Scarlet and Green

By Kyle Rowland on July 16, 2013 at 9:30a
Big bucks equals big wins.

The Big Ten owns a bulk of college football’s greatest traditions. Script Ohio, The Victors and “Jump Around” all reside in the Midwest. Those customs combined with countless others contribute to the league’s rich history.

But when it comes to producing wins on the field, it’s all about green, not Scarlet and Gray or Maize and Blue. In a recent study done by Graham Couch, of the Lansing State Journal – yes, the same columnist obsessed with the rosiness of Aaron Craft's cheeks – he discovered that the winningest Big Ten programs of the past 20 years are also the spendingest programs.

No one has won more than Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin. Not coincidentally, those four are also the top four spenders. Each ponied up more than $100 million in recent seasons. And it’s not just a trend in the Big Ten, it’s true across the country.

Go to the SEC. Alabama, Florida and LSU infuse their football programs with cash and win at alarming rates. Oklahoma, check. Texas, check. Head West to Oregon, and the same rule applies. Those who spend will be champions.

It’s why arms races exist in college football and coaches have multimillion-dollar salaries. One-fourth of athletic department budgets are the compensation of coaches. The desire to be good and profit from a football program’s success has never been greater, leading schools to invest heavily with hopes of cashing in. Dozens of FCS schools have made the jump to FBS for this reason alone.

One school that realizes the importance of spending is Michigan State. The Spartans, sixth in win percentage and expenditures during the past 20 years, announced last week that another $4 million will be devoted to the program. This doesn’t guarantee success, of course, with Boise State’s miniscule football operating budget a prime example. But an influx of money makes losing seasons nearly impossible. 

“We did not lose five games last year because someone had another weight room or meeting room or locker room than we did,” said Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio. “We lost them at the end of the game because we didn’t find the inches. And that was execution, play-calling, coaching, whatever you want to call it. It had nothing to do with facilities.”

Barely 20 NCAA athletic departments function debt free. The list reads similar to the AP college football Top 25. It also mirrors who spends and who doesn’t. In the past 20 years every football national champion has been one of the top 25 spenders.

No conference spends more money on its student-athletes than the vaunted SEC, owners of the past seven national championships in college athletics’ marquee sport. A study done by the Delta Cost Project at American Institutes for Research titled, “Academic Spending Versus Athletic Spending: Who Wins?” found that the league devoted just over $13,000 to the average student and nearly $164,000 on student-athletes, more than 12 times as much. The difference in the Big Ten was $14,000 to $131,000.

The numbers in the SEC are staggering, and so too are its results on the football field. It offers a blurred vision and raises questions. Are these institutions about academics or athletics? Are you OK with the academic and athletic divide that appears?

In short, every institution across the country is still fully engaged in bettering its academic standing. That is the No. 1 priority across the board. The rise in money toward coaching contracts and athletic spending has given the perception of a change in philosophy, though. A majority of the fans would admit they just want to win. If it’s at the risk of lessening the academics of an institution so be it.

On average, each Division I school spends nearly seven times more money on athletes than regular students. The SEC spends 40 percent more than the Big Ten and 60 percent more than the Pac-12, and the conference’s median cost per athlete is twice as much as the FBS average.

Ohio State and Alabama supporters know their universities are not Harvard and Yale when it comes to academics, just as the Ivy League schools know they aren’t athletic superpowers.

The SEC spends 40 percent more than the Big Ten and 60 percent more than the Pac-12.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the sport’s have-nots sign up for so-called guarantee games that result in lopsided scores but also huge paydays. The Louisiana-Monroes and Idahos often take home $1 million or more after beatings from the Texas A&Ms and USCs. Big-time programs want at least seven home games, which results in the neighborhood of a $4.5 million profit per game.

Prior to Barry Alvarez’s arrival in Madison, Wisconsin was a Big Ten doormat. Even in his first season, the Badgers finished 1-10. Then something funny started to happen. Wins came along followed by money. Attendance rose, facilities were upgraded, assistant coaches salaries improved and Wisconsin had arrived. The entire movement was spurred by financial incentives hurled at the football program.

“If you don’t have bright, clean impressive new facilities, I think sometimes you send a message, whether it’s important or not to a kid,” Alvarez said. “They’re going to spend four or five years at your place and you’re trying to recruit them. And I know a couple years ago we lost some kids because of facilities or lack of.”

All that money and what comes back doesn’t just go to the football programs. Every school in the country uses its football team to help support each of its varsity sports, from Ohio State to Buffalo. That’s why it’s so important to make as much money as possible.

Supporting an athletic department in the 21st century is big business. A bulk of schools must accept annual subsidies from the university to keep its programs afloat.

“A dollar spent in football some would argue would have a bigger impact, but that dollar means a lot more to other sports,” said Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis.

Ohio State is in the midst of an unprecedented run of success in non-revenue sports such as men’s tennis, men’s lacrosse and women’s rowing. While they appear minor in stature, that is not the attitude in the 36-sport Buckeye athletic department.

Football is the cash cow, but it’s also the vehicle to further triumph in other areas.

“All those sports are about having success. That’s not a change,” Smith told Eleven Warriors. “It’s all about being successful in every way you operate and how you compete. That’s not new.”

Neither is the spending – which is going to continue to skyrocket as the allure of making it big in athletics becomes more clear.


Comments Show All Comments

Oyster's picture

Someone actually did a study to come up with that conclusion?  Why didn't they just ask an ordinary fan and save time AND money?

"Scrolling hurts my finger"

(and FitzBuck was clearly the winner)

pjtobin's picture

Very true!

Bury me in my away jersey, with my buckeye blanket. A diehard who died young. Rip dad. 

Hovenaut's picture

Interesting to read the article points out Maryland and Rutgers as two of the institutions named in the Delta report in having cut athletics to trim the budget.

I knew about Maryland, since I live here, wasn't aware of Rutgers. It'll be interesting to see what develops at both schools once they begin B1G play, the dust settles and TV revenue starts coming in.

Kyle Rowland's picture

Maryland has indicated that it will be re-instituting some of the sports it cut. 

Hovenaut's picture

I know they were able to keep the men's track team afloat, with hope they may be able to revive the men and women's swim programs....probably a few years away.

pjtobin's picture

The old but wise saying goes something like " you need to spend money to make money", you get what you pay for", and " you don't need to know how to spell money. You need to know how to count it."  Those were all sayings I was taught as a kid. I tought it was fitting for this great write up. Thanks for the information and time, Mr. Kyle. 

Bury me in my away jersey, with my buckeye blanket. A diehard who died young. Rip dad. 

ScarletGray43157's picture

Interesting about Coach Dantonio's comments in the article.  
I would offer the conjecture that if you have better facilities then you have a shot at better players coming to your program and then maybe fewer games come down to the end before they are decided by "the inches".  

In old Ohio there's a team that's known throughout the land...

unchained's picture

Don't think for a second that Coach D isn't extremely excited about the additional 4 million dollars and upgrades to Spartan Stadium. I'm sure he is just downplaying the financial aspect of their problems to keep his guys all focused. It is no coincidence that the top programs all have the nicest facilities and largest football budgets...

"Pride comes before the fall"

Grayskullsession's picture

According to Bielema Wisconsin did not spend much when it came to assistant coaches. What are they wasting their money on, cheese and beer?

"if irony were made of strawberries, we' d all be drinking a lot of smoothies right now."

whobdis's picture

And this is still why it's a mystery that several B1G schools don't seem to funneling any of their new found wealth into their athletic programs. The B1G network is paying quite generously right now but it but it's not making it's way to the product on the field. Urban has hinted that the conference as a whole needs to step up recruiting yet we see Kentucky winning the recruiting battle over the Purdue's and Indiana's. The fact that PSU is out recruiting many of the B1G schools is ridiculous. Frankly..they must be happy to pull in the $$$ without pulling their own weight.

AndyVance's picture

You said it - there is no incentive for the bottom-dwellers (aside from pure pride in your team/school, of course) to perform at a higher level of spending. They can contentedly live on the success of the "Big Four" and rake in the dough.

AndyVance's picture

Well done, Kyle - great story. One item did catch my eye, though:

Ohio State and Alabama supporters know their universities are not Harvard and Yale when it comes to academics, just as the Ivy League schools know they aren’t athletic superpowers.

While I'll submit this is true for Alabama, I'm not so sure Ohio State knows it isn't on the same par as schools on the Eastern Seaboard. The progress Ohio State has made over the past 20 years in becoming an "eminent" (to borrow a Gordon Gee word) academic and research institution is extremely impressive.
Even so, I hope to all things holy we don't adopt some inane slogan like "Ohio's public Ivy" (I'm looking at you, Miami).

Kyle Rowland's picture

Alabama is actually a good school. Ranked 32nd in public university rankings. OSU is 18th. 

AndyVance's picture

Interesting - I didn't know that. You're just expanding my intellectual horizons left and right today!

Earle's picture

Even so, I hope to all things holy we don't adopt some inane slogan like "Ohio's public Ivy"

Or Harvard of the West?

Snarkies gonna snark. 

AndyVance's picture

That sounds vaguely familiar... Are you reading my thoughts again, Coach?

Toilrt Paper's picture

U.Miami of Florida is a private research University that was rated the #44 school in the country academically and the best school in the State of Florida. Tuition is $50,000/year. They only accept 40% of applicants/year.

b_pbucksfans's picture

Maize and Blue

Sun and Blue is the correct term nowadays...

45has2's picture

I like MSU's take: "They call it maize, we call it CORN."

"I don't like nice people. I like tough, honest people." -W.W. Hayes

unholy bucknut's picture

14,000 vs. 131,000 I never would have thought that the gap was that big.

Toilrt Paper's picture

The B1G is giving at least one if not both of the new members $1,000,000 to help with travel.

45has2's picture

Any tuner will tell you: Speed costs money. How fast do you want to go? Same for football. Winning costs money. How many do you want?

"I don't like nice people. I like tough, honest people." -W.W. Hayes