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.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

19 thoughts on “Another Cal athletics moment”

  1. Wasn't there once a little engineering school in Pasadena or somewhere like that that had the effrontery to kill off its football programme in 1993? The place seems to have sunk without trace. Unless you count nine Nobel Prizes by faculty or alumni.

    1. Yeah, CalTech has been completely eclipsed by MIT and Harvey Mudd, undoubtedly because their Division I football programs are right up there with Alabama's.

  2. Makes me grateful that I spent most of my career at a school at which athletics is still a very minor affair. But at my undergraduate institution, the number of intercollegiate sports has at least tripled (half of that is due to Title IX, which I personally am fine with, and the creation of intercollegiate athletics programs for women). And the coaches, instead of also having faculty responsibilities, are full-time coaches (and the football coach and basketball coach each make around $100 K per year, which, compared to Cal, is peanuts, but, still…).

  3. As I have noted before in comments on this subject, big time college athletics has a strange ad hoc structure with anomalies and oddities built in. It should never have been done that way, but is now very deeply rooted financially and culturally and devilishly difficult to change. The passage here that jumps out at me is, "We want to win championships. The success of our football program is vital to both our department and our university community." America's great universities are competitive with one another in a variety of ways, but not generally in ones that prevent them from all improving at once. Athletic success and championships are, deliberately and by their nature, tightly rationed. Berkeley can achieve this goal only by inflicting proportionate misery on sister institutions. Weird. Sign me, "Aaron Rodgers Fan." (Richard Rodgers too.)

    1. There is always the Boat Race solution. Every year, either Oxford or Cambridge are guaranteed to win (unless they both sink, a real risk on the Thames). It usually depends on which has secured the heavier American oarsmen on postgraduate scholarships.

  4. And yet The Huskies never capitalized on the four years of USC's banishment. Poodle Pete could have been a Double Hero up in Seattle, had he not dragged Sarkisian along to coach the Huskies.

  5. When we lived in Indonesia, I interviewed a very bright, dedicated woman pursuant to her application to a university in Germany. She told me that it would be tuition-free if she was accepted. To which I replied "You know why it's free, don't you? Germany does not have a single university in Division I, and has never fielded a bowl-eligible team. Ever, in hundreds of years. Not even in Bismarck's day! Sure, U Alabama would cost you and arm and a leg, but just think of the Iron Bowl. Four championships in six years! How could you pass up an opportunity like that? The only downside I can see if that 'Bama cheerleaders are almost all blondes, but even that might work in your favor because they just might have some kind of affirmative action for brunette and raven-haired 'girls.'" She was curiously unmoved. But, I have a feeling that ten years later, she stares at the engineering degree displayed on her office wall and feels huge regret. "I could be wearing a cheerleader outfit and walking around with a mesomorph in Tuscaloosa."

  6. According to HuffPost, Berkeley is below average in its financial support of athletics. UC-Davis, -Irvine, -Riverside, -Santa Barbara, San Jose State, and Calstate-Fresno, -Long Beach averaged about $70million dollars over 2010-2014. Berkeley only spent $46.7 Million.

    You are the only place I can find the $30 Million number, the university says that is more like $7-8 million/year.

    1. Knowing just a little about this stuff (not at Cal) I think it is fair to say that the numbers universities publicize often involve some highly creative accounting.

    2. I don't know what your Berkeley number is. Here is what IA reports
      It includes a deficit of $8.5m, "direct institutional support" of $3.5m, and student fees of $1.5m, so about $13.5m
      Next year's (FY16) reported deficit is predicted to be about $20m, and to that you have to add about $10m of facilities operation cost borne by the campus and not recognized in IA accounts, plus the $5m Agu settlement, plus (now) $3m for the coach's severance.

      1. "I don't know what your Berkeley number is."
        It isn't my number. "According to HuffPost"

  7. Stanford has won a national sporting championship every year for many decades and wins more championships total than almost any other university, yet also has very bright kids and a pile of Nobel Prizes. Some people conclude from this that there is no conflict here for universities despite what Mike says. I myself conclude instead that a very small number of schools can somehow excel in sports and academics at the same time and I undeservedly happen to be at one of them. That's cool for me and mine, but it is completely useless as a lesson for anywhere else. I am in awe of all these intellectually and athletically deity-like Stanford kids precisely because they are as rare as a person of color at a Libertarian Party rally. You can't build a national conclusion or policy based on them, the reality is that almost all universities have to make some hard choices in this domain and too many of them make the wrong one exactly as Mike says.

  8. How does Stanford do it?
    Several factors. First, Stanford athletics is much better managed, for whatever reason. Second, S has an enormous athletics endowment, owing to its wealthy alumni base who readily write checks where ours traditionally have said "I gave to Cal at the tax window (Cal is a public school), go away and don't bother me." I'm guessing donors are not allowed to pay for facilities unless they also endow maintenance, as at Harvard. Does S really field 32 intercollegiate teams, with scholarships? Yow!
    Your general proposition, that this is an "all/any" illusion is correct. Any public university can do what Oregon does…but not all of them; only those that have a Phil Knight who can and will buy championships for them (and will forgive them a collapse like this year's). Only one PAC12 school can be champion, and shocking as it seems, only half can have winning (conference) seasons no matter how hard they all try, and how much they all spend to excel. Having a winning season has a lot to do with being able to afford winning seasons.
    More interesting question: how does U.Washington do it? I haven't found their financial statements yet, but for one thing, they only field ten sports (anything other than FB and MBB is a money loser).

    1. " … and shocking as it seems, only half can have winning (conference) seasons no matter how hard they all try, and how much they all spend to excel."

      Nope. The average W/L percentage of conference games is 0.500, but it is easy for more (or fewer) than half the teams to have winning (conference) seasons.

      Suppose a 4 team conference, {A, B, C, D} with each pair of teams {(A,B), (A,C), (A,D), (B,C), (B,D), (C,D)} playing once. If D loses all of its games, and A beats B, B beats C and C beats A, then A, B & C all have W/L records of 2-1 & D has a W/L record of 0-3. A, B & C each has a winning (conference) season, and unless there have been some developments in basic arithmetic since my time in elementary school a half-century ago, 3 is more than one-half of 4.

      1. Right, I misread a page for tickets that only listed 10. Still less than our 28, so a lot less cost.

  9. Fair enough; it's like gerrymandering a party's voters into a few districts where they predominate. All the losing could be loaded onto a couple of schlemiel schools. I should have said the fraction of teams in the upper division would still be half.
    More important, though, if all the PAC12 schools got serious about football, and doubled what they spend on it, the number of champions would not increase at all. I suppose the fans could have twice as much fun watching, but I bet not.

    1. "… the fraction of teams in the upper division would still be half"

      Combining (further) pedantry &/or pettifoggery with a (petty) victory dance (for what is an online comments section for if not that?): suppose there were an odd number of teams in the conference?* In that case, the fraction in each division approaches half only asymptotically, i.e., as N, the number of teams in the conference, approaches infinite.

      "All the losing could be loaded onto a couple of schlemiel schools." I have not looked at the record over the last few years, but my sense from your posts about UCB athletics over the years is that this may be the designated role of UCB.

      More seriously: "[I]t's like gerrymandering a party's voters into a few districts where they predominate." I believe that this is one of the main reasons for non-conference games, i.e., to allow weaker teams in a conference to end the season with (apparently) respectable records. A second, of course, is to help teams get in shape before the conference begins or (occasionally, depending on the sport) to stay in shape during that season; and a final one, for much weaker underdog teams in non-conference games, is to earn some money for the program by playing the role of punching bag.

      *& to extend the pedantic pettifoggery, some googling suggests to me that the proper terminology refers to first and second divisions, not upper and lower:

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