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A REAL UNIVERSITY
THE IDEA FOR THIS BOOK originally came to me more than a decade ago when I was thinking about college sports. I had become interested in what I thought was a simple but troubling question: Why were some of America's largest and most prestigious universities spending ten times more on football players than on their smartest, most ambitious students? I wasn't entirely naive. I knew football dominated the cultures at many of these schools. Still, I was taken aback by the size of the disparities. Penn State, for example, gave $2,250 scholarships to the students in its Honors College, a kind of university within the university for students with SATs above 1400 and perfect 4.0 grade point averages. By comparison, a football player on a full scholarship received $25,000 in aid. And that didn't include the cost of tutors, counselors, writing and reading specialists, and an array of other academic advisers required to keep players eligible.
At the time, Penn State was being touted by the media as a model for balancing education and big-time football. Unsurprisingly, school officials embraced this narrative. Penn State even had a slogan, courtesy of its iconic coach, Joe Paterno. It referred to its approach as "The Grand Experiment," as though the idea of balancing studying and playing football were so challenging--or possibly heroic--that it deserved its own motto.
I wondered what I was missing. At $42 million, Penn State's budget for athletics was ten times larger than its budget for the Honors College (a gap, incidentally, that has only widened in the last decade--a football scholarship now costs about $50,000, an Honors College scholarship, $4,500). So I called the professor in charge of the Honors College and asked her if I was misreading the budgets.
No, she told me, I had it right. The university could afford only so much.
It was at this point, I think, that I sputtered: "But what about football?" or words to that effect.
"Football pays for itself," she said. "They get to spend as much as they want."
"You mean football isn't part of the regular budget?"
I could almost hear her laughing, only I wasn't imagining it. She was laughing at me.
"I'm sorry," she said after a moment. "Football operates according to its own rules, and the rest of us just go along for the ride."
A few days later I briefly met with Graham Spanier, the president of Penn State, and then shared a longer telephone conversation. Spanier enjoyed a reputation as a savvy guy who rarely passed up a photo op or a chance to boost his school. He was trim, handsome, and engaging. Certainly he was persuasive in explaining to me how much Penn State valued the students in its honors program. Among other advantages, the students had access to the university's best professors and smaller classes, he said. Some of them even qualified for additional aid: A physics major, for instance, might get aid from the physics department.
I asked Spanier if he knew how many honors students got additional aid. It seemed like something he might want to know.
"Penn State has a lot of majors," he replied.
"How about football?" I asked. "How many scholarships does football get?"
Spanier seemed disappointed by my question. "They get eighty-five," he said. "But none of that money comes from the university."
He said this as though it were a good thing--as though all football teams should operate like stand-alone businesses.
Spanier suggested that I call several academic departments to see if they had information on scholarships they awarded to honors students. So I contacted the English department and asked if it had a secret stash of money to help its brightest students. "That would be nice," a professor told me. "We have a lot of good kids who could use the help." The woman who answered the phone at the physics department must have thought she was getting a crank call. She kept asking me which research lab I was with, and when I explained that I was a writer, she abruptly hung up.
All of this occurred in the spring of 2000, nearly a dozen years before the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal derailed Graham Spanier's career and tarnished the reputation of Penn State. In the intervening decade, college football vaulted ahead in both popularity and wealth and came to occupy a transcendent place in American sports. It was, in nearly every respect, the key component of a vast money culture that dominated college campuses. There were billion-dollar television deals and games on ESPN virtually every night of the week. Billions more flooded in from ticket sales and luxury suites and premium seating in massive Erector-set stadiums. These arenas were draped in corporate logos, and even the players' uniforms were adorned with advertising. At the University of Oregon, Nike consultants decided which color uniforms--there were scores of possible color combinations, all bearing the company's ubiquitous swoosh--the players wore on a given Saturday. Nike's founder, Phil Knight, an Oregon alumnus, had single-handedly reinvented Oregon football, spending more than $100 million of his own money on lavish training facilities and stadium renovations. It was no wonder some of the students now referred to their school as the University of Nike.
The corporatization of college football was on one level unsurprising. It could even be viewed as inevitable. After all, hadn't universities themselves become giant entertainment businesses that happened to do a little education on the side? Certainly the athletic departments of the largest and richest football schools operated like entertainment divisions, with CEO-style executives and celebrity coaches collecting Wall Street-level salaries. The athletic directors had even invented a new financial model built around monetizing every last detail of their football programs. It was so successful that schools like Texas, Michigan, and Auburn now had profit margins that put the oil companies to shame.
When I asked DeLoss Dodds, the longtime athletic director at Texas, how it was that his football program had made $80 million in profit in 2012, he grinned at me as if to say, Silly boy. Dodds once boasted that Texas didn't need to keep up with the Joneses because it was the Joneses, implying, among other things, that the normal rules didn't apply. Now he looked at me through dark, pebbly eyes and said: "Football is the train that drives everything and pays for everything. It just is. Everything begins and ends with football."
So there it was: a perfect summary of the new economics of college sports.
Of course, the new financial model was not without irony or problems. The same college presidents who encouraged their athletic directors to turn their departments into businesses now lamented that spending on football was spiraling out of control and smothering the culture and mission of their schools. The hand-wringing was, in a way, even humorous in its predictability. Every few years the presidents would gather to "study the problem" and then issue a report that immediately went up on a shelf with all of the other reports while they hustled off to their luxury suites to watch the game with wealthy donors. "We are our own worst enemies," the president of one football factory told me. "We're all afraid to go first."
Less visibly, the new financial model had inspired a radical shift in the economics of football, with the largest and richest programs pocketing about $2.5 billion from television broadcasts, luxury suite rentals, seat donations, and corporate advertising while all the others scrapped over what few leftovers remained. In effect, the game had devolved into a zero-sum experience, with clear financial winners and then everyone else, mirroring what seemed to be occurring in the larger economy.
The flood of cash--nearly all of it tax free, thanks to the extraordinary generosity of senators and congressmen from football-mad states--had also fundamentally altered the core mission of these schools. Instead of touting their educational offerings, they now promoted their football programs because football, after all, was exciting and attracted media attention. When I tried to ask college presidents about this, many of them ran for cover. The few who did open up were embarrassed. The message was backward, and they knew it. But the world had changed, they insisted, and they ignored the changes at their own peril.
And so, the presidents told anyone willing to listen, it was okay if the first thing people thought of when they thought about their schools was their football team. Football was the new brand, a way to lure both students and alumni to campus. Some of the presidents even took to calling football the "front porch" of their universities, while others rhapsodized about its healing powers and uncommon ability to unite the campus. Others contended that a winning football team attracted more and smarter students. After it won a couple of national championships, the University of Alabama began promoting this narrative, with several major publications repeating it nearly verbatim. I didn't doubt football and championships could boost a university's Q score--albeit temporarily. But what I wondered was how presidents could differentiate all of the other possible explanations for why a school's applicant pool might grow--for example, more and generous scholarships, the ease of filing applications online, or a new, attractive major in nursing or engineering. And more to the point, what happened when a football team struggled? Did the applicant pool shrink? Did the student body become dumber?
Alabama touts its football program as one of the biggest and richest in the land. It has a stadium that seats 101,000 fans; a waiting list for season tickets 26,000 strong; a coach it pays $6.5 million a season, not including bonuses; and a support staff that rivals any in the NFL. Every year Alabama adds another shiny new bauble to its football program. In 2013 it opened a new weight room featuring 37,000 square feet of racks, weights, juice bars, and nutrition stations. Alabama already had one of the largest weight rooms in the country, but apparently it wasn't enough to impress the seventeen- and eighteen-year-old recruits who keep the team humming. So Alabama invested $9 million in this facility and, while it was at it, added a new locker room with hydrotherapy pools and a waterfall. On paper the Alabama athletic department appeared to be piling up debt like a third-world republic, owing bondholders more than $200 million on its athletic facilities alone. I had a sense--and not for the first time--of the Titanic steaming blindly into an ice field. But when I asked Bill Battle, Alabama's athletic director, about it, he assured me that everything was under control.
"Do you ever worry all of this might be a bubble?" I asked.
"A bubble? No, I don't think so," Battle replied. "I do worry that we could start losing. But honestly, I don't think that's going to happen. It's just a good time to be around Alabama football, a very, very good time."
And then, I think, he actually winked.
Given the potential riches to be gained, it isn't very surprising that other college presidents would develop football envy. When they see Alabama and Oregon raking in millions or tens of millions, it inspires a kind of magical thinking: Why not us? Why shouldn't we collect millions and be on ESPN's College GameDay? Many college presidents simply can't imagine a campus without a football team. And then, once they have a team, they can't imagine its playing in anything but a big, shiny new stadium costing tens (or even hundreds) of millions of dollars. How else can you explain why so many otherwise smart men and women with "PhD" appended to the end of their names would risk economic ruin in hopes of winning the football jackpot?
The data, however, show that the presidents are on the wrong side of a losing bet. The preponderance of the schools that start football programs, or shift from lower levels of competition to higher levels, lose money. And not just a little: millions and millions of dollars that might otherwise be used for building a new lab or lowering tuition. But there is no telling the presidents. Even as they lose huge sums, the presidents tell themselves football is their winning ticket--the quickest and surest path to a competitive advantage. What they don't seem to recognize is that if every school plays football, then it is the same as if no one played football; if everyone has a competitive advantage, then no one has a competitive advantage and, thus, such massively expensive wagers are for naught.
One of those who ardently believed in the transcendent nature of football was Anthony Catanese, president of the Florida Institute of Technology, a private university of six thousand students located in Melbourne, on the central Atlantic coast. On its Web site, Florida Tech cleverly describes itself as an A+ school for B students. In 2013 it ranked 167th among national universities in the U.S. News & World Report's college rankings. Two thirds of its students are from out of state, including several thousand from foreign nations. Like those of many other Florida colleges, the campus appears new and shiny, a cross between a Disney theme park and a summer astronaut camp.
During his first decade at Florida Tech, Catanese started many new programs, expanded the campus, and added a football team. It was not his first experience with football. Prior to arriving in Melbourne, Catanese had spent a dozen years as president of Florida Atlantic University, a larger public university in Boca Raton, where he had also initiated a football program. "As far as we know, Dr. Catanese is the only president to start football teams at two different schools," Florida Tech's spokesman, Wes Sumner, told me. And like me, he seemed to marvel at the audacity of the idea.
I decided I could learn something from Catanese, so I arranged a telephone interview and later visited the campus. The president is seventy years old but looks younger, with feathery white hair and a healthy tan. He has run more than thirty marathons and used to drive a red Corvette. "Actually, my wife hated the way it drove," he said. "We traded it in for another car."
Catanese grew up in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and went to Rutgers for his undergraduate education. He told me he "loved football as a kid" and enjoyed watching Rutgers play. Thus, a football team was an important part of his strategy for raising Florida Atlantic's profile from a commuter school to a regional university. "I don't have to tell you, football is incredibly important in Florida," he said. "I did it primarily because a school that big [25,000 students spread across several campuses] really should have a football program."
Catanese had heard that Howard Schnellenberger was living down the Florida turnpike in Miami and invited him to lunch. The pipe-smoking Schnellenberger was a Florida legend. A decade earlier he'd led the University of Miami to a national championship and then went on to coach at Louisville and the University of Oklahoma. When Catanese laid out his plan to start a Division I football team, Schnellenberger agreed to help him raise money and volunteered to be the coach.
The Florida Atlantic Owls began play in 2001, competing in a lower division, and broke even. But then they moved up to Division I and promptly started losing to bigger and better teams. Between 2005 and 2013 the Owls posted a 0.379 winning percentage, among the worst records in college football. Attendance was dismal, which probably had as much to do with the proximity of the beach as with the team's woeful performance.
Like many struggling programs, Florida Atlantic lost money. The exact amount is unclear, but it was easily in the millions--and probably, tens of millions in the aggregate. With few fans and little revenue, Florida Atlantic needed another way to raise cash. So it agreed to play more powerful, richer teams on their home fields in return for a hefty payment--what athletic directors call a "guarantee." Alabama, Auburn, or some other football powerhouse might pay it up to $1 million, far more than it could ever collect playing a lesser opponent at home in Boca Raton. For the bigger, richer school, playing a lesser opponent like Florida Atlantic was virtually a guaranteed win--a way to pad its record with a win against a weaker team. Catanese called these "money games." Tellingly, Florida Atlantic collected more from guarantees than it did selling tickets to its games. But the money games took a toll: The Owls went 0-11 against ranked teams and gave up 527 points while scoring just a little over 100.
Even with the payments from larger, more accomplished teams, the economics of football at Florida Atlantic remain problematic. The Owls lose about $4 million a season by my estimate. One of the bigger drains is the school's thirty-thousand-seat stadium, opened in 2007 at a cost of $70 million. The facility was financed with a bank loan taken out at the "worst moment in banking history," the school's athletic director, Patrick Chun, who was hired in 2012, told me. As is often the case, there was a Field of Dreams mythology at work: If you build it, they will come. Only the fans didn't come. Florida Atlantic averages about fifteen thousand fans at home games, and it needs twenty thousand to break even. "Normally, schools wait to build new stadiums until after they have established a winning program," Chun said. "We kind of put the icing on the cake before we built the cake."
For years Florida Atlantic lacked a corporate sponsor willing to pay millions to slap its name on the new stadium. Naming rights are usually set before a stadium opens, but Florida Atlantic didn't find a partner until 2013, when a company that operates for-profit prisons offered it $6 million to rename the football complex GEO Group Stadium. School officials were thrilled. But then critics began to question the propriety of a public university's associating with a prison company. Some Florida Atlantic students cheekily referred to the stadium as Owlcatraz. Eventually the owners of the prison company withdrew their offer, costing Florida Atlantic the equivalent of $500,000 annually.
"There's only one thing that is going to change the culture at FAU," Chun said, "and that's building a consistent winning program. People want to start feeling good about themselves, and the way you do that is winning. Everyone wants to be a winner."
By this point Catanese was long gone from Florida Atlantic. Still, I couldn't help wondering what he thought. Had it been worth all of the money and trouble?
"I think what happens is if you're winning, you get a tremendous turnout. And when you're not winning, it's not so great," Catanese said. "The economics of a stadium also changes things dramatically. They've had some bad years, and now the private money gifts aren't coming in. I think some individuals maybe haven't spent as much time working at it like I did."
Catanese is once again betting that football can help catapult his current school into prominence. In its inaugural season, playing at a lower level, Florida Tech won five games and lost seven. Catanese thinks it is reasonable to expect more--say, even a Division II national championship in five or so years. He told me that students who normally wouldn't consider Florida Tech now enroll because it has a football team. The locals also look more favorably upon the school. "I've had people come up to me and tell me how they now think of us as a real school," Catanese said.
A couple of years back, before Florida Tech football even got under way, a man dressed up as Santa Claus approached Catanese in a Publix supermarket parking lot to thank him for bringing football to Melbourne. "He saw the schedule and knew who we were going to play," Catanese marveled. "This is a Publix parking lot in Florida, and football hasn't even started. I thought: What has happened to my life?"
_ _ _ _
THE GILDED AGE OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL
We eat what we kill.
--UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS PHILOSOPHY OF SPENDING ON ATHLETICS
When you hear presidents and athletic directors talk about character and academics and integrity, none of that really matters. The truth is, nobody has ever been fired for those things. They get fired for losing.
-MACK BROWN, QUOTED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES, DECEMBER 30, 2014
WHEN I ARRIVED IN AUSTIN in October 2013, the University of Texas football program was deep into an existential crisis, and the mood in town seemed to be darkening by the hour. I discovered this when I took a wrong turn and wandered into a neighborhood of fading clapboard houses. After looping repeatedly around the same block, I stopped at a convenience store for directions. The parking lot was crowded with vintage muscle cars and rusting lawn chairs. What I took to be a scrum of locals scowled at my appearance.
"Hey, guys," I said, extending my hands palms up in the universal sign of helplessness. "I'm just trying to find the stadium."
To which one of them rasped: "Hell, you're practically close enough you can piss on it."
I quickly surmised I was what passed for entertainment at the end of a long, dull afternoon.
Another of the men pointed toward an elevated highway. "All you got to do is follow it downtown," he said. "You'll see it soon enough."
I thanked him and started back to my rental car but after a moment heard him call to me, "Hey, if you happen to see Mack Brown down there, you tell him for me he needs to quit--and the sooner the damn better." His buddies all cackled loudly. The rooster's tail of venom that now trailed Texas football wasn't necessarily creative, but it was relentless. Fire the damn head coach. Mack sucks. UT sucks.
I waved over my shoulder and got into my car. It was an otherwise perfect fall day, seersucker blue and warm but not Texas warm. I imagined leaves burning somewhere in a steel barrel and green apples tumbling to the earth, kids tossing around a football in a backyard. A minute or two later I found the entry ramp at the end of the block, only now I realized it wasn't an entry ramp at all but an exit ramp, no entryway anywhere in sight. I could practically hear in my head the locals' laughter. Good one, bro. You got that damn Yankee good.
Those Texans were not the Texans I knew. My Texans were bighearted, outsized personalities who resented anyone who questioned their unbridled optimism. The locals at the convenience store were impostors, bitter with recriminations real and imagined. Then again, much had changed in the decade since I had last been in Austin. So much of the unbending, take-no-prisoners Texas spirit now felt like a caricature of itself. There was the dystopian politics of Ted Cruz and his mad hatters, and Governor Rick Perry in his five-hundred-dollar cowboy boots kicking up one controversy after another. But most of all there was Texas football. Texas football had gone to hell in a hurry and now seemed to be sucking the very air out of the state.
At the time of my arrival, the Texas Longhorns were 5-2. In many places that sort of record would be considered cause for celebration. But here in Austin, 5-2 was viewed as abject failure. The corollary of unbridled optimism, after all, is impossible expectations. Texans took as an article of faith that they were exceptional. As such, they believed their Longhorns should go undefeated every year, and they did not submit passively to losing. An acceptable season included one loss, two at most, but you better win the conference and go to a major bowl game. Any more than two losses and you might as well start planting tombstones. These days the smell of panic was in the air: ozone before a thunderous, cloud-splitting storm.
Texas had won nine games in 2012. It wasn't anything to brag about, but it was one more win than they'd had the year before--and four more than they'd had in 2010, when the team had staggered through an unfathomable 5-7 season--no conference, no bowl game, no damn nothing. By the start of the 2013 season the Texas faithful were exhausted from losing and all out of passes to give. "This is it," one season ticket holder practically spit on a talk radio show. "We let Mack have a pass these last couple of years because he won the championship in '05. But he has no excuses anymore."
No less than Mack Brown himself, the southern-gentleman football coach with the $5 million paycheck, had predicted great things for 2013. Texas had a championship-caliber team, he told anyone who'd listen, including nineteen returning starters and greater skill and depth than they'd had in years. He would be surprised if the Longhorns didn't compete for the Big 12 title--and maybe more, wink, wink. "You want to get back to being one of the top football programs in the country," Mack told reporters, "where we deserve to be and our fans deserve to be."
It was unclear if he meant that merely being Texas implied greatness or that Texans by birthright were entitled to a top ranking, if for no other reason than that they spent more money and energy on football than anyone else.
The season had started off well enough, with a 56-7 thrashing of New Mexico State at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin. By the fourth quarter expectations were once again soaring. What many of the fans dressed in burnt orange seemed to overlook, however, was that it was a victory against New Mexico State. The game was the football equivalent of a set piece. Texas had paid the Aggies $900,000 to fly down from Las Cruces and take a whooping. Indeed, New Mexico State was so bad at football it had to pay its own students to come to the games. And even then they rarely came. In 2012 the Aggies had had a record of 1-11, and most of the scores were so lopsided that it was easy to mistake them for basketball results. Texas's prodigious aspirations aside, this was hardly what you would call a test.
That came the following Saturday when the Longhorns traveled up to Provo, Utah, to play Brigham Young University. The Cougars' running backs sliced through the Longhorns' defense at will, piling up an astonishing 550 rushing yards. The final score was 40-21, but BYU could just as easily have put up 50 or 60 points. With that, all the patience and hope appeared to leak out of the Texas fans. Mack Brown couldn't coach a turnip, they fumed, let alone a five-star recruit. He had grown lazy ever since the trustees had awarded him that $2 million raise in 2009. He didn't recruit well anymore, and his assistants did a poor job of coaching the talent he did manage to bring in, et cetera, et cetera.
Brown did his best to shrug off the carping. He had been around Texas football long enough to know the fans didn't respond well to losing. Despite all of their talk about playing with dignity and class, they were never what you would call good sports. The advent of social media wasn't helping either. Austin was like one big anthill: Everyone had an opinion and was willing to share it, feeding an endless loop of petty grievances and conspiratorial rumors.
Well, at least Mack still had the university president and the board behind him. They were careful to talk up the coach's unquestioned decency and to remind the fans that football was the financial engine behind UT sports. Recent losses aside, Mack had won 85 percent of his games between 2000 and 2009, and what other coach could match that record? Better yet, every one of those games had sold out. Mack was Barnum & Bailey, reliably putting fannies in those 100,000 seats at DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium. The university had even named an endowed chair after him: the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. The athletic department had kicked in $500,000 for the position and had arranged for Joe Paterno to deliver the keynote speech. So while he may have been on a bit of a losing streak, you didn't just toss a Mack Brown out the door. Give him time; he'd get it turned around. You watch.
The following Saturday the University of Mississippi came to town. By Southeastern Conference (SEC) standards, Mississippi was a small school; it had far less money to spend on football than Alabama, LSU, Florida, or other big, rich football powers. But it was still a member of the all-powerful SEC, and therefore Texas considered the game a must-win. But just as it had the week before, Texas played soft, and the Rebels gutted the Longhorns 44-23. Following the game, some of the Texas players complained that DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium had been so quiet that it was like attending a wake. By now no less than Earl Campbell, the legendary Texas running back and 1977 Heisman Trophy winner, had announced that it was time for Mack to go.
It was at about this point that I became seriously interested in the narrative of Texas football--but not because of the soap opera surrounding the team or the furious calls for Mack Brown's head. Those felt fairly predictable. It was a different question that was nagging me. I was curious what, if any, impact all of this turmoil was having on the financial juggernaut that was Texas football.
In 2012 football generated a remarkable $103 million for the Texas athletic department, with $78 million falling to the bottom line. Note that I didn't say that this windfall went to the university itself. As at many other elite football powers, the Texas athletic department was nominally part of the university but in reality functioned as an autonomous business, free to raise and spend as much as it wanted. Football was by far the largest, richest department on campus--the Department of College Football, if you like. It was overseen by a CEO/coach, Mack Brown, who received millions more than the university president. His nine full-time assistant coaches averaged $555,000, or about four times what a full professor earned.
In the view of most Texans this was acceptable, as opposed to, say, a distortion of the university's primary mission of education. It was perfectly okay that the Texas football budget had grown twenty times faster than inflation over the last three decades. Or that Texas spent $261,728 on each of its football players but just $20,903 on each student. Big was good. Big was what Texas did best. It had the biggest flags, the biggest stadiums, the biggest egos. Texas football was the very definition of big.
True, in 2009 a few of the school's professors had protested Brown's $2 million raise as unseemly, noting that it was "a sum greater than the entire career earnings of a typical university employee." But then, what could you expect from a bunch of pinhead professors? The fans didn't care about them, and University of Texas president Bill Powers Jr. had declared the $2 million raise "a good investment in our financial strength and stability as we go forward."
If expenses and debt kept climbing to improbable levels, the athletic department could always tap its football program for more money. Its vast wealth and lavish spending also attracted attention, and attention was a good thing in the sprawling, media-fed bubble that was big-time college sports. It created buzz on social media and drew the prized recruits and wealthy boosters who kept Texas football churning.
The program's profit margin wildly exceeded those of Apple and ExxonMobil, two of the nation's richest, best-known companies. And Texas football didn't do it for just one year; it did it every year, consistently. Moreover, the size of its take was growing--up sevenfold in a decade. Even by Texans' gaudy standards it was an absurd amount of money.
Here some might argue that Texas manipulates its numbers so that football appears more profitable than it really is. What I know is this: After studying scores of financial statements issued by athletic departments large and small, nothing is quite what it seems. Or to put it another way, there are no standard accounting practices. Some schools include the cost of stadium financing in their budgets, while others don't. Some, including Texas, lump the cost of maintaining their facilities into a generic category instead of allocating it by sport, understating spending for some sports.
But if you are trying to examine the financial landscape of college football, you have to use one consistent metric. I decided to use the internal budget reports and detailed financial statements that schools are required to file annually with the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Inexplicably, the NCAA considers these reports secret. I was, however, able to obtain nearly one hundred of them by filing Freedom of Information Act requests with public universities. I had already amassed a trove of financial data on college athletic spending going back to 1999 from another project. I then put all of the numbers onto spreadsheets and analyzed the schools' performance over time. It seemed like a consistent, fair approach--and if the schools complained, well, these were their numbers.
As I mentioned earlier, the pressing question for me was whether the turbulence in Austin was cutting into its profit margin. For example, were fewer fans buying season tickets, or were well-heeled boosters scaling back their donations?
The problem was that no one seemed particularly interested in talking about finances. The writers were too busy chasing ghosts. Was Mack in or out? And if he was out, who would take his place? At one point the blogs blew up with tabloid-wattage threads saying that Texas was trying to lure Nick Saban away from Alabama by offering him $10 million. There were even reports that Saban's wife, Terry, had been spotted looking at Austin real estate--all false, it turned out.
But at a certain point even speculation gets old. What I required was someone with enough history to walk me through the long view of Texas football--someone like the spectacularly named DeLoss Dodds, the veteran athletic director and architect of the Texas miracle otherwise known as Longhorns, Inc.
If the seventy-four-year-old Dodds hadn't exactly invented the new financial model for college football, he had certainly brought it to its most successful expression at Texas, growing what was once a modest business into a hugely profitable, gilded enterprise. During his thirty-three-year tenure as athletic director at Texas, the athletic department budget had swelled from $4.5 million to nearly $170 million; football had grown from about $2 million to $110 million in 2013. No school was bigger, wealthier, or more important.
The trick was getting an interview with him. Dodds was nearing the end of his run and clearly didn't need to burnish his already gold-plated resume, let alone address all the craziness and noise of the moment. I explained to the media representatives serving as the guardians at the gate that I wasn't interested in the serial drama that was now Texas football. Rather I was interested in how the financial model for college football had changed so radically over the last few decades and how football now dominated the brands of many of our largest and best universities. I emphasized that I could learn a lot from Dodds, but the folks in publicity were still suspicious. They needed time to check me out.
Weeks passed without a word. I sent them periodic e-mails renewing my interest. I told them I liked what I had read about Dodds, which happened to be true. There was an engaging, all-American, up-from-the-bootstraps quality to his story. He had grown up on the Kansas prairie and gone on to greatness. I recited to the publicists his times in the four-hundred-yard dash in high school, when he was a state champion, and they seemed pleasantly surprised. I mentioned that I had thrown the javelin well enough myself to set school records and win a scholarship. I can't say for certain, but I think it was the track connection that finally sealed the deal.
I found Dodds waiting in his seventh-floor office towering above the North End Zone at DKR-Memorial Stadium. He is tall but not Texas tall and has short, wavy brown hair and dark eyes. When he speaks there is a quiet warble behind his words, like birds rustling in the scrub and thistle. Perhaps most impressive of all, he did not take out his cell phone once during the several hours we spent together.
By this point I had visited enough football stadiums that I was starting to notice subtle differences among them. For example, with its sweeping redbrick facade, sunken playing field, and ornate columns, DKR-Memorial appeared to most closely resemble a Roman coliseum. (The "DKR" stands for Darrell K Royal, the beloved football coach at Texas from 1957 to 1976 who delivered 180 wins and three national championships. If you're victorious in that many games in Texas, it pretty much goes without saying that you get a stadium named after you.) A reef of light rimmed the upper decks, slowly working its way down the metal bleachers to the tunnels far below. DKR seats 100,119 fans, making it the sixth-largest college football stadium in the nation and the largest college stadium in Texas. However, its supremacy was about to be challenged. The Longhorns' bitter archrival, Texas A&M, planned a $450 million expansion of Kyle Field in College Station. The Aggies boasted that it would be the largest and most expensive football stadium project in history and, when completed, would increase capacity to 102,000.
"They have to have more seats," Dodds said when I broached the subject. "I don't care. I don't care how big the stadium is. It isn't about that."
At some level, though, it did feel as if it were about size--or, if it wasn't exactly a competition over sheer capacity, then certainly it was a battle for football supremacy in Texas. The rivalry between the schools was epic. If you were an A&M alum, you did not go to your brother-in-law's on Thanksgiving if he was a graduate of UT. Nor did you exchange Christmas cards. For decades the schools had played each other on the Friday after Thanksgiving. But in 2012 A&M bolted the Big 12 Conference for the richer SEC. Various explanations were offered for the betrayal: A&M fans blamed Texas for starting its own television network; Texas fans accused A&M of a money grab. In 2013 State Representative Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City introduced a bill requiring the schools to play each other. It was the kind of thing that could happen only in Texas, but surprisingly it didn't pass.
If nothing else, the antagonism cast a shadow over the fabulously rich investment that was Texas football. Since the early nineties, the Longhorns had underwritten roughly $300 million in DKR-Memorial improvements, adding thousands of premium seats, new locker rooms, and multistory digital scoreboards, always with an eye toward impressing boosters and fans with deep pockets. In this sense, running a high-end football program like Texas is a little like running a Las Vegas casino. There are the fans who buy a season ticket or two, and then there are the high rollers--the trial lawyers, car dealers, and oilmen who write the big checks and get their names on the buildings. While you might not be able to comp them a room with a view, you can make their experience more comfortable with wider, cushioned seats, plasma screens to watch replays, seatside catering, four-star meals, endless drinks, and so on.