Superconference just put on hold out West?

September, 21, 2011
9/21/11
11:34
AM ET
The idea of a superconference out west has been put on hold. Not tossed, mind you. Just put on hold.

At least that is the thought of one former administrator in the Pac-12. The reason it's only on hold is seemingly because the money could be too great to pass up.

The California schools -- UCLA and Cal -- are mired in debt.

Cal, in particular, has been propping up its athletic department with funds from other places. Administrators are loathe to raise tuition, even though it has gone through the roof lately, so they want new revenue streams.

"From 2008 on, athletic directors, who have always wanted to be half educator and half businessman, had to be total businessmen because they have to feed the machine in a very, very difficult economic environment," said Ted Leland, former Stanford athletic director. "And then the huge upside appears, which is football television money for the big schools."

That money is not about to go away. And, judging from the latest housing news in Tuesday’s WSJ, neither is the debt California is stuck with.

But there are two reasons schools should be wary of simply reaching for the money. One, said Stanford economic professor Roger Noll, is that it is a short-term solution to a long-term problem.

"If you were to take a look at Utah’s athletic budget, there is no question that it has had a dramatic increase in cash flow since becoming a part of the Pac-12," he said. "That may hold true for five years or maybe a little longer. But in the long term, Utah is eventually going to have to start paying coaches higher salaries, facilities will have to be upgraded, everything will have to be bigger and better."

In other words, a school that does not have the financial base or support of larger, further reaching universities, will have to keep up with the Joneses.

Hello, Texas.

The second reason is that the money might not solve all the problems. In fact, it might create a few.

"My concern is I think this is a short windfall for people. What I worry about in the long run is, it is a giant leap toward a professional sports model and that is what concerns me," Leland said. "OK, each Pac-10 school is going to get another $6 or $8 million a year, but eventually does the IRS or the congress of the United States or do federal judges who look at this say, 'OK, now you really are the Oakland Raiders just disguised as an intercollegiate team. So you know what? You ought to be subject to the same labor issues, the same tax issues, the same restraint of fair trade issues that everybody else has got.'"

Leland was much more in line with Mack Brown's desire to stay in regional conferences. These schools need to start thinking about the product: the student-athletes. If they don’t, eventually the inequity of the situation is going to destroy the game.

"I thought [Brown’s] comments in the last couple days were the very best I have heard out of anybody," Leland said. "On the other end of the spectrum, you have [Ohio State president] Gordon Gee a year ago, when they took Nebraska, saying he is really doing this for the good of college athletics. This isn’t self-serving for Ohio State University. C’mon, who is kidding who?"

To that end there is little love lost between those who run college football these days and Leland, who retired from Stanford in 2005 after 14 years and moved on to his alma mater Pacific.

"The guy at the Pac-10 has never worked on a campus. The guy at the Big Ten has never worked on a campus. The commissioner of the Big 12 has never worked on a campus. Mike Slive spent one year as the AD of Cornell. None of the Big East guys have worked on one. And John Swofford was the AD, and a very successful and well thought-of AD at North Carolina, but that was 20-some years ago," Leland said.

"You say to yourself, the conference commissioners are now running this thing. The presidents have delegated the authority to the commissioners. That is very clear. They have told Mike Slive, 'Do what you have to do, keep us informed, don’t do anything stupid, but do what you have to do.' So this football thing is being run by people who have no experience working with student-athletes.

"They literally don’t care [about non-revenue sports]. They don’t even know their issues because they have never even talked to a field hockey player in their life. The conference commissioners are right now heading up entertainment conglomerates. They are not sports conferences anymore. They are entertainment cartels. That is what they are."

Carter Strickland | email

Reporter, HornsNation

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