. Maybe he can do it again.
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