Thursday, February 26, 2009

Time To Trim Some Fat


As college coaching bullies go, Jim Calhoun has some work to do before he can approach the standards established by some of the legends in the field. The UConn coach can stamp his feet all he wants, talk down to officials all day and provide sarcastic responses to reporters’ questions until their curiosity withers, and he still won’t be in the same (low) class as Generalissimo Knight, Mike Krzyzewski, Nick Saban and that ilk. And when it comes to the Hall of Fame (Woody Hayes, John Thompson, etc.) Calhoun still has plenty of work to do.

Despite criticisms to the contrary, Calhoun’s tirade after Saturday’s win over South Florida doesn’t enhance his credentials in the discussion of coaching tyrants. Granted, Calhoun didn’t look good as he lost his cool in the face of questions from Ken Krayeske, a journalist/activist/law student who used (improperly) a post-game press conference as a forum to put forth his agenda that because the state of Connecticut is running a $1 billion deficit, Calhoun’s $1.6 million salary is excessive and needs to be cut drastically. Calhoun could have said something other than “I want to retire some day” and “Not a dime back,” not to mention “Shut up!” When young coaches are trained in the art of media relations, they will be shown Calhoun’s performance as an example of how not to behave. When your comments after a basketball game cause the governor of your state to use the term “embarrassing,” you might want to consider a little anger management training. Or at least switch to decaf.

In the days following the incident, Krayeske has become a minor celebrity (the clock is at 14:55 and counting) and expressed his delight that his questions have sparked a national discussion. Calhoun has since won his 800th career game and continues to search for safe shelters for his income within a shaky investment climate. In other words, life goes on pretty much the same way as always in the Nutmeg State. And in college athletics. Still, it’s up for debate whether the Connecticut basketball team actually brings in $12 million annually to the university. The Hartford Courant reported that the direct revenues from the program (per UConn sports information department reports) are $7.3 million, with $5 million of the school’s $20 million in corporate sponsorship deals attributed to the hoop team. That pushes the number to Calhoun’s $12 million assertion.

No matter what the final figure is, there can be no disputing that in this or any other economic climate, the business of college athletics is out of control. While Calhoun crows about his ability to produce for the university, schools all over the country are experiencing budget woes that have forced (at best) spending cutbacks and (at worst) layoffs and the cessation of programs. Even Ohio State, which had the second-highest revenues among universities in 2008 (about $114 million), has experienced a downturn in men’s basketball revenues that will impact staff travel and expenses. Guess that means football coach Jim Tressel will have his sweater vest allowance trimmed.

The bigger issue is whether the recession will lead to any substantive changes in how the biggest universities do business. While the rest of us are asked to cut back and tighten up, construction continues apace on luxury suites at Michigan Stadium. While jobs are being cut by the tens of thousands, and retirement accounts dissipate faster than A-Rod’s credibility, programs continue to sequester their teams, coaches and support personnel in hotels before home games and spare few expenses when it comes to recruiting. Stanford is cutting five sports, while the Cardinal grid team is facing sagging attendance and diminishing revenues – but no cutbacks. We all know King Football pays the freight for the “minor” sports, and when it staggers, the effects are felt on the softball field and in the pool, not necessarily the gridiron.

This is by no means a call for big-time schools to de-emphasize football. El Hombre would never want that for the world’s greatest sport. But there has to be some control exercised, and it’s up to the NC2A to impose it, since its members can’t possibly be expected to do it themselves. If Texas were to pull back dramatically in one area, you can bet Oklahoma would exploit that faster than it would go at a frightened freshman cornerback in the Cotton Bowl. If Georgia decided to bus to games, count on Florida assistant coaches to rename the Bulldogs “Team Greyhound.” It’s time for the grown-ups to step in, and that means the folks in Indianapolis need to display some rare fortitude and compel the schools to change how they do football business – at least until things improve across the country.

Yes, the country needs entertainment and diversions. It does not, however, need Ohio State to raise its football ticket prices a dollar (to $63 a game), in order to cover a $500,000 or so shortfall. Teams need to get on the bus for road trips to schools fewer than 200 miles away. They need to be more cost-conscious when entertaining and pursuing recruits. They need to put a ceiling on coaches’ salaries, the better to show that everybody is attempting to help the bottom line. This is not a plea for punitive measures, rather a chance to let the one part of a university that rarely has to worry about funds (OSU’s revenues have climbed $10 million in two years) to acknowledge that it is part of something bigger. Jim Calhoun need not threaten his golden years by surrendering even a dime of his salary. He does, however, as the state’s top-paid employee, have to show some compassion for those who aren’t making $1.6 million a year, for those who don’t even have jobs. Was Krayeske out of line for asking the question in a post-game setting? Absolutely. He wasn’t, however, wrong for raising the issue, not about Calhoun specifically but about an industry that has been rollicking along for the past 20 years and is now showing signs of facing some of the same concerns of other businesses. College football and basketball support a lot of teams, and that’s great, but it’s not right to ask the wrestling team to cut more weight when the football training table is serving chateaubriand. Calhoun missed a golden opportunity to display some empathy. Given another opportunity, he might act differently. Let’s hope those in charge of college athletics do.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: Nationals GM Jim Bowden could be jobless within a couple days, thanks to allegations that he was skimming money off the bonuses of players the team signed from Latin America. He’s also in trouble because Washington inked a player it said was a 19-year old, when in fact the young man was 23 – and had a completely different identity. Bowden shouldn’t worry if he’s fired, because he can always get work at the carnival guessing women’s ages. They’ll love him…Michael Phelps has been dropped as the keynote speaker at two events in Canada next week because of his “widely publicized alleged use of marijuana.” The good news is that his agent picked up two other gigs for him right away in Jamaica and Amsterdam…Tampa Bay cut five players Wednesday, four of whom were older than new coach Raheem Morris, 32. Salary, of course, was a big reason, but Morris had been complaining that the players had been forcing him to eat his vegetables and go to bed at 10 p.m…Andy Roddick may not have won a major tennis tournament, but he gets big praise for boycotting the Dubai Tennis Classic, after organizers prohibited an Israeli, Shahar Peer, from competing in the women’s draw. It’s nice to see an American athlete with the guts to speak up about important issues…Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has called for stiffer penalties for athletes caught using performance-enhancing drugs, in the wake of a scandal involving members of the country’s biathlon team. Officials acted quickly, upping the punishments from “no dessert” to “no TV for a week.” Leonid Brezhnev was unavailable for comment.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The aforementioned move by Tampa Bay put the Bucs something like $50 million under the salary cap for the 2009 season, just one of the squads with a huge amount to spend when the free-agent marketplace springs to life at midnight. The Eagles happen to be one of those outfits, thanks to about a $30 mil surplus, but don’t expect them to go crazy outbidding other teams for marginal talents. They might take a close look at Giants running back Derrick Ward. They could look at an offensive lineman, although Jordan Gross’ recent giant contract with Carolina (six years, nearly $60 million) could drive up the price too far. Wideouts T.J. Houshmandzadeh and (Hello) Laveranues Coles are possibilities, but it’s unlikely the Birds will pay top dollar for a number two receiver. QB Donovan McNabb is asking for weapons, but they probably won’t come through free agency, and if they do, they will be of the semiautomatic pistol, not the H-bomb, variety. This isn’t a case of the Eagles’ being cheap, rather an indication of a mediocre crop and unrealistic price tags. The team needs help if it wants to compete for the Super Bowl, but it’s unlikely to make a big splash in the next couple days. That means it probably won’t be a good idea to trade out of the Draft’s first round – again.

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AND ANOTHER THING: NBA analysts and fans are debating the pending union of the Boston Celtics and recalcitrant guard/serial team-wrecker Stephon Marbury on the wrong terms. They want to discover whether the guard can help the team with his production off the bench. They want to know if his infamous carcinogenic personality will spoil the harmonious Boston locker room. Those are worthy questions, but they ignore the biggest issue here, and that’s the sheer nausea-inducing idea that after a career of me-first play, Marbury will have a chance to get a championship ring he clearly doesn’t deserve. He forced the Knicks to release him by putting together a series of lethal seasons with the team that made it impossible for the new regime to consider using him on a regular basis this season. As he sat, collecting the bulk of his $20.8 million contract and sulking about not being bought out or traded, Marbury was a high-profile liability on the Knicks’ ledger. Now, he’s set to join the defending NBA champions, and if he can behave himself (no guarantee), he’ll get the opportunity to chase the ring he never approached as a shoot-first poison on several other teams. It’s a chance for Marbury to sanitize his reputation, because you know as each successive week goes by without his infecting the Celtics with his own brand of basketball bacteria, more and more media outlets will run “redemption” pieces about a veteran who’s “playing to win.” Poppycock. He’s playing for next year’s contract, and if that means sublimating his true essence for a few months, he’ll do it. Don’t be fooled, though. Marbury hasn’t changed. He’s just employing a Machiavellian approach to his current situation. The good news: It’s yet another reason to root against Boston.


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