Jeff Pearlman

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Shaka and $1.2 mill

Two days ago, before Virginia Commonwealth University announced that Shaka Smart had signed an eight-year contract to return as the school’s head basketball coach, this column was intended to beg the man to stay in Richmond.

I was going to talk about loyalty. About building a program from scratch, as opposed to merely joining an already established basketball machine and trying to reclaim glory. I was going to write about the players Smart was about to leave behind; about the kids who believed in him; who worked hard for him; who transformed him from an unknown mid-major coach to one of the hottest figures in the NCAA.

I was going to tell Smart that he needed to stay at VCU and continue to dazzle with his coaching magic.

Then, on Monday, Smart agreed to a deal that will pay him $1.2 million annually.

My viewpoint has changed.

You are Virgnia Commonwealth, a public university with 32,000 students and a Tier 1 academic rating from the latest US News & Report college guide. You have one of the best arts and design programs in the nation. Your advertising program is equally fantastic, as is your Masters of Science in Health Administration department. Among your prestigious faculty is Dr. John B. Fenn, the 2002 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry. Four of your professors have been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Institute of Medicine. Jennifer Johnson, a professor of sociology, won the 2006 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joint Distinguished Civilian Service Award.

So why, of all the people, would you hand a basketball coach a $900,000 raise?

Why?

This is not meant as a slap at Smart, a remarkable young sideline guru who lifted his team from the so-so Colonial Athletic Association all the way to the Final Four. Come day’s end, however, a basketball coach is, well, a basketball coach. You show how to shoot the ball, you show how to pass the ball, you show how to run the pick and roll, you show how to drive to the hoop. There are no lessons on world history or physics or social work. You don’t teach phys ed on the side, to make an extra few bucks. Your sole task, at its core, is to guide a small handful of kids in their efforts to beat the other team in an ultimately enjoyable-yet-fleeting game.

Truth is, a coach serves a school not as a teacher, but as a symbol of its overall priorities. When, two years back, the University of Kentucky brought in John Calipari and his one-year-and-off-to-the-NBA mantra, for example, it said to the nation that its sports mission was not personal development or the merging of academic-athletic goals, but to win, to win big and to win immediately. Consequently, when Fairfield University snagged Princeton’s Sidney Johnson earlier this week, it sent the opposite message—academics matter.

As this column is being written, the state of Virginia—along with much of the nation—is fighting to emerge from a terrible fiscal stretch. The most recent employment figures are far from stellar, and Gov. Bob McDonnell has placed significantly more emphasis on business development than increasing public educational budgets. In other words, at a time when VCU officials need to measure every move and weigh the pros/cons of spending large quantities of dough, are there more vital funding targets than basketball?

The question answers itself.

  • Shawn

    I think you make good points about what such a raise reveals about a school’s priorities. Still, I think there are plausible reasons why VCU views this as a sound investment in its future. VCU could be looking at how athletic success has expanded a school’s appeal to a larger and more impressive base of applicants. Boston College experienced huge increases in the number and quality of applicants after Doug Flutie’s Heisman season and after its 1994 upset of UNC in the tournament. VCU might be hoping that retaining Smart and having Butler-like success could yield similar improvements in its image and appeal. I do not think that those potential benefits prevail over the concerns you raise but those benefits are worthy of some consideration.

  • jim

    “So why, of all the people, would you hand a basketball coach a $900,000 raise?”

    Because VCU believes keeping Smart will result in more than $900,000 of value (whether by direct income from basketball or increased recognition)

  • blmeanie

    I would agree with Shawn’s reply above. Add in financial gains of having a successful program too. I’m not sure how cash is dispersed based on performance in the tourney but assume it is and the further you go the more $ the school makes. If that assumption is good then they are banking on him driving his recruits deep into the tournament periodically or better.

  • http://www.bleedcrimson.net Sam

    Jeff, here’s the answer to your question:

    (Per an article by the AP)

    “A study conducted by the school concluded the Final Four appearance resulted in immediate gains. Admissions inquiries increased by 350 percent, alumni became more active and fundraising continues to climb. The study estimated the value of free media exposure at $677 million.

    Read more: http://www.kansascity.com/2011/03/30/2764371/vcu-sees-opportunity-in-final.html#ixzz1IlMucB84

  • Sportswriting Refugee

    From what I understand, the “Flutie Effect” is quite overrated, even though it is frequently used as an excuse for the athletic arms race. Applications may go up, but quality of student in the entering class frequently does not. Kids are too savvy today.

    Great point by Jeff on loyalty and job-hopping, a well he has definitely gone to quite often when it comes to college coaches. Definitely looking forward to Jeff’s next piece in the Nashville Tennessean, his current full-time employer, correct?

  • http://thingsthatarefuckingstupid.wordpress.com/ Keane

    I’m with Jim. Schools are businesses and this is a business decision. They’re willing to wager that Shaka Smart, with his name recognition alone, will be worth more than that to the school.

    Eight years seems like way too long, but schools are businesses. They shouldn’t be, but they are.

  • Sportswriting Refugee

    FWIW, Boston College’s applications in the year after Flutie’s pass went up 12.2 percent (and were rising anyway, before that). I guess it is up for debate whether that is a “huge” increase or not.

  • jmw

    I’m not an expert here, and I haven’t researched this, but it seems to me sports quite often pays for itself.
    They are generally able to pay such high wages because the sports department is able to raise those funds.
    Sports in turn raises an awareness of the school.
    To my shame if it wasn’t for sports I would never have heard about VCU over here on the Left Coast. I’m sure many High School students would be the same.
    If I was a student I probably still wouldn’t go there but I might now at least Google the school.

  • Tom Vasich

    FYI, the Institute of Medicine is part of the National Academy of Sciences, not the AAAS.

  • Steve702

    In the days leading up to his extension, there was buzz that Shaka could’ve made 2 million at NC State. The next time I turn down $800,000, I’ll criticize Smart or VCU for his pay raise.

    http://www.accsports.com/blogs/david-glenn/2011040410199/nc-state-update-shaka-smart-answer-coming-soon.php

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