“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 Those ancient, familiar concrete arches at the north end of the stadium have been replaced by an 850,000-square-foot complex—the equivalent of a forty-story skyscraper.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