Winning will make football a cash cow

Watching the Gopher football squad on Saturday afternoons is a lot like watching reruns of “Gilligan’s Island.” While the antics are entertaining at first, after a few episodes the utter hopelessness and sheer incompetence is overwhelming. Sooner rather than later you’re persuaded to change the channel or perhaps toss your television set in the Dumpster. Has anyone else besides me observed the eerie similarity between Gilligan and Coach Jim Wacker — the state of perpetual happiness they seem to share?
Players, coaches and critics all agree that Wacker personifies “Minnesota Nice”; however, they also concur that his dismal 16-38 record needn’t be repeated. Although Wacker came to Minnesota five years ago after running a successful program at Texas Christian University, he succinctly summed up his tenure at a teary-eyed press conference last week saying, “We didn’t get it done with W’s and L’s.” At least he was honest.
Minnesota needs a winning football program more desperately than waferlike supermodel Kate Moss needs a greasy cheeseburger — and we shouldn’t be afraid to pay for it.
Gov. Arne Carlson announced last week that attracting a high-caliber coach might require a $1 million salary. University President Nils Hasselmo echoed his statements, saying, “We will pay what it takes to get the coach that we want and who we think can succeed.” After 20 years of losing football programs (Cal Stoll, who retired in 1978, was the last coach to break the mystical .500 barrier), the University is prepared to make the investment necessary for success. Finally.
Undoubtedly some of you are uncomfortable with paying millions to the football coach. When the regents are dismantling tenure primarily because of budget constraints, you might say, why should we shell out seven-figure salaries for athletic coaches? Well, here’s why: Winning football programs are more than financially self-sufficient. Even now, while we perennially anchor the bottom of the Big 10, the men’s athletic department is operating in the black. The department has generated $18 million in revenues in 1996 and only $15 million in expenses. “Remember,” Hasselmo said, “this is not taxpayer money.”
Successful university football teams rake in other benefits like television contracts, product endorsements and increased game attendance. After Northwestern made a Cinderella-like appearance in the Rose Bowl last year, merchandising sales shot up 600 percent, and college applications rose 21 percent.
The football team at the top-ranked University of Florida fills the 83,000 seat stadium to capacity at every home game, and it is consistently ranked in the top 10 teams nationally. It regularly appears on New Year’s Day bowl games, and the coaches recruit the nation’s premiere players every year. Furthermore, this perennial cash-cow brings $20 million into athletic coffers annually but only spends $5 million. Clearly, it doesn’t take an accounting background to the see the added value here.
If the University wants to be competitive in football, we must be willing to part with a few (well, quite a few actually) dollars. Florida’s Steve Spurrier (10-0) takes home a cool million every year, and Florida State University’s Bobby Bowden (9-0) and Notre Dame’s Lou Holtz (7-2) each haul off more than $900,000 every season. It’s not terribly surprising that compensation for these wondercoaches is so high.
If we want the best, we simply have to pay for it. Hasselmo recently said, “I don’t want anything mediocre at this University.” I agree wholeheartedly. Quality, as he says, is indeed serious business.
Winning, I might add, isn’t just a matter of widespread media coverage, lucrative merchandising deals or handsome alumni donations (although, truth be told, that is probably the larger part of it). Winning is also about fostering a sense of community, an idea perilously teetering on the edge of extinction here at the University.
Most students commute to school, attend classes and then quickly retreat into suburbia. Our “community” here is about as real as Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Hasselmo and the administration are increasing the percentage of students living on campus; in theory, we’ll someday reach critical mass and experience an explosion of student spirit like Ohio State, Northwestern and Penn State. That is a step in the right direction, but until we have a top-notch football program like those other schools, school pride will remain as elusive as Bob Dole’s sense of humor.
I was on the campus of the Florida Gators in October during their homecoming celebration. Although school spirit borders on cult-like ritual there (at least it does from the perspective of this mild-mannered Minnesotan), it was refreshing to see people so enthused and excited. Classes were excused on Friday and thousands of supportive fans lined the parade route.
We desperately need something that will unite this campus, and it’s unlikely that — even with their hard work and good example — the Rugby Club or Waterski Show Team will do so anytime soon. However, a successful football program, which would fill the Metrodome over 50,000 strong on Saturdays in the fall, just might fit the bill.
Nike’s omniscient advertising campaign managers say it best (or at least loudest): Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.
So let’s quit rationalizing, excusing, justifying, complaining, whining, grouching, grumbling, griping, pouting, moping, sulking, ranting, yelling, screaming and whimpering, and just do it. The only thing we have to lose is another football season.
Greg Lauer’s column runs every Wednesday in the Daily.