Now that’s a sentence you don’t see often because it’s only happened one other time in college football history. Ole Miss beat Alabama in Oxford last year too, which was without a doubt the best game I’ve ever attended anywhere, anytime. As pundits are saying this morning, if last year was an upset, what’s it called when it happens two years in a row? I don’t want to jinx it so will stop right there with my euphoria.
Sometimes people think collegiate athletics is out of hand – that the emphasis is too great, the stakes are too high, athletic budgets are out of whack with the rest of the school and the coaches make too much money. Lowly professors (of which I am one) grumble they get tiny (if any) annual raises, their departments deal with budget crunches and they teach in outdated classrooms while gleaming new athletic facilities spring up across campus.
The University of Texas at Austin has a $260 million athletic budget, with more than 10 percent of it coming just from sponsorships, merchandise sales and royalties. While that’s the second largest budget in the U.S. (behind Oregon, which moved into the top spot this year because of a one-time donation from Nike’s Phil Knight), it’s trending this way everywhere. Schools hand the marketing to conglomerates such as IMG Worldwide and Learfield Sports. They make a mint from conference television networks and media rights. Coaches at Division I schools make millions, and coaches at Division II and Division III colleges watch their players get beat up playing big schools in non-conference games because it brings in the money.
To be sure, college athletics is big business.
But for all the naysayers, this stuff is what builds the brand. Sure, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze makes a lot of money. Often, coaches are the highest paid public employees in any given state. But if they can win and keep a clean program, it’s worth it. Double or triple their salaries and it’s still worth it.
In the Ole Miss example, look at the exposure winning games like last night brings. The Rebels were highlighted all day yesterday on ESPN’s College GameDay. The game was watched around the nation. Now highlights are being replayed on all the sports shows, and the school is trending on social media everywhere. Money can’t directly buy this kind of exposure, but success on the field or on the court makes it happen.
We know high school students everywhere are checking out Ole Miss this morning. If this keeps up, we know applications will increase next year. In 2008, I was teaching at Drake University in Des Moines when the men’s basketball team made it into the first round of the NCAA tournament – something that rarely happens there – and student applications the following fall spiked while the community beamed with pride.
Some smaller schools are adding athletic programs simply because of the exposure and students it will bring.
A lot of my Ole Miss students are from out of state, sometimes from seemingly far away places like Washington state, California, New York. And I often ask what put this place on their radar, what first piqued their interest in thinking about Ole Miss? I usually hear one of two things.
The first is athletics. They watch our football team play, they see game day festivities, they want to be a part of it. Winning puts us on the map in ways nothing else can.
The second thing I hear when I ask that question is The Blind Side, and thank goodness cable networks play that movie repeatedly and not Mississippi Burning.
To those academics who lament the fact that athletic programs hog all the attention and coaches get such high salaries, I ask: How much money do you bring into the school? How much national exposure does your department generate? And how many students would discover your program if athletics didn’t put the institution on the map first?
So thank you Coach Freeze. Last night proves you are worth every penny and then some. What you do means I have more students to teach and the brand on my own resume becomes more valuable. When you win, when the team wins, we all win.