Tommy West's Excellent Suggestion

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Tommy West is a truth teller.

He said the University of Memphis should get serious about football or do away with it. The second part of his suggestion deserves serious consideration. And the university has the experts for the job.

The U of M's Sparks Bureau of Business and Economic Research should produce a report on the costs and benefits of football. It should include, at a minimum, actual attendance figures for the last ten seasons, the football budget, the deficits from football, the athletic department budget, the cost of West and his coaching staff, the likely cost of a new (and more expensive) coach and assistants, and the cost of an indoor practice facility. And the most likely sources of funds.

Then it should address the other half of West's syllogism, with a twist. What if the university got super serious about academics and deemphasized football? Football coaches aren't the only superstars. Taking a suggestion from Memphis entrepreneur Bob Compton, how many professors of Mandarin, Farsi, entrepreneurship, and business could be hired for the $2.7 million still owed Tommy West? How many students would use a new health, wellness, and recreation center open to everyone, not just 85 football players? And how much does annual giving actually depend on having a Division 1 football team that drew 4,100 people to a recent game?

Bob Levey, former holder of the Hardin Chair of Excellence in Journalism at the U of M, suggests a compromise.

"Any NCAA institution can "split" itself among D1 and D3 programs. Many already do, especially with women's sports (they're 3, the men's are 1). I really think this could work. Then UM could concentrate on its one revenue-producer (men's basketball) and maybe build baseball to a revenue-positive position.
If football is a loser, recognize it. They'd have to invest at least $20 million to prepare for a serious try at a serious football conference—probably much more for a new stadium."

Pepper Rodgers, former Memphian and former head football coach at UCLA and Georgia Tech, said urban universities have always faced a tough uphill climb to play big-time football. When he was at UCLA some 35 years ago, he said the suggestion was made to build a 45,000-seat stadium on the Westwood campus, within walking distance of the dorms and fraternity houses, and play one game a year at the off-campus Coliseum against USC. It went nowhere. When he got to Georgia Tech in Atlanta, "they had the same facilities they had when I played in the Fifties. Eventually it wears you down."

And from the safety of Oxford, Mississippi comes this letter today in The Commercial Appeal from Jerry N. Boone. He wrote:

"I spent some 30 years at then Memphis State University, 13 of those years in the central administration as vice president for academic affairs and, briefly, as interim president. I got to see, up close, the decision making that occurred each time a series of losing football coaches was terminated. I saw the drain on university money from a consistently losing football program that never was self-supporting despite a series of good coaches and hard-working players.

"The deficits had to come from general funds that otherwise could have gone to support academic programs and from activity fees students had to pay, whether they attended the games or not. A very few of us thought football should be stopped, and that athletics should be focused on a basketball program that was self-supporting and on the less-expensive minor sports and women's sports. Each time the decision was to limp along and hire another coach. Why?"

Why indeed? A college that attracts 4,100 people to a game against East Carolina has to ask itself that question. The $2.7 million that will be paid to buy out the remaining three years on Tommy West's contract so he can do nothing for the University of Memphis will benefit exactly one person. That amount of money could be used to hire four "chair of excellence" professors at $225,000 a year apiece for three years.

Football has intangible as well as tangible benefits, but the Sparks center should try to quantify them, as well as the costs and benefits of alternatives that would serve more students and promote the academic mission. If car companies, banks, manufacturers, and investment firms can go away, it should not be unthinkable to do away with football.

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