UConn fired Paul Pasqualoni as football coach, five weeks into his third season, after an embarrassing loss to Buffalo. The move seemed sudden and harsh. But it reflects a new reality. College football is big business. FBS Universities can no longer afford to be bad at it.
We try to keep college football within a hermetic sports box. But the sport’s impact extends well beyond the field. That’s true within the athletic department. Football pays for everything else (albeit with help from men’s and women’s basketball at UConn). Even programs like UConn must sell luxury boxes.
That’s true outside the athletic department as well. Universities are now branding to bring in more revenue. Football is an essential component of that process. Football is how most universities maintain connections with alumni and potential donors. It’s how most universities first reach prospective students.
Washington State President Elson Floyd, quoted in “The System,” described college football as “the front door to institutions.”
“Like it or not, football serves as the front door to institutions, with the exception of the Ivy League…The reputation of a school is predicated on athletics. Football is first. Basketball is second.”
Football success positively correlates with indicators of academic success, including alumni donations and enrollment applications. See the effect Nick Saban has had at Alabama. Measuring direct benefits, the amount gained does not seem to justify the expenditure. But there are a number of indirect benefits that are harder to quantify or to compare to controls. Many major university presidents believe in football and, at the very least, aren’t risking their jobs to buck conventional wisdom.
A central component of Floyd’s academic revitalization plan for Washington State was spending tens of millions renovating the football stadium, building a huge new football facility and paying Mike Leach more than $2 million per year while the school was undergoing budget cuts. Washington State wanted to build a brand and to energize its alumni base for other projects. Football was the way to do that.
We can see a similar process at UConn. The school has spent billions on projects the past 20 years to upgrade university facilities, to expand enrollment, to improve the academic reputation and to raise the endowment. Not coincidentally, a significant portion of that went toward football. The school spent $90 million building Rentschler Field to expand capacity to 40,000. University funding paid for much of the $48 million football-only facility. The program quickly joined Division I-A in 2000 and the Big East in 2004.
Now, UConn is re-branding itself with NextGenCT, another billion dollar program to improve its Science, Technology, Engineering and Math departments and expand enrollment by another 30 percent. Athletics is a major part of that process. UConn worked with Nike to design a comprehensive visual identity, not just for athletics but for the entire school.
Football sells UConn. That was great in 2010, when Randy Edsall was winning eight to nine games per year in a BCS Conference and the Huskies were playing Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. Falling to five wins and probably further this year under Paul Pasqualoni is not so great. Lack of success can be a drain on donations. UConn’s athletic department lost $3 million, just because hiring Paul Pasqualoni underwhelmed a rich donor.
UConn’s football decline may not have cost the school a place in the ACC or another conference, but it definitely weakened the school’s case. UConn, BC qualms aside, was perhaps a better fit culturally, academically and geographically for the ACC than Louisville. It could even claim to have a more valuable television footprint. One can’t ignore that Louisville’s football program was functioning at peak level under Charlie Strong. Connecticut’s, under Paul Pasqualoni, was not.
Maybe Louisville is the choice ahead of UConn regardless. But, had realignment occurred during the Kragthorpe-Edsall era, perception may have been different. Instead of being a school earning $20 million per year in TV revenue, UConn is now stuck in a conference earning $20 million per year in TV revenue. The school may be missing many more millions worth of merchandising and media exposure.
UConn went from “opponent Michigan schedules to reopen its stadium” to “opponent of Tulane or Memphis on WatchESPN” in less than three years, with one coaching hire.
Universities are now brands. Football is often the most visual representation of that brand. The school needs its customers and its potential customers to be excited about the present product or about the future product developing. The worst thing for them is sustained apathy. When that sets in with a coach, such as Paul Pasqualoni or Lane Kiffin, the stink must be eradicated, immediately.
The brand can’t afford to be fair to individuals, even very early in the season. Schools in the best branded conference, the Pac 12, have been ruthless with average coaches. Others are following their lead.
[Photos via USA Today Sports]