|It was, without a doubt, a storybook season.
After several years of sub-par performances and unfulfilled expectations, not to mention decades of standing in the shadow of its rival to the south, the football team achieved nearly unprecedented success, finishing the season undefeated and earning a trip to a major bowl. Of course, as a smaller school, not part of one of the major conferences and ranked below several other teams, most knew there was little chance of playing for a national title.
But then, that team lost its bowl game.
Not that it mattered so much, since after that 1979 season, the Florida State University Seminoles went on to become one of the most successful programs ever in Division I football, eventually setting NCAA records with 14 straight seasons of winning 10 or more games and finishing among the top five in the national polls.
Comparisons between the current Utes and those Seminoles of 25 years ago might seem something of a stretch at first glance. But in 1979, an undefeated season and rise to national prominence, plus a No. 6 ranking, helped put the previously relatively obscure FSU on the college sports map, and there’s every reason to believe that the groundwork is being laid for Utah to make a push of its own to become an elite football program.
And Utah’s basketball program? It wasn’t the first perfect season in Mountain West Conference history, but at 13-1, the Utes still beat the previous best conference finish by one game. Led by the dominant sophomore and certain NBA lottery draft pick Andrew Bogut, as well as the return of senior Mark Jackson, the Utes rocketed into the national rankings, then muscled into the Sweet 16, turning Ray Giacoletti’s freshman season into one of the basketball program’s best and earning for him MWC Coach of the Year.
In today’s high-powered world of intercollegiate athletics, however, greater athletic success brings with it certain hazards, along with the numerous intangible benefits. Reputations for being “party schools” and embarrassing incidents both on and off the field can lead to the impression that the athletic tail is wagging the academic dog. Yet athletic success doesn’t necessarily mean a decline in academic standing—just ask Duke or Notre Dame. So the question before the U’s faculty and administrators is simply this: As a school climbs the ranks in modern college sports, how does it maintain a healthy balance between athletics and academics?
It’s been a banner year for a number of Utah sports overall. Along with the football team’s Fiesta Bowl rout of Pittsburgh and the most excitement about basketball since the team’s 1998 Final Four run, the Utes have enjoyed success in women’s and men’s swimming, men’s skiing, and another sterling run and No. 1 ranking for women’s gymnastics.
But the University’s current successes are far from overnight accomplishments. Director of Athletics Chris Hill MEd’74 PhD’82 has spent the better part of the decade working to raise the stature of the Utah athletics program as a whole, and a large part of that investment has been in the infrastructure around those sports. Rice-Eccles Stadium stands as the most visible example, but add to that the Ute baseball stadium, indoor practice facilities for football and gymnastics, and an upgrade for the soccer stadium, all funded by private donations. These kinds of “behind the scenes” facilities upgrades can mean nearly as much as on-the-field victories, at least in terms of raising and then maintaining a program’s stature.
Success breeds success, but it does not come cheap. With an approximate annual budget of around $20 million, the University of Utah Athletics Program stands on a stage that many academic programs would die for, but that exposure also carries high expectations and added scrutiny. The fact that Whittingham’s contract pays him $675,000 a year, well over twice the salary of President Michael Young, certainly raises the eyebrows of those who wonder what benefits a higher athletic profile—and the price tag that comes with it—will bring to the U.
One of the more common expectations is that large athletics programs reap equally large fiscal dividends and can serve as a financial boon for the rest of the university. Surprisingly, this generally appears not to be the case. A 2003 study commissioned by the NCAA determined that “high visibility” (and high-spending) athletics programs are largely revenue neutral, meaning that any potential increase in income, including donations, is ultimately balanced out dollar-for-dollar with expenditures. Whether that is specifically true of the University of Utah is difficult to measure, however.
Besides, as Hill points out, many of the benefits of athletics programs cannot be specifically attributed to dollars and cents.
Another study, published on the U.S. Sports Academy Web site, lends support to his point. Two researchers, Jeffrey Lucas of the University of Maryland and Michael Lovaglia of the University of Iowa, found that prospective students apparently associate high academic quality with a university’s athletics success. In addition, other evidence suggests that a program’s success, unrelated to money actually spent, may lead to increased student applications, which in turn enables admissions departments to be more selective in their acceptances.
It’s still too early to measure the impact of this year’s athletics triumphs on Utah’s admissions. The U did see an increase in fall 2004; however, this glut coincided with a push for early submission entirely unrelated to athletics. Anecdotally, though, administrators cite numerous inquiries from prospective students asking specifically about the school’s athletics program and commenting upon the Utes’ recent on-field success.
The most important benefit, though, may be in the athletics program’s function as the public face, or as Hill calls it, the “front porch” of the University. “We are a visible part of the University that can reach out off-campus. Athletics creates a good image and builds a sense of community and pride at the University.”
That good image can pay off in ways that benefit the U as a whole. Shortly after its Fiesta Bowl victory, the Utah football team was recognized for its accomplishment by the state Legislature. Nancy S. Lyon BA’73 MS’74, assistant vice president for government affairs, argues that this kind of positive exposure is invaluable, considering the sometimes difficult relationship between state government and the U.
“Many legislators have perceptions that are incorrect, and they tend to operate on anecdotal information, which is hard to overcome,” Lyon says. “So a high-profile event that showcases the University and the high caliber of our students to the community, the state and even the nation gives us a wonderful opportunity to tell our story. It helps us get past the misperception and get people to listen.”
At the moment, pride overflows everywhere, on campus and off. Gone are the days when the band outnumbered the fans at a pep rally before a game. Stadiums and other venues are jam-packed with fans. The U has come a very long way in 10 short years—much like another athletics program, which 25 years ago was just starting out on its path to glory.
The University of Utah is not Florida State, of course. Not yet, at any rate. But with the U’s increasing commitment to become a more “highly visible” athletics program, it will need to remain vigilant against the pitfalls that have become all too common across the landscape of Division I sports and have proven hazardous for some of those big-time programs. For Hill, those hazards are a matter of perpetual concern.
“We have to ask ourselves all the time: Are we in line with the University? Every year, you have to stay on top of it, keeping in touch with what the University wants out of its programs, and constantly finding ways to get better.”
For all the things that college athletics gets right, though, there’s a growing call for the reform of intercollegiate athletics by those who worry, among other things, that financial interests now predominate. Critics also question whether college athletics is any longer simply sport or if it has become a business.
“It depends on what day of the week I’m talking to you,” Hill admits, pointing out that modern Division I athletics is a little of both. “It’s a constant question, but one you can’t be afraid to ask.”
Encouraged by recent moves by the NCAA and some BCS conference commissioners, reform advocates have started their own organizations to press the NCAA to address the problems they’ve identified. One such reform group, the Coalition for Intercollegiate Athletics (COIA), has convinced more than 40 faculty senates to endorse a series of recommended reforms that will, in their words, “preserve and enhance the contributions athletics can make to academic life by addressing longstanding problems in college sports that undermine those contributions.”
Their reforms could be a bitter pill for some college sports fans—and quite a few athletic programs—to swallow. The problems COIA identifies focus on academic integrity, athletic welfare, program governance, finances, and over-commercialization. Shortening seasons and placing athletic scholarships more under the control of academic officers are just two of the more comprehensive changes COIA would like the NCAA to adopt.
The U, however, is in no hurry to attach itself to detailed recommendations it had no part in drafting and would have no power to alter. Though voicing strong support for the overall goals of the coalition, the University’s Athletic Advisory Council (AAC), composed of faculty, administrators, alumni, and students, recently recommended to the U’s Faculty Senate that it decline an invitation to join.
The reason? Though no one claims that the U is perfect (six-year graduation rates for all university athletes stand at 56 percent this year), the council believes that Utah is already addressing the most important concerns.
“A lot of their most admirable recommendations we are either doing or working toward right now,” explains Eric Hinderaker, history department chair and vice chair of the AAC.
Utah has so far avoided the most significant problems that have hit other institutions. Special programs, such as CHAMPS/Life Skills (highlighted in the Spring 2005 issue of Continuum), are designed to help student-athletes balance the dual demands of their difficult schedules. Also, the potential for an academic/athletics divide has been avoided in large part because of a strong sense of involvement and communication between the faculty, administration, and athletics program through bodies like the AAC.
Hill graciously lays the credit for the U’s successes with the quality coaches and students who have come to the U. It is the school’s focus on academics, he maintains, that serves as an integral part of the recruiting process.
“We don’t want any pretenders,” Hill explains. “We expect everyone to attend class and to be moving toward a degree. If you don’t get a degree, you have to take responsibility for that.”
Rather than two separate tracks—the academic and the athletic—the University has so far succeeded in walking the difficult line that binds the two together. But dangers still lurk for any program that seeks to cultivate its success, as Utah is doing. Failing to keep an eye open to those concerns could easily erase the positive gains that strong athletics programs can bring.
“As soon as you think you got it made,” Hill says, “you don’t.”
—Paul Ketzle PhD’04 is currently an English instructor in the University of Utah’s LEAP program and a contributing editor to the scholarly journal Western Humanities Review.
DON'T WANT ANY PRETENDERS
SWIMMING AND DIVING
MEN’S SWIMMING AND DIVING
TRACK AND FIELD
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