Opinion: football and finances closely linked

Photo by Casey Gomez

I have always been a supporter of the initiative to pay college athletes. The NCAA’s backwards and dated philosophy behind denying athletes financial benefits while in college has always seemed absurd to me, and given the sheer amount of money thrown around in college football, it seems silly that some colleges would be unable to pay their players (Texas A&M is paying Kevin Sumlin a $10.5 million to not coach for them — that money would be enough to pay every A&M player $100,000 with plenty of spare change left over). At the same time, home at Tech, I am confronted with the reality of a football team without the financial means to compete, even without the prospect of paying
its players.

Just a few weeks ago, Tech Athletic Director Todd Stansbury and Tech Head Football Coach Paul Johnson wrote yet another letter to Tech alumni requesting further donations for the athletics department through the Alexander-Tharpe Fund, with the intent of raising funds to promote recruiting efforts throughout Tech. It is another symptom of Tech’s lack of alumni involvement in athletic programs — alumni attendance is noticeably lackluster at sporting events, and donations are drastically lower compared to other departments.

While players might be forced to play for free by the NCAA, colleges still require a financial investment in the players in the form of recruiting visits, football equipment and facility renovations (I mean, Clemson has a slide in their football facility ­— national championships aside, if I am a high school football recruit, I am going to the school with a slide). Among public Power Five conference schools in 2015-2016, the amount of expenses incurred by the program was roughly correlated to the success of the football program (data from private schools was not available).

College programs are investments, like it or not, and Tech athletics has repeatedly had difficulty investing in the program, simply because Tech programs do not generate as much revenue as competing schools — among public schools, Tech generated the third lowest revenue of any Power Five school in the 2015-2016 fiscal year.

As a result, Tech has struggled to attract the level of talent that its neighbors do. As Stansbury says in the letter to Tech Alumni, “Our Institute resides in one of the most talent-rich states and regions of the country. This has not gone unnoticed. We compete every day with significant neighboring programs for talent … While we have every intention of maintaining and deepening our commitment to recruiting the best ‘right-fit’ talent in Georgia and the region, attaining the level of success we desire requires further investment to consistently compete at our targeted level.”

Tech could not afford to pay its players even if it wanted to do so. Simply put, Tech lacks the financial resources needed to invest in its program. Tech already has issues recruiting talent due to the high academic standards here, so without the money to invest in the program in recruiting, it is no wonder that Tech is forced to rely so heavily upon Paul Johnson’s not-so-flashy triple option, a style that thrives only at schools without much recruiting ability like Navy and Army. This is not to say that Tech should lower its academic standards to attract NFL-prospect-quality recruits who might not be up to par in terms of grades — if anything, it drives home the fact that Tech needs donors, revenue and alumni participation.

Let it not be said that excellent academic schools cannot succeed on the field of play. Stanford has been a consistent Pac-12 contender in the David Shaw era. Notre Dame is a legacy program. USC will remain a top team. Yes, these schools have broader major selection and maybe a more desirable location (in the case of USC and Stanford, because South Bend leaves much to be desired). What they have that Tech does not is consistent backing from their alumni, particularly notable as local rivals like UGA grow stronger.

It seems like a death-spiral: some alumni do not engage the program, the program loses revenue, the program performs poorly and more alumni abandon their pledges. Tech is desperately trying to stop the vicious cycle — a $4.5 million from an anonymous donor will go to the construction of a new locker facility for Tech football players, and another anonymous donor is matching up to $200,000 of donations to the Alexander-Tharpe fund with Tech’s current funding initiative.

Perhaps it is for the best that the money of Tech donors stays away from football. After all, the money spent to hire more recruiting staff might be better used improving mental health facilities, endowing new chairs and renovating buildings (I am looking at you, Instructional Center). But without an active sense of alumni participation, the future looks bleak for Tech athletics. Stansbury and company have their work cut out for them.