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Derrick Z. Jackson

UMass move is a bad call

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / April 26, 2011

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AFTER YEARS of giving students and alumni inferiority complexes by declining to take on the big boys in college football, UMass-Amherst has announced its football team will play in the Mid-American Conference in 2012, moving up into the top tier of Division I. Egotistically, this makes sense. Academically and economically, it makes none.

Mid-American Conference Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher welcomed UMass-Amherst into the fold by proclaiming that the university “will add to the academic stature of the Mid-American Conference.’’ Actually, UMass would likely bring down the MAC’s stature. Nine of the conference’s current 13 football teams already have a higher graduation rate than UMass. The university’s black player graduation rate has been mediocre for years, cracking 50 percent only once in the last three seasons. The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics has said that teams that fail to achieve a 50 percent graduation rate should be banned from post-season play.

Financially, moving up to Division I means a 57 percent increase in annual expenditures, up to $6.9 million. This is at a time when the House Ways and Means budget proposes a 6.5 percent cut of $30.3 million for UMass campuses. The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center this month calculated that during this fiscal crisis UMass has lost $86.7 million in public support, counting next year’s proposed cut.

It might seem that the move will not be so costly because Patriots owner Bob Kraft will let the Minutemen play for free at Gillette Stadium, which could help attract marquee teams and revenue. No one should kid themselves. Once you jump into the cesspool of big-time college football, you have committed to spending that knows no ceiling. Just ask the University of Connecticut. It made the prized Fiesta Bowl last season, and for its fantasy of reflected glory and getting clocked by storied Oklahoma, it lost $1.6 million on the trip.

There is nothing economically to recommend the move up. The Mid-American Conference may not spend as much as Oklahoma’s Big 12 Conference, the Southeastern Conference, the Big Ten, or the Atlantic Coast Conference that Boston College plays in. Still, according to a Knight Commission report last year, Mid-American Conference schools spend four times more on athletes ($48,000) than they do on other students ($12,000).

Universities like to soft-pedal this, saying much of the increase is due to adding scholarships, which of course is a good thing, right? But that noble thought dims dramatically in the face of middling graduation rates and the fact that the real driving force for spending is the massive infrastructure of coaches’ salaries and staff. Welcome, UMass, to a world in which head-coaching compensation is up to $6 million at Alabama and $5 million at Texas, and where 25 head coaches have cracked the $2 million barrier. And more than 200 assistant coaches are making more than $200,000 a year, according to USA Today.

To be sure, schools in the Mid-American Conference are currently well under that, with most of its head coaches making between $300,000 and $460,000 (UMass reportedly pays its head coach about $200,000). But that is still way more than faculty pay, and the pressure to keep paying for coaching talent in the mid-majors will always be influenced by the wild spending of the big boys. The whole system is so out of control that the NCAA last year found that 106 of 120 top-tier athletic programs lost money in 2009, with the median loss jumping from $8.1 million in 2008 to $10.2 million in 2009.

Prioritizing football at a time of severe state cuts to higher ed is simply insane for taxpayer-funded UMass. For all the millions it will spend, it is too late to catch up to the likes of Oklahoma or Texas.

UMass will pay a high price to leave the lower tier of Division I, only to join the second tier of big-time college football.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.