Smooth Operators in Academia

The obsession over the past months with Tiger Woods and his unspeakably crude exploits speaks to the tawdriness sometimes – if not most of the time – connected with organized sports on all levels, local, state, national, amateur, professional. Woods’ immorality merely remarks the other immoralities endemic to athletics, especially when the big money is involved, everything from putting in the “fix” to sponsors that will do anything for the buck, the devil take the hindmost. Here’s an example with respect to the college game and the student athlete:

Mirror, mirror, on the wall/Who are the unhappiest of them all? Notwithstanding to the contrary all the wildly made “best wishes to the dearly departed,” Mitch Barnhart and John Calipari, athletic director and basketball coach, respectively, at the University of Kentucky, are they of the quintessential sadness, as any knowledgeable, self-respecting mirror would attest. Classified consensually in the world of sports as the best team in the land, the UK basketball team did not – ALAS! – survive the Elite Eight, let alone the Final Four, not even to (gasp and three palpitations!) mention being in the Final, win or lose.

Not to worry, just any ordinary mirror might proclaim, there’s always another year, and in this case with all the main players returning thus to hone their skills, there should be at least a couple of championships in the offing. Why, you ask! Why, because the main team featured four freshman and one junior, along with some sophomore super-subs…translated, maturity, skill, and strength to guarantee inordinate success in 2010-12 at least. Problem: The four freshmen and lone junior are leaving school for the big league – the NBA, though one or three might wind up playing somewhere in Europe. The NBA can be picky.

Back to the sadness! Athletic Director Barnhart could have collected a cool $25,000 if the team had made it to the Final Four. As it is, he only collected in bonuses this year $30,000 when the football team made it to a bowl game (not hard since only six season-wins qualify); $25,000 when the women’s basketball team made it to the NCAA clambake (women’s Elite Eight); and $25,000 when the men simply made the tournament (meaning at least good enough to be 65th in the nation). This was only $80,000 for poor Mr. Barnhart but another $25,000 would have put him over the century-thousand mark in bonuses. Sad!

Barnhart only makes $475,000 a year at stingy UK although he gets something called a “compliance” bonus, which seems actually to mean that he must simply continue to breathe. Add the $80,000 for this year’s bonuses so far and he’s had to sacrifice the good life for a piddling $605,000. Of course, UK threw in a cool $100,000 a couple years ago to get him off the hook at Oregon State for walking out on his contract there to come to UK in 2003.

Since 2003, Barnhart’s base salary has increased by only 73% (just a niggling 10% or so per year!), so one wonders if UK actually appreciates his talents, providing him insensitively with only two cars total instead of one for each day of the week. He started collecting $30,000 a year in something called “longevity pay” in 2006 (on the basis of his first contract), so who knows what he actually makes, assuming that little nest egg is not part of his current salary?

Back again to the sadness! One suspects Barnhart is secretly gnashing his teeth over the departures of the “favored five” when contemplating the finding of replacements for virtually an entire starting-team that may not even come close to 65th next year, but he might be joined in spades by Coach Calipari, who is guaranteed only $3.8 million per year, counting all the perks of his esteemed office (base salary – only $400,000). To make matters worse, he collected only an additional $50,000 via UK’s winning of the SEC season-championship and only another $50,000 when the men’s team won the SEC tournament. That’s just a paltry $3.9 million for a whole year’s effort.

Calipari’s sadness might be enhanced when he thinks of the additional $175,000 he would have collected if the team had just made the Final Four and (EGAD!) the additional $375,000 check he would have held while laughing all the way to the bank if UK had actually won the NCAA championship…so near and yet so far. If all that had happened, he would have knocked down a cool $4,450,000 for the year, or about what 80-90 rookie assistant professors make, a clear indication that education is the most important thing at UK.

This is no slam against the players, upon whose backs the Athletic Department’s honchos become wealthy in as short a time as possible. It’s fair to say that a university education was never in their plans, and no one could blame them for opting out as soon as possible. It’s a sad commentary, however, on where a university places its priorities, at least in conferences like the SEC (Vanderbilt excluded) or the Big East.