Sports Crazy

Why even small colleges need football, wins, and NCAA revenue.



It's been ugly, uglier, and ugliest in sports this month.

The hapless University of Memphis football team lost again in front of a few thousand people at home Saturday. The fourth-quarter collapse was as alarming as the attendance, raising again the question, "Why bother?"

Ole Miss, winless in the Southeastern Conference, fired Houston Nutt and is ready to lavish millions on a new coach.

The NBA season is in doubt, and some Grizzlies players are talking about playing overseas. So much for that love affair with Memphis and those "Believe Memphis" T-shirts and towels just six months ago. Business is business.

Then there is Penn State. Enough has been said about that.

To get some perspective, I went to Mike Clary, athletic director and former football coach at idyllic Rhodes College, where sports are just for fun, right? Not exactly.

Small colleges are by no means immune to the pressure and influence of sports. From his office, Clary can look out the window and see millions of dollars of improvements to the Rhodes football, baseball, tennis, track, and soccer facilities in the last 20 years. Rhodes is one of 400 schools in NCAA Division III. Approximately 400 of the 1,750 students play a varsity sport. There are 11 sports each for men and women. The newest addition is lacrosse, a response to interest from feeder private high schools.

"That 400 is probably more than any Southeastern Conference school," he said. "There are far more students participating in sports on a non-scholarship basis than on scholarships."

The football team has 70 players — 10 percent of the male enrollment — and Clary wants to increase that to 85.

"Tuition at Rhodes is $35,000," he said. "After academic scholarships and need-based financial aid, your net tuition revenue per student is about $20,000. At Rhodes, we can likely replace those 80 male football players with other students. What we likely can't do is replace them with males. The culture and the ethos and the makeup of our student body would change drastically."

Football is still seen as the key to school spirit even at a small liberal arts college that grooms future doctors, lawyers, and professors.

"As much as you would like to have a homecoming weekend around soccer games, traditionally schools that do not have football do not have great fall homecoming events."

Small Southern colleges such as Hendrix and Birmingham-Southern are adding or recently added football to boost male enrollment above the 40 percent considered the "tipping point."

"The start-up costs for a football program including stadium and dressing room is probably $3 million to $5 million," Clary said. "You need some big gifts to take care of that, but on an annual operating basis, football will be a money-making proposition."

And winning matters.

"When I was football coach, I went 8-1 three or four years and I was 1-8 one year," Clary said. "It's a lot more fun to win. We want to teach success and we want to win, but it's not the bottom line. We will not have a coach whose program is losing year after year even if that person is the finest person in the world."

Clary is watching the BCS (Bowl Championship Series) and conference realignment story closely. Revenue from BCS bowl games is shared among BCS schools. The NCAA gets nothing. But in basketball, revenue from the multi-year contract with CBS is shared by all NCAA schools. Clary fears that the football power schools will use their leverage to get the lion's share of basketball revenue in the future or start their own organization.

Division III schools now get three percent of the roughly $700 million a year contract to run their national championships. That sent the Rhodes field hockey team and coaches to New Jersey this year.

"To be honest, we do nothing for it," Clary said. "It's not like we're on TV. So we are happy to get it."

As he watches the Penn State story unfold, he finds it "mind boggling" that the school's human resources department did not contact police and reach out to victims.

"The hardest part as an administrator is asking yourself what you would do if a month or six months went by and your organization did not act," he said. "That appears not to have happened at Penn State."

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