There was an interesting role reversal at the University of Missouri last week.
Usually, when there is trouble on a college campus, you would expect it to end with the administrators expelling students involved in the disturbance.
At Mizzou, however, it was the students who succeeded in expelling the university’s top two administrators.
These students included the members of Missouri’s football team and their head coach, Gary Pinkel.
Black athletes on the football team were protesting a series of racial incidents on campus and threatened to boycott the upcoming game unless the president resigned. The players were backed by their coach and teammates, so the persons who went out the door turned out to be the university’s president and chancellor.
The Missouri incident is an important milestone in higher education. It confirms the fact that among our largest universities, the football team has now become the tail that wags the dog.
This has been coming for a long time. Football is a major sport that generates billions of dollars in revenue and massive media coverage for the institutions. The alumni at these universities are so committed to having their teams win big that they’ll agree to spend millions of dollars to bring in a new coach.
This means that the coaches and their players can effectively call the shots now, whether the presidents like it or not.
Let’s take a look at the University of Georgia. Head coach Mark Richt commands a base salary of $4 million — nearly five times the amount made by the person who is ultimately his boss, President Jere Morehead. Richt’s compensation is also more than 28 times the salary paid to Gov. Nathan Deal, the highest elected official in state government.
Richt doesn’t have much leverage at this point because Georgia has lost three games this season — in fact, he will be lucky to even keep his job. But it’s not hard to imagine a future situation where a successful coach with a championship team could demand the dismissal of a president who dared go against him on any issue.
After all, Pinkel’s record was only 4-5 when the Missouri players threatened a boycott, but they still were able to pressure the president and chancellor to resign.
I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad thing for athletic programs to have so much power over a university’s operation, but that is the reality we have with the rise of big-time college football and its billion-dollar TV contracts.
It’s interesting that all the media accounts of the Missouri controversy have neglected to mention the one person who was probably most responsible for the money-mad nature of modern college football.
That would be the late Fred C. Davison, the veterinarian who was president of the University of Georgia from 1967 to 1986.
Davison was in an enviable position in the late 1970s. He was in charge of a university whose enrollment and prestige were growing, with a powerful football program headed by Coach Vince Dooley.
But Davison was greedy. He and other university presidents didn’t like NCAA rules that limited a college team’s appearances on TV and the revenue those appearances could generate.
Davison became head of a rump group of presidents called the CFA (College Football Association) that demanded the right for big universities to negotiate their own TV contracts and grab as much money as they could.
The CFA sued the NCAA in federal court and eventually secured a Supreme Court ruling that freed the association’s members to make their own contracts with the TV networks.
The CFA was a big winner with that historic decision, which subsequently led to skyrocketing growth of TV revenue for the major conferences that dominate college football. Davison, with the help of the Supreme Court, paved a road whose latest turn was the forced resignation of Missouri’s president.
Ironically, Davison himself would eventually become a victim of big-time college football. He resigned as UGA president in the backwash of the Jan Kemp scandal, a courtroom debacle that was triggered by the preferential treatment of football players.
You might say that Davison was consumed by the monster he had helped create. He would not be the last, as we saw at the University of Missouri.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com that reports on state government and politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.