Come Early. Be Loud. Cash In.
In the arms race to build the fanciest stadiums, hire the best coaches, and attract the top athletes, the University of Texas is unrivaled: Its athletics program is the most profitable—and most successful—of any school in history. How did the Horns climb to the top? By inventing the rules that everyone else now plays by.
“More than anything else, I am at a point in my life when I want this place packed,” said University of Texas football coach Mack Brown one day this spring, gazing out the window of his office behind the hulking Godzillatron at Darrell K Royal—Texas Memorial Stadium. He was looking north toward the enormous, crane-shadowed renovation project that was transforming the section behind the end zone. “I want the fans having fun,” he continued. “I want them wearing orange. And I don’t want it to be just a football game. I want it to be something you do if you are in the state of Texas on Saturday. You make time in your schedule for it, and you plan weddings and anniversaries around it. Because this is Texas football.”
Indeed it is. Such a project might have been done more modestly at other schools, making changes at a moderate rate and keeping costs to reasonable levels. But this is the University of Texas at Austin, where tastes run more to the colossal, the gargantuan, the magnificent, and the unabashedly Roman. Where football, as Brown said, is something you put off weddings for. So there is nothing modest about the North End Zone project, or the NEZ, as it is known, a gleaming $176.5 million makeover that was completed this summer and includes a new upper deck, 47 luxury suites, an exclusive club level with 2,200 premium seats, and an enclosed bar and buffet area. It increases the stadium’s capacity from 81,000 to 94,113. Those ancient, familiar concrete arches at the north end of the stadium have been replaced by an 850,000-square-foot complex—the equivalent of a forty-story skyscraper. Inside is a student center, an 18,000-square-foot study hall for athletes, room for four gymnasiums, and acres of unfinished office space.
With its massive laid-brick turrets and cantilevered deck, the NEZ has transformed Royal-Memorial from what was merely a first-class arena into arguably the finest football facility in the country. It also represents the crown jewel of a decade-long construction spree that has cost $348 million and rebuilt or refurbished most of the university’s sports venues. If that seems like a lot of money, then consider this: When Brown was hired, in 1997, the budget for UT’s sports program was $21.4 million. This year the figure is expected to hit $126.8 million, the largest of any university in the nation.
Money on that scale does not just happen by accident. It seeks, and follows, victory. These infusions of cash have accompanied one of the most triumphant eras in the history of collegiate sports. Since the inception of the Big 12, in 1996, UT’s men’s and women’s teams have each won 37 conference championships and 6 national titles. In 2005 and 2006, the nine men’s teams won 7 Big 12 titles and 2 national championships (in football and baseball). The football team is the only one in the NCAA to have won at least ten games for seven consecutive years. In the Directors’ Cup, which measures the overall success of a college’s athletics program, UT has finished in the top ten for seven consecutive seasons. In a 2002 cover story, Sports Illustrated named Texas as America’s number one sports university—before its phenomenal run of conference and national championships. Any way you look at it, the twenty men’s and women’s teams at the University of Texas are in the midst of a renaissance.
That doesn’t mean, however, that everyone approves of the philosophy of the athletics program. A lot of people hate the idea, in fact. They believe that UT’s unblushing commercialism and its dogged pursuit of profit represent much of what is wrong with intercollegiate sports in America. The critics’ contention—supported by no shortage of examples—is that big-time college athletics has evolved into a hypercompetitive, semiprofessional arms race in which schools spend themselves into insolvency by building extravagant facilities and paying outlandish salaries to coaches.
The most persistent critic of the system has been the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a blue-ribbon panel of university presidents, officials, and other professionals that has studied the issue for two decades. Its landmark reports express the unalloyed conviction that college sports has been corrupted by money and has come to “more closely resemble the commercialized model appropriate to professional sports than . . . the academic model.” The victims in the commission’s findings are traditional academic values and, inevitably, the student-athletes, who receive a substandard education.
By the Knight Commission’s key measures, the University of Texas would be a leading offender. Its sports program is the most commercialized of any school, partly because it pioneered the concept. It pays its coaches, assistant coaches, and trainers more than just about any other school. It has spent huge amounts of money on facilities. The budget of its athletics department stands entirely separate from the university’s, freeing it, for example, to pay its thirty-year-old running backs coach $250,000 a year, untrammeled by an academic pay scale in which a full professor makes half that amount. While UT has suffered no major academic or recruiting scandals, the commission insists that the very presence of big money and corporate sponsorships means misplaced priorities. Those views are shared by many critics of college sports and by some of UT’s own faculty.
That hasn’t stopped UT from building what amounts to a colossal cash machine, whose success on the field is increasingly defined by its aggressive, market-oriented business plan. If you divide UT’s total sports budget by the number of athletes, the per-athlete figure is $170,000. No other college in America comes close to that amount. It leads one to wonder: Where, exactly, does all that money come from?
It was not always like this, of course. UT did not always win all the time or have the best facilities. There were years when the football team experienced the existential horror of successive losing seasons. There were long stretches when the basketball team couldn’t have found the top 25 with a high-resolution GPS. Today’s sleek, dazzlingly efficient program is really only a decade old. And ironically, it is the product of a sweeping financial crisis in American college sports that has gutted many of the country’s most hallowed universities.
The crisis started with a law known as Title IX, which has turned the world of scholastic sports upside down. Passed by Congress in 1972, it ultimately required that women be given equal opportunities to participate in school sports, a change that happened only gradually over the following three decades. No institution was more deeply involved in this process than the University of Texas. But in 1992 a group of female students sued the university under Title IX. They wanted more teams for women to roughly equalize the number of male and female athletes on campus. The key word was “equalize.”
The lawsuit was immediately seen as a groundbreaking case. That was because no school had done more for women’s athletics than UT. In 1975 the university had started a women’s program and put considerable resources into it. Building on the success of coach Jody Conradt’s powerhouse basketball teams, UT women won a stunning seventeen national championships in five sports in the eighties. In spite of that, the university had remained out of compliance with Title IX, as had most schools across the country. The large number of football players—130 or more at UT—created an imbalance with the numbers of players on the smaller women’s teams. Instead of fighting the lawsuit, the university settled it, in 1993, by agreeing to start three new women’s teams: soccer, softball, and rowing. That sent shock waves across the nation: If UT could be forced to change, then everyone could. “The athletic world was watching,” said Conradt, who also served as the women’s athletics director from 1992 to 2001 and retired as head coach in 2007. “It had a major national impact, and other schools were waiting to see how the University of Texas would respond.” They soon started to follow UT’s model.
That model, unfortunately, was brutally expensive. In an era of tightening budgets and spiraling expenses, schools were now going to have to pay for lots of new programs. (In UT’s case, start-up costs for the three new teams alone would exceed $3 million.) But how? The main source of athletics dollars, especially at larger universities, is football. With rare exceptions, it is the only collegiate sport that makes money. Football funds the other sports, and shortfalls are made up by endowments or, in most cases, allocations from the academic side of the university. But by the nineties, such transfers were becoming less and less popular. Presidents of cash-starved universities—including UT’s—began to insist that athletics pay its own way. The problem, as everyone soon discovered, was that there was only so much revenue that could be squeezed out of a football team.
For many schools, that meant a cruel, zero-sum game. Adding women’s teams meant killing off men’s teams, often with bitter repercussions. According to an NCAA study, between 1988 and 2006 the number of men’s teams at Division I schools dropped by 245, while the number of women’s teams rose by 703. Across all three main NCAA divisions, a staggering 2,237 women’s teams were added. During that same time period, in Division I, 58 men’s swimming and diving teams, 54 men’s tennis teams, and 51 wrestling teams were scrapped.
As dramatic as that was, Title IX was not the only bill coming due at UT. Royal-Memorial Stadium, a patchwork behemoth, had been constructed in 1924 to hold 27,000 fans. It would have to be renovated at enormous cost. Football practice fields would have to be built. The once splendid Disch-Falk baseball field, built in 1975, would have to be renovated or replaced. The basketball arena, at the Frank Erwin Center, impressive when it debuted in 1977, would need a major face-lift. The list went on. These projects would have to be done as quickly as possible, and they were going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Nor was there any getting around the explosion in coaches’ salaries, one of the biggest costs in running a sports program. In 1995 Florida State University football coach Bobby Bowden signed the first million-dollar coaching contract; it wouldn’t be long before basketball coaches broke the same barrier. Soon other schools were matching them, and salaries continued skyrocketing.
Still, few college presidents or athletics directors understood how completely collegiate sports was being transformed. Most of them could see pieces of it: They understood that Title IX was costing them a great deal of money and that their stadiums and arenas were aging and were going to need renovation. But only a handful were able to grasp that the bloodletting in the form of red ink and dropped teams was going from bad to worse.
There was, however, someone at UT who did understand the problem. Even better, he had a theory of how to deal with it.
To get to Deloss Dodds’s office, you go in through the ugly part of the football stadium, the west side, where the raw concrete is. There, jammed up underneath the first tier of stadium seats, is an oddly shaped architectural lump called Bellmont Hall. It is a narrow, largely windowless rabbit warren of mostly small, dark offices. Dodds’s is back in there too: comfortable, a tad shopworn, nothing at all like Brown’s splendid showcase one building away. It is a bit reminiscent of Dodds himself: modest, trying not to show off. At 71 years old, he is trim and athletic; and on the day I saw him, he wore a sport coat, open-necked shirt, blue jeans, and boots.
I had come to ask about the money, and the story starts with Dodds’s arrival as athletics director at UT, in 1981, after the retirement of Darrell Royal. The university was split over his successor as football coach. Royal’s own choice, Mike Campbell, had been famously snubbed. Fred Akers had been hired, and the Royal faction hated him. Meanwhile, as the football debate simmered, some people were clamoring for the head of Abe Lemons, the men’s basketball coach. “I talked to Bill Ellington, who had succeeded Coach Royal as athletics director in 1980,” Dodds told me. “I said, ‘Bill, what have I got to look forward to here?’ And he said, ‘You’ve only got two problems. One is football and one is basketball. You’re going to have to fire the coaches.’â€Š”
The difficulty was that both teams were winning. In 1982 the football team was one dropped punt away from a national title. Before an injury to its star player, the basketball team was ranked number four in the country. “The shock to me was how well we were doing on the field and on the court and how unhappy we were off them,” he continued. “It was a university divided. The family was fighting itself.” Dodds got calls from wealthy boosters telling him explicitly that if he did not fire Akers, he himself would be fired.
The man who walked into this hornet’s nest was in many ways an unlikely choice for the position. For one thing, he was an outsider: a small-town boy who became a track star at Kansas State University and went on to become the track coach and then the athletics director. In the latter role he had quickly distinguished himself, erasing the huge deficit he had inherited in less than a year, to everyone’s surprise. Dodds was evidently good with numbers.
Still, he did not quite fit the mold. In manner and bearing, he was the antithesis of the loud, backslapping booster. He was not a talker. He preferred to stay out of the spotlight. He had arrived at a singular time in the history of sports at the university: the twilight of the Darrell Royal era. As football coach, Royal had won three national championships, in 1963, 1969, and 1970—an unprecedented achievement at the University of Texas. But Royal’s effect on the Longhorn nation went well beyond his victories. He had shown the fans what it was like to win on the grand stage, to hear the name of the university spoken with reverence and awe in faraway places, to play before tens of millions in the glorious forum of national television. He had shown Orangebloods what that felt like, and they did not forget, and they would never again be happy as a merely regional power. The university’s sports history thus splits neatly into two eras: BD (before Darrell), when UT won two national championships, both in baseball, in 1949 and 1950, and AD (after Darrell), during which time UT won 45 national championships in eleven sports. Royal made the difference.
Dodds had what even his friends consider a bumpy start, and he came close to quitting a year after being hired. One of his first acts, as Ellington had predicted, was to fire the men’s basketball coach, who had bumped heads with administrators. “It would have been a lot easier for me personally to do nothing,” Dodds said. Lemons did not go quietly. He said publicly that he wanted a glass-bottomed car so he could see Dodds’s face as he ran over him. Four years later Dodds made more enemies when he fired Akers. The two coaches he hired to replace them—Bob Weltlich (“Bobby Knight without the success,” according to one sportswriter) and David McWilliams (who had three losing football seasons in five years)—were themselves fired within a few seasons. In the years BD, such coaches might have been tolerated, but not anymore.
Despite these problems, there was something calm, steely, and determined about Dodds. He watched budgets closely. He was a stickler for ethics and strict compliance with NCAA rules. He had also begun to make the first of the decisions that would redefine the way various sports were organized and funded at the University of Texas. When he arrived at UT, each sport maintained its own fund-raising operation. Football was handled by an Austin lawyer, track by a Houston oil and gas man, basketball by an Austin lobbyist. All very informal. The money was kept in various bank accounts, outside the control of the athletics director. Football’s private fund-raising included a picnic, for example, where boosters would gather money and then decide how to distribute bonuses among the coaches.
In that antiquated system, coaches often raised much of the money—and spent a good deal of time doing it. “Coaches would have TV shows, and they would go out and solicit their supporters to buy ads,” said Mike Myers, a Dallas businessman who has been a major donor to UT athletics. “There was the Darrell Royal Show, and that was a vehicle that earned him some extra money, and that is what most of the coaches did around the country. They had summer camps too, and they did all this stuff on their own. Instead of coaching, they would end up having to be businesspeople.”
Dodds dismantled that system. He did it over the protests of the people who ran the picnic fundraiser and everyone else with a stake in keeping things private. “They said to me, ‘Look, this is the way we do business here. We have a picnic, the money goes into the bank, and we decide how to bonus the coaches,’â€Š” recalled Dodds. “I said, ‘Well, you can’t do that.’ They sent a letter of protest, saying how wrong I was.” He made UT one of the first schools to bring all of its sports fund-raising under the control of the athletics department. He was also among the first to support the notion that coaches were supposed to coach and not raise money and would instead be paid a single, quantifiable salary. “His thrust was, let’s put everything on the table,” said Myers. “Let’s turn all of the cards over and let everybody see how much we are making and how much we are paying. This was the most significant change I had seen since I first got involved in UT sports, in 1968.”
Dodds called his new fund-raising arm the Longhorn Foundation, and he hired a team of professionals to run it. When he started it, in 1984, the foundation pulled in around $500,000 a year. Today it is the country’s leading sports fund-raising operation, raking in $26 million in 2007—nearly a quarter of the total athletics budget. But that was just a warm-up for the changes Dodds would set in motion in the nineties.
Though Dodds will undoubtedly be remembered as an athletics director who ran a clean program and whose teams won a lot of games, he will primarily be known as a moneymaker, a revenue genius. His approach can be summed up this way: Strictly limit the number of teams (UT has only 20, though comparably sized Ohio State University fields 31); find a way to raise large amounts of cash on top of selling football tickets; and use that money to make your teams competitive by buying the best coaches, the most elaborate gyms, stadiums, locker rooms, equipment, and weight rooms and giving each team the maximum number of full scholarships. In other words: All University of Texas teams would receive the best and the most of everything. No teams would be dropped. There would be no loose floorboards or dog-eared carpets at the venues, no “nonrevenue” teams driving themselves to games and eating peanut butter sandwiches, not a single coach who was not among the highest paid in his or her field. It meant that the women’s rowing team, which produced exactly zero dollars from ticket sales, received the equivalent of twenty full scholarships and could routinely take more than thirty athletes to competitions two thousand miles away. What made this formula even more unusual was its goal: to allow every one of UT’s teams to compete for a national championship every year.
Dodds’s plan sounded almost utopian, and it would rely on an enormous amount of money. To get it he needed to commercialize his program in a way that only a handful of other schools were even contemplating. “Commercializing” meant violating UT tradition by plastering the names and logos of corporations over scoreboards and stadiums and letting UT’s name be used for all sorts of promotions. Dodds had come to the idea slowly, after prodding from prominent boosters like billionaire Red McCombs, who owned the San Antonio Spurs and saw no reason why UT should not use the same moneymaking strategies the pros used, such as selling luxury suites and sponsorships. “At the time [the early nineties] there was only one small sign on our scoreboard,” McCombs said. “I told him, ‘We have to commercialize.’ I told him I thought we had a quiet giant here.”
The strategy had a number of components: Unsheathe the weapon of corporate sponsorship, build large numbers of cash-generating luxury suites and expensive club seats, boost UT’s sagging television revenue, and expand his already prosperous private fund-raising operation. Dodds’s next move was to extricate UT from the doddering Southwest Conference. The University of Arkansas had fled to the SEC in 1992, leaving the SWC with only Texas schools: UT, Texas A&M, Baylor, Rice, Texas Tech, SMU, TCU, and the University of Houston. Because it was seen as a provincial conference, it was unattractive to television networks. That, in turn, meant that top prospects often chose to go to schools where they would get national exposure. “We did not have a lot of money coming in from the conference,” Dodds said. “And we were losing our recruiting base. We were losing kids to Florida, Notre Dame, Florida State, and UCLA, and a lot of the players that beat us in football came from Texas.”
Both the SEC and the Pac-10 wanted the University of Texas, but Dodds had other ideas. He and his close friend Donnie Duncan, the athletics director at the University of Oklahoma, soon emerged as driving forces behind the formation of the Big 12 Conference, which combined UT, Texas A&M, Baylor, and Texas Tech with the teams from the Big 8. All this happened amid a sort of multimedia scrum in which the various national conferences were realigning and competing for TV deals. Dodds and Duncan traveled to New York to sell their new conference to the networks. They emerged with a deal that immediately proved them right: a $100 million contract with ABC. Today UT makes $8 million a year from its share of the Big 12 television contract, ten times what it made with the Southwest Conference.
That was only the first piece of Dodds’s revenue puzzle, however. The second, far more controversial part was his use of sponsorships. In 1993 he made one of his most important hires: Chris Plonsky, then a 35-year-old associate commissioner of the Big East Conference who had been the sports information director for UT women’s sports during its spectacular run in the eighties. She was given the job of figuring out how UT could make money by opening up its entire program to sponsors. “We wanted to use our trademark and our name in conjunction with companies like Time Warner and H-E-B,” said Plonsky, who succeeded Jody Conradt as women’s athletics director in 2001. “It turned out to be a four-year process. I worked with our lawyers more than with athletics in my first four years.”
In 1997 UT began selling all manner of sponsorships. It sold “integrated packages” at various levels. For a six-figure commitment, a company could become an official sponsor and use the UT trademark for promotional purposes. There were signage deals and scoreboard deals and Web site deals, and they were sold to banks, insurance agencies, telecommunications firms, and companies that made soft drinks, footwear, and apparel. At football games, fans could sign up for Bank of America credit cards with the Longhorns symbol on them. UT sold the rights to local television and radio broadcasts, which carried ads from many of the same sponsors. Revenues grew quickly. There were also multimillion-dollar deals, sold directly by Plonsky’s unit, with Gatorade and Nike. A decade after the university began selling it in earnest, UT sports was awash in sponsorships. When Plonsky started, the department was making $500,000 from radio rights and for ads in its printed programs. Last year it made $10 million. The biggest sponsorship deal of all was struck last year when University Federal Credit Union bought the naming rights to Disch-Falk Field for $13.1 million. The deal paved the way for a $26 million renovation of the stadium.
Perhaps the most visible sign of how commercialized UT sports had become was something called premium seating. These were the luxury suites and club seats that were installed at Royal-Memorial Stadium in 1997 (west side), 1998 (east side), and 2008 (the NEZ); at the Frank Erwin Center in 2003; and at Disch-Falk in 2008. For the 113 football suites, prices range from $50,000 to $90,000 a year (and do not include the price of the tickets); the 28 basketball and 18 baseball suites cost, on average, $60,000 and $32,000, respectively. Examples of premium seating are the 400 club seats that are part of the Centennial Room at Royal-Memorial, each of which requires a contribution of at least $3,000 a year, and the 2,200 new club-level seats at the NEZ, which cost $2,000 each plus the ticket price. The latter alone produce $4 million in revenue.
This practice of separating a “contribution” to the Longhorn Foundation from the face value of the ticket accounts for much of the foundation’s $26 million in revenue. If you are lucky enough to buy four season tickets on the 50-yard line, for example, it would cost you approximately $25,000 per year, even though the tickets range from only $60 to $80 per game. The foundation now controls more than 60,000 of the stadium’s 94,113 seats and sells them for annual contributions that run from $150 to $50,000. Including the new suites, club seating, and additional seats at all three venues, UT will make a total of $23 million this year, of which roughly $14.5 million is consumed by debt payments from construction costs, leaving $8.5 million in profit. When the debt is eventually paid off, of course, the profit will be 100 percent. UT believes that the NEZ project will generate $318 million in the next thirty years.
Assuming that the suites and seats continue to sell. That is where the risk lies. Just a hint of that danger became apparent in 1997, when UT was trying to sell 62 suites on the east side of the stadium. After the Longhorns lost to UCLA 66—3 in the second week of the season, sales sputtered. A football team with, say, three consecutive losing seasons would likely not be able to renew all of its suite leases and would command nowhere near the premiums it had been getting. A fourth or a fifth losing season and the university’s bonded indebtedness, which now stands at a whopping $368 million (with interest), will start to seem like a very bad idea indeed. Anyone who doubts that success in college sports tends to be cyclical need only look at the recent record of the football team at Notre Dame.
The start of the current golden age of Texas sports began on December 4, 1997. That was the day Dodds hired Mack Brown as head football coach. To a large extent, Dodds’s brilliant financial schemes rely on the success of Brown’s football team, which is why hiring Brown has been his smartest decision. His previous two hires were busts. After firing the unsuccessful McWilliams (31-26) as football coach in 1991, Dodds fared only slightly better with John Mackovic (41-28-2), whom he sacked in 1997. During the Mackovic era, football season tickets were both cheap and easy to come by. Sellouts were rare.
But Brown changed everything. Riding a booming population in Austin—a city that remains without a significant professional team—he has sold out every game since the 2000 season opener, filled the 113 suites and premium seats, pulled in television revenue from bowl appearances, boosted contributions to the Longhorn Foundation (membership has increased from 8,600 to more than 12,000 since his arrival), and sold huge quantities of T-shirts and Longhorns merchandise (accounting for $8 million last year, all of which flows to the athletics department). At press time, Brown had won 108 games and lost only 25, the highest winning percentage in UT history; since 2000, he is the winningest football coach in Division I. Last year his football team accounted for $63.8 million in revenue. Though the team cost $17.5 million to operate—making it probably the most expensive in the NCAA—it still made a profit of $46.3 million, which goes to fund sports like tennis, track, and soccer. In 2007 Forbes magazine rated UT the second most valuable football program in the nation, behind Notre Dame. For all of this Brown is now paid $2.91 million a year.
Brown’s arrival was a direct result of Dodds’s plan. “Before, we could not go to the top school where the program was developed and pay that coach what we needed to pay him,” said Dodds. “Now that’s changed.” There’s no better example of how they put that money to work than in the basketball program. In 1998 Dodds fired men’s coach Tom Penders after a player’s grades were released to the media. Dodds promptly hired the man everyone else in the country wanted, then-43-year-old Clemson University coach Rick Barnes, and offered him $700,000, one of the top salaries in the nation. Today he makes $2 million a year.
As with Brown, Dodds got what he paid for. Barnes, who has won 247 games at Texas and lost only 93, with nine straight twenty-win seasons, has transformed the Longhorns into a perennial national contender. Last year the team went 31-7 and ended up ranked fifth in the nation. Barnes also took a team that made little or no money and turned it into the rarest of things in collegiate sports: a moneymaker. This year men’s basketball netted about $8 million. By revenue the program now ranks fourth in the country.
Barnes’ success in putting fannies into seats quickly translated into bricks and mortar. In 2003 the university completed a $41 million renovation of the Erwin Center, featuring flashy computer graphics, luxury suites, and club seats. It sank another $11.5 million into what is now considered one of the finest basketball facilities at either the pro or college level: the Denton A. Cooley Pavilion, which houses men’s and women’s locker rooms and two practice gymnasiums. The locker rooms boast wide-screen plasma TVs, video game consoles, stained-wood lockers, plush carpeting, recessed lighting, and custom leather lounge chairs for each player. The weight room, for use only by basketball players and run by world-famous strength guru Todd Wright, is considered the best of its kind.
If the point of such luxury is to attract top talent—and it emphatically is—then it has worked splendidly. The men’s team has had a wave of players in the past five years who are so good they turn pro as underclassmen: LaMarcus Aldridge and Daniel Gibson in 2006, Kevin Durant in 2007, and D.J. Augustin in 2008. In 2007 Plonsky hired former Duke University coach Gail Goestenkors to replace the retiring Jody Conradt, a stunning and unexpected coup in the world of college sports that cost UT $1 million, plus $270,000 in incentives, and made Goestenkors the second-highest-paid women’s basketball coach in the country. (Interestingly, the same week Plonsky was nailing down the contract with Goestenkors, Dodds was successfully fending off the University of Kentucky’s bid for Barnes—a sort of twin killing by one of the few college programs that have separate men’s and women’s athletics directors.) When people talk disdainfully about the “arms race,” they are referring to the phenomenon of schools plunging deeply into the red in order to keep up with the University of Texas.
Another truth: Money like that can, in fact, buy happiness. Teams are not being shorted, coaches are paid top dollar, travel budgets are all generous. This is as true for women’s swimming and diving coach Kim Brackin, who this year had the number one recruiting class in the nation, as it is for men’s tennis coach Michael Center, whose team lost in the NCAA finals to the University of Georgia in May, or for Jerritt Elliott, whose women’s volleyball team finished last season ranked sixth in the nation, or for Bubba Thornton, whose men’s track-and-field team took fourth at the NCAAs this summer. The success of Brown’s football team and Dodds’s money machine means they want for nothing, and since 2005 they are all part of an athletics department that is, with perhaps only five others, financially self-sufficient. “There is so much division in athletics departments across the country because of the lack of money and because of jealousy,” said Brown, who coached at eight universities before coming to UT. “When money is short, coaches start to wonder, ‘Why did they get that when we only got this? Why didn’t we get to go here? Why don’t we have more scholarships?’ DeLoss has none of that. It all goes back to his decision that we would have fewer sports, be fully funded in every sport, and have a chance to be the best in the country.”
It is hard to argue with this sort of achievement, both on the field and off, or with the ethical records of Dodds, Plonsky, and their coaches. In a world full of academic and recruiting scandals at such old-line institutions as the University of Georgia, Auburn, and the University of Colorado, UT has remained clean. Its athletes—mainly football players—sometimes get into trouble with the law, and this invariably creates PR problems for Brown and Dodds. In the eighteen months following the January 2006 national championship, eleven current and former UT football players were arrested for one thing or another, sparking an outcry in the local media. Brown instituted a “zero tolerance” policy, though this year saw the DWI arrest of defensive tackle Lamarr Houston. (No one interviewed for this story, including Brown’s harshest critics, believe that he is recruiting athletes with known character or behavioral problems.) It is impossible not to conclude, from the evidence at hand, that the UT sports program is a smashing success.
But it is also impossible to escape the impression, as you wander through its magnificent venues, its plasma TV—equipped locker rooms, and its plush players’ lounges or watch its million-dollar coaches at work or its student-athletes rapt in their special study halls with their special tutors, mentors, and counselors, that you have entered a sort of parallel universe that is similar to the University of Texas but not precisely the University of Texas. It is a universe, too, that operates on a budget completely apart from the main university’s.
“It is a money machine,” said Michael Granof, a professor of accounting at UT and a longtime critic of the sports program. “They spend a huge amount of money, and they spend it on these opulent facilities. Why do they spend it? Because they have it, and since their budget is completely separate, they don’t have to compete with anything else. But why shouldn’t they compete? If they need a new locker room, that should go into the list of capital expenditures so that the university could compare it with the need to put a new roof over Burdine Hall.”
What makes Granof and others uneasy is not only the financial independence of the machine but also its extravagance. “The faculty tends to be divided on this,” said Jim Vick, the university’s faculty athletics representative. “While hardly anybody I know wants UT to de-emphasize athletics, if you ask faculty members who are making seventy-five thousand dollars if coaches are overpaid, they will say, ‘Doggone right they are.’ And then there is just the sheer amount of resources athletics has. You might have an academic department that is trying very hard to get a building built, and they can see the north end of the stadium going up in record time, with crews working double shifts.”
There is no question that UT athletes get the best of everything, though it is also true that they are pampered in ways quite similar to their peers at schools like the University of Southern California, Tennessee, and Florida. Still, the numbers are staggering. Their strength and conditioning coaches alone cost $705,265 per year. The department spends $3 million for trainers, therapists, physicians, chiropractors, and massage therapists. There is the $4 million air-conditioned, bubble-encased practice field for the football team, Mack Brown’s $400,000 state-of-the-art video system, the $15,000 bill for the team to stay in a hotel in Austin the night before a home game, and the $8 million spent for the “audiovisual enhancement” that includes the giant scoreboard at Royal-Memorial. A story in the Austin American-Statesman last fall spawned a number of angry letters after describing the $300-a-day bus that takes football players two blocks from the Moncrief-Neuhaus Athletic Center to their practice fields.
UT teams also travel to their games in style, spending more than all but three colleges—Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Florida. The football team, for example, flies on jets chartered by Continental Airlines, even to games in Houston and Dallas. Its trips out of town each year illustrate why college sports has become such a high-dollar proposition. Last fall’s Iowa State game, in Ames, Iowa, proves the point. The day started with a bus ride to the airport on Friday morning. Chartered buses for the round-trip ran $14,419. The Continental jet carrying the team, coaching staff, and trainers cost $41,254. Once on the ground, the team checked into the West Des Moines Marriott, a three-and-a-half-star hotel, where the bill for the night was $29,460. That included the hotel’s grand ballroom, where the players were fed on Friday night and Saturday morning for $5,302.
That is just for the football team. On Saturday morning another chartered Continental jet took off for Iowa, this one carrying the band and the cheerleaders. The cost for the round-trip flight was $31,000. This group needed buses and food too, which added up to $9,580. After the game, both jets headed back to Austin. By the time their chartered buses arrived on campus, the entire group had spent exactly $140,248 in a little more than 24 hours.
Whether this sort of expenditure is a gratuitous luxury or simply what top teams need to spend to stay competitive is a matter of debate. While UT’s costs are not out of line with its top competitors—Dodds and his chief financial officer, Ed Goble, are constantly benchmarking the UT program against the likes of Florida, Michigan, Oklahoma, and Ohio State—they are considerably higher than those at weaker conference schools, like Baylor. When asked if he thought his athletics programs were guilty of extravagance in salaries, facilities, and other perks, University of Texas president Bill Powers defended the expenditures. “The arms race is going on across the country in all competitions for talent, in the law school or the history department as much as in the athletics department,” he said. “The main thing we want to do is make sure that whatever we are spending our money on is really helping our competitiveness and not just feathering the life of somebody who is already here. What are the extravagances? Locker rooms, weight rooms, places where you watch film? These are good investments in recruiting the kinds of kids we want. Also, some of the things we spend money on that might look extravagant are really just supervisory. Like the hotel for the football team Friday night. The bus across campus is really just a supervisory thing, getting them there safely, not having people after them for autographs. If you are talking about salaries, I think it is penny-wise and pound-foolish not to get the right people here. I have the same view of deans and faculty. The worst thing we can do is try to save six hundred thousand dollars on the football coach’s salary and not get the right person.”
One area where the Longhorns really do spend more than anyone falls under the nondescript title of “student services.” It is in many ways the ultimate key to the success of Dodds’s plan and, dollar for dollar, perhaps the most productive use of UT’s sports money. The name refers to the army of more than two hundred academic counselors, mentors, and tutors who surround athletes from the time they are recruited until they graduate, helping them plan their studies, buy their books, secure their housing, deal with their professors, and ultimately choose their careers. All big-time sports schools do this, but no one does it as thoroughly or throws as many resources at it—more than $2 million a year—as the University of Texas. This is partly because it can afford to, but also because UT’s student-athletes have a problem that most of their peers do not face. UT is a top-rated school: U.S. News & World Report’s 2009 list ranked it 15th out of the top 68 public universities. There are no special majors for athletes; no refuges in “independent studies,” as there have been at Auburn University or the University of Michigan; no courses in basket weaving, advanced slow-pitch softball, or, as was offered at the University of Georgia, Coaching Principles and Strategies of Basketball, which required taking only one 20-question test that included the following multiple-choice question: “How many points is a three-pointer worth?”
Into this environment come the top athletes in the nation. In many cases—such as swimming and track—they are the best athletes in the world, with year-round training regimens. Thus the twain: challenging academics and a brutally demanding sport. Combine that with SAT scores for student-athletes that are on average about 150 points below the nonathletes’, and you have an acute need for academic counseling, supervised study halls, and constant attention to the details of athletes’ lives. That is not to suggest that UT athletes are stupid. On average only an extremely small percentage of them—probably less than 2 percent—can’t cut it. But the stark, central fact of their lives is that they train forty hours or more a week. Give most college kids a physically exhausting forty-hour-a-week job to go along with four or five courses per semester plus summer school, and they would almost certainly need help too.
That help, coordinated by fifteen full-time counselors who marshal a battalion of mentors and tutors, is astonishingly thorough. When they first arrive on campus, athletes have special orientation meetings and get help choosing courses. Various mentors make sure they get the right housing. They take the athletes to the bookstore and on walks through campus to find their classrooms. All athletes are required to attend daily study halls in either Bellmont Hall or, in the case of football players, in the Moncrief–Neuhaus Athletic Center. They have supervised study halls and proctored tests when their teams are on the road, administered by counselors who travel with the teams. They each receive an average of 110 hours of tutoring per year from individuals assigned specifically to work with the athletics department. And as they near graduation, they get career counseling tailored for them.
“We are not just about academics,” said Randa Ryan, a 25-year veteran of UT athletics who oversees student services for all men’s and women’s sports except football, which is handled by longtime Brown assistant Brian Davis. “We are everything that has to do with the care and feeding of an elite athlete. Housing runs through our office. We work closely with sports medicine. We handle all personal-development issues, careers. We are trying to make sure student-athletes get a full collegiate experience. We are trying to make sure that they are actually very connected across campus with their advisers and their professors.”
Ryan and Davis have produced solid results. Widely circulated NCAA data two years ago showing abysmal graduation rates for UT athletes (last in the Big 12) were simply inaccurate, skewed by a now abandoned system that penalized schools when athletes in good academic standing left or transferred. In fact, UT’s athletes hold their own in spite of the school’s difficult academics. Eighty-eight percent of all Longhorns athletes who complete their NCAA eligibility graduate. That compares with a campus-wide rate of about 75 percent. In the new Academic Progress Rating system, which tracks student-athletes’ progress toward graduation, UT has performed well, if not exceptionally. For the 2006—2007 academic year, its football team led the Big 12, with forty players earning 3.0 averages or better. Its men’s basketball team, which has shown steady improvement over the past four years, had a perfect score this year, meaning that all of its players remained eligible and on track to graduate. (The team as a whole had a 3.3 GPA.)
“They have done a great job of helping me,” said senior wide receiver Quan Cosby, who carries a GPA somewhere between 3.5 and 3.75 and will graduate in three and a half years. “They sit down with you and see if you need tutoring. They may sit down with you and a professor. They get constant progress reports from the professors.”
Yet not everyone likes the counselor-tutor-mentor system that surrounds the student-athlete. “There is no question that the focus of an athlete in a major sport is athletics,” Granof said. “Most of them do not get an education in the way that you and I might think of an education. They might pass their courses and they might get a degree, and the counseling services are excellent. But is it an education when you are meeting every day with your tutor? Going over material with your tutor? Having the tutor help you write papers?”
Classics professor Tom Palaima, another persistent critic of the system, agrees. “They clearly live in a separate universe,” he said. “Yes, athletes take campus courses. But being surrounded by academic counselors, tutors, and course planners is not the nature of a university education. My own feeling is that it is, to use a strong word, a travesty. To use a weaker word, it is simply a kind of shadow of what a real education should be. The major thing you learn between ages eighteen and twenty-two at a university is how to control your own life. I don’t think that is happening for student-athletes, and in my opinion the cocoon they are in is not devised ultimately for their well-being. It’s there so the sports department can satisfy the NCAA requirements.”
From Dodds’s perspective, sentiments such as those expressed by Granof and Palaima may be his last big challenge. He is comfortably entrenched inside the sports machine he has built over the past 27 years. Most of his teams are riding high. With incentives, he is making more than $700,000 a year, a nifty upgrade from the $68,000 he was paid when he started, in 1981. His colleague Chris Plonsky is considered one of the most influential figures in women’s sports. Ed Goble, his CFO, is among the best in the business. The athletics department has more money than any school in history. He likes his four-mile walks in the morning, his wine collection, and his golf games, especially those he plays with his grandson, who is a sophomore on the UT golf team.
The only thing that has escaped him, perhaps, is the full and unqualified adulation of the faculty. But, in true Dodds fashion, he is quietly working on it. Traditionally athletics has been kept separate from academics. “You are told as a young coach, ‘Do not go talking to professors, because they are going to perceive it as pressure that you might be trying to get them to change a grade for a football player,’â€Š” Brown said. “So my little world was, ‘Keep your mouth shut and coach football.’ You have an academic staff that deals with faculty. You deal with football.”
But five years ago Dodds started to change that. He became the first athletics director to make a budget presentation to the faculty council, the body that evaluates all curricular changes and degree programs. In the past two years, he has made an unprecedented transfer of $5.6 million from his athletics department to the president’s office. (Until 2000, the academic side was still providing a $500,000 subsidy for the women’s program.) Last year the unimaginable happened: Brown appeared at the faculty council and gave a lengthy presentation on the team. No coach from any sport had ever set foot inside that room. “I have learned that it is important for me to be involved with the academic side of campus in any way I can,” Brown said.
Other bridges are being built. For the past three years, the football players have had a spring scrimmage where they invite their favorite faculty members to watch. Afterward they all share a meal. There is an annual “major exploration” night, in which freshmen invite faculty in a field they want to pursue to dinner. And Brown often asks faculty members to games: They travel with the team, eat with the players, and hang out in the locker rooms.
But the best example of Dodds’s rapprochement with the academic folks was the announcement in May of the establishment of the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs, at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law. Nothing even remotely like this has ever been done before at UT, and there is only one other endowed chair named after a coach in the country: the Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies, at Ohio State. The position will carry a $2 million endowment, the first $500,000 of which is put up by the athletics department as part of a $2.65 million gift made to the university for academic programs. It leads one to wonder if the D. DeLoss Dodds Chair in Comparative Linguistics won’t soon follow.