MORGANTOWN - If ever there was an appropriate time to revisit the relationship between college athletics and college itself, now is that time.In brief? There is none.OK, so maybe that's not entirely true. In fact, the two are linked inexorably. Without the college itself, there are no college athletics. That's pretty obvious.But never has it been so apparent, so evident, that the two operate as separate entities as it has become of late.
Specifically, of course, we're talking about West Virginia University and West Virginia University athletics.On the one hand, WVU is suffering through yet another budget crisis, the kind that seems to crop up periodically when the state's economy struggles and funding for education takes the requisite hit. This year, that is likely to add up to about $18 million lost in one form or another from a budget of roughly $900 million, prompting the school's Board of Governors to institute both a pay freeze and tuition hikes.The athletic department, meanwhile, is still recovering from a 2011-12 fiscal-year loss of nearly $13 million. While that figure is expected to drop to almost no loss at all when the 2012-13 figures are completed, it is still a department that appears affected not at all by budget constraints.At least that's the case when seeing that football coach Dana Holgorsen's salary will increase by $200,000 in the coming year, going from $2.3 million to $2.5 million. Toss in the retention bonus due him on March 1 of next year and that's a cool half million in added compensation.Basketball coach Bob Huggins? He made an even $3 million last year, which goes up to $3.1 million next year.Athletic director Oliver Luck, by comparison, is a pauper. Still, the salary that he was promised when he signed on in 2010 ($390,000) was upped to $550,000 last fall. Don't feel sorry for him, though. He can earn performance incentive payments that are capped at $150,000 per year, he was scheduled to receive a $75,000 retention payment last fall and is in line for future retention payments of $225,000 in 2015 and $150,000 in 2017.Keep in mind, too, that these aren't old numbers we're dealing with here. They aren't figures negotiated in better times that are simply and unfortunately coming due now. Holgorsen's contract was renegotiated last August and calls for another $200,000 raise next year and $100,000 raises the two years after that. If he's strapped for cash, there's also another $75,000 annual retention bonus due him at the end of every regular season. That's in addition to the $75,000 retention bonus he earned in March and the aforementioned $300,000 due him next March. And, of course, he can earn up to $600,000 in performance bonuses each year.Huggins signed his latest contract addendum last November. After the $100,000 raise next year come bumps of $150,000, $75,000, $250,000 and $175,000. Some of that money (in decreasing amounts each year) is deferred, but the bottom line is that by 2017-18 he is due a salary of $3.75 million, after which the school will continue to pay him for five years as a coach emeritus, should he decide he's had enough of actual coaching.And Luck, when he signed a new agreement last fall, saw not only his salary but also his retention bonuses go up. Those were in his second pact (signed in 2011), but they were just a flat $25,000 a year. His $75,000 retention bonus last fall was the product of the three $25,000 bonuses he'd earned under that contract, but the new deal gives him an average annual bonus of $75,000 should he remain and collect them.It's all fairly mind-blowing stuff, especially when a teacher or a secretary or a janitor is under a pay freeze and a student's tuition bill is going up.All of which brings us back, of course, to the original point, which is that college athletics have very little to do with college. At least that's true from a financial perspective.
I bring up all of these ridiculous coaches' salaries - and be honest, in any framework they are ridiculous - not as a means to argue for or against them, but to illustrate how completely and utterly disconnected they are from the university itself and the budget issues it faces. Fact: WVU's budget includes nothing going to Holgorsen or Huggins. Holgorsen's base pay is $200,000. Huggins' is $250,000. The rest is supplemental pay generated through athletic department revenues and the Mountaineer Athletic Club.None of it, not even the base pay, comes out of that $900 million university budget.And that's the point. The two entities are, at least from a financial standpoint, tied together in name only. The athletic department pays its own bills, from coaching salaries to heating and plumbing for its buildings and, yes, even to paying the university for the scholarships it gives to its athletes. It's not a matter of bookkeeping, where money is just shifted around on paper. It's actual cash that the athletic department generates and, in the case of scholarships and room and board for athletes, pays to the university.Is that right? Well, yes and no. Yes because if a school is going to have a multi-million-dollar athletic department it should pay its own way. Despite that $13 million loss last year, WVU's athletic department has almost always managed to do that. Within a few years, thanks to payments from the Big 12, the department will more than pay its way again.The flip side, though, is that it's just all become so ridiculous, fielding teams and paying coaches nearly 100 times what an average university employee makes. But that's not news, folks, and it's not something you can change by waving a wand and saying it's not fair. Don't live in a bubble and think that what is happening at WVU is any different than at any other major college. The truth is, WVU's athletic budget isn't even close to that of some of the schools in its own conference. The fact that West Virginia generally manages to run things without much of a deficit actually puts them in a minority.Is it right that WVU employees and students are being taxed, in essence, for a budget shortfall while the athletic department continues to spend? Of course not. It flies in the face of everything that collegiate athletics should be about.
But the truth is, athletic departments already do a lot for their universities. Does anyone really think any college's enrollment would be what it is if top-flight athletic teams not a part of the draw? As a general rule, they get that perk at no financial cost to the universities themselves.But maybe it's also time to give back a little more. You can't start cutting coaching salaries and slowing down the expansion of facilities because (again, contrary to what should be a school's mission) athletic departments are in an arms race. Take a million bucks here or there away and you fall behind, interest wanes and suddenly your athletic department isn't the drawing card schools hope it will be.But when times are good, as they should be for WVU's athletic department once it begins getting full revenue shares from the Big 12, perhaps some of that extra cash needs to go where the university needs it most. And that's not athletics.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.