Gopher sports teams aim high at precarious timeby Art Hughes, Minnesota Public Radio
For the first time in his University of Minnesota career, Athletics Director Joel Maturi faces hiring not just one, but two, of the highest profile positions in his program. Maturi and his decisions on football coach and a men's basketball coach are also key to the university's efforts to raise private donations for construction of an on-campus football stadium.
It's a nearly unprecedented combination of heavy lifting that will, at the very least, define Maturi's legacy. The tasks are made all the more difficult by increasing competition -- and costs -- in college athletics.
St. Paul, Minn. — Within a week's time, the University of Minnesota Athletics Department agreed to a $2.2 million contract buyout for football coach Glen Mason, and assumed a projected $1.5 million per year in extra construction costs for the new Gopher football stadium.
This comes just over a month after the $1.3 million agreement to get basketball coach Dan Monson to leave quietly. Now, Athletics Director Joel Maturi is wading into the costly proposition of securing coaches for the university's two biggest revenue-generating sports.
"I realize the significance in it," Maturi said last week following a press conference unveiling architect drawings for the new TCF Stadium. "I'm not frightened by that. But I am motivated by doing what I hope is the best long-term decision for the future of Minnesota football as well as Minnesota basketball."
University President Bob Bruininks promises an open mind and an open checkbook in order to attract the right talent. He said he wants coaches that will keep student athletes in the state.
"I think the first the goal is to close your borders. Make it tough. Build a relationship with the high school coaches and the youth communities of Minnesota," said Bruininks. "To me, a part of coaching is a responsibility to give something back to your community and to try to inspire young people to think about the University of Minnesota."
Gopher sports booster and football color commentator Dave Mona said the two coaching decisions will define Maturi's legacy at the U. He said the right people will bring in more fans, sponsorships and booster money.
"If they make successful hires, the hires themselves will generate revenues and help pay for themselves," Mona said. "Secondly, there are substantial new revenues about ready to flow into the department I think this year, from a Big Ten television contract -- significant revenues -- in and of themselves large enough to cover the additional debt service."
In 2005, Minnesota ranked 43rd in its NCAA division in football fan attendance. The games brought in an average of just under 50,000 people. Two other Big Ten teams, Ohio and Michigan, attracted more than twice that.
So can spending enough money on the right person bring a sports program into a higher income bracket?
Washington State University sports economist Rodney Fort said, in the end, the decision is based on the marketplace.
"I often hear people say, 'Well, why don't we just go buy a $2 million coach and then we'll go to big bowl games and BCS attention and all those good things,'" Fort said. "That's all very well and good -- if it really ends up that after you spend the $2 million your fans are willing to sustain your program at the funding level that's required to be competitive over time."
College sports is an increasingly high-stakes arena. The University of Alabama announced last week a jaw-dropping $4 million contract to hire football coach Nick Saban. Football coach Bob Stoops in Oklahoma pulled in almost $3.5 million last year. Even Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz will pass the $3 million mark this year.
Murray Sperber, professor emeritus at Indiana University and author of the book, "Beer and Circus," about the dizzying amounts of money being poured into college sports, said no coach is able to significantly change the capacity of the fan base.
"I think rather than accept that, the fans somehow believe they can compete against wealthier programs," Sperber said. "The problem with college sports is what's called the athletics arms race. In any conference, the leading programs will set a spending pace that's very difficult for the bottom half to follow."
Sperber said this athletic arms race means the University of Minnesota will certainly spend more to fill its two empty coaching positions than it paid the two men who recently left them.
- Morning Edition, 01/08/2007, 7:50 a.m.