Absolute power corrupts

The personal foibles that are costing college coaches their jobs at an alarming rate are only symptoms of a sick system.

Published June 12, 2003 9:34PM (EDT)

It's safe to say that Rick Neuheisel, fired Thursday as the University of Washington football coach, knew he shouldn't have participated in NCAA basketball Tournament pools, a clear violation of a clear rule. He did, he won about $12,000 on a $6,400 bet, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and it cost him his job. So, OK: He's an idiot.

But how many college coaches have to be caught misbehaving in species-threateningly stupid ways before it's clear they're not the problem, they're a symptom? These guys operate in a sick system.

Neuheisel's firing comes on the heels of Iowa State basketball coach Larry Eustachy losing his claim to the highest-paying government job in the state after being photographed nuzzling Mizzou undergrads at a frat party, which followed new Alabama football coach Mike Price getting the ax for his misadventures with the Pensacola ecdysiast community. Before that there were the academic and financial scandals that cost Georgia basketball coach Jim Harrick yet another job, and more academic shenanigans at Fresno State and St. Bonaventure. This is just in the last three months.

Never mind that Tournament office pool next March, here's a pool we can jump in right now: Who's going to be the next coach caught with his pants, literally or figuratively, down? Something tells me we won't have to wait long for our winner.

"They're risk takers," says Murray Sperber, the Indiana University professor and author of "Beer and Circuses" and other books about college sports. "To go into a kind of coaching where you've gotta win, it's on the line, takes a certain amount of risk taking. And I think you've also got to operate in a system where you constantly have to cut corners. Recruiting, for example. Even if you're honestly recruiting you're sort of cutting corners."

The NCAA may be the greatest creator of fiction since Ernest Hemingway. The entire edifice of big-time college sports sits on a foundation of amateurism that's completely bogus. The only thing amateurish about college sports is the athletes' salaries, which are nonexistent. The fiction that college sports is all about education is what allows a multibillion-dollar enterprise to pay its principal employees nothing more than room, board and school tuition.

If the very ground you stand on is made up of lies, why tell the truth? If you're willing to tell the star halfback that yes, you really care about his ambitions to become a veterinarian and will help him with his biology labs if necessary if he'll just come tote the pigskin for State, where else are you willing to cut ethical, or moral, or even legal corners? Don't answer. This is a rhetorical conversation.

None of the recently fired trio was exactly drowning babies. These guys weren't CEOs bilking retirees out of their life savings or anything. Heck, Neuheisel's toast for doing something you probably do every spring! They were just overpaid ball coaches with faulty superegos. That little voice that most of us have that says, "Hey, this is dumb and doesn't get me much and it might cost me my job, so maybe it's not worth it," went unheard, muffled under a pile of greenbacks and drowned out by the braying of the boosters for more wins -- or the coach's head.

Although the amount Neuheisel bet and won seems staggering for an office pool, it was essentially pocket money to someone with his income, which was something more than his $1.2 million base salary. The equivalent gambling win for someone who makes $50,000 would be about 500 bucks on a $265 bet. Nice, but not worth risking your livelihood over.

And neither are a few beer-soaked cheek-kisses with Abercrombie-clad education majors or even whatever one might do with a stripper named Destiny who has custody of your credit card. What makes these guys take outsize risks isn't that they really need whatever it is they might gain, it's that they're too big for rules.

"I think college coaches come to feel that they're immune to the normal laws of human gravity," says Sperber, who spent years observing Bob Knight at close range. "We're talking now about celebrities. Why did Martha Stewart [allegedly] do what she did? It's chump change, but the only explanation that I kind of like is that she feels that the normal laws didn't apply to her because she's special. Well, if you're Rick Neuheisel and you're brought to Washington and paid a million bucks, you're pretty special."

And that's the problem. The split personality world of big-time college football and basketball says that while this whole thing is all about the educational experience of the players, you better win now, Mr. Coach, because this is big business. Winning means more donations, more ticket and merchandise sales, more TV money. It also means blue-chip players, who like to win and to play on TV, will be more likely to come and keep the whole thing going. The coach is the guy who brings those blue-chippers in. One who's good at doing that is a valuable commodity. (And make no mistake, if the Huskies had gone 12-1 instead of 7-6 last year, Neuheisel would not be polishing his résumé right now.)

Of course, without the fiction of amateurism for athletes that keeps them from being paid, the coaches wouldn't seem so valuable. If players were able to operate in a free market, to go where they could get the best deal -- that is, if they were able to make decisions the same way the coaches, not to mention you and I, do -- the coach would be less of a demigod.

For one thing, the wealth would be spread around. Instead of making a million bucks each, the football and basketball coach might have to divvy up that loot with 10 football players and three basketball players. The highest-paid public employee in most states might not even work for a college athletic program.

For another, the players would get a little more credit. People respect money, and since the coach gets all the money we all figure the coach deserves all the credit for winning. But we can see at every level of sports that the teams that win tend to be the ones with the best players. Watching schools bid on the services of players would force us to acknowledge their value.

I'm not holding my breath for any of this to happen. The NCAA will lecture sternly about its opposition to gambling -- without mentioning all those pools that pump up interest in the basketball Tournament, many of which are run by campus bookies. Some coaches might even mind their P's and Q's for a while, chastened a bit by the coaching carnage in Iowa, Alabama and Washington.

And before too long, the next scandal will come skidding down the pike. Another coach will get caught thinking the rules don't apply to him. I'll put a dollar on Aug. 17. You?

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

MORE FROM King Kaufman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Football Martha Stewart