By John Irwin
Many Central Michigan football fans got their wish Thursday morning.
Dan Enos, the much-maligned, five-year CMU head coach, resigned and headed for the greener pastures of Fayetteville, Ark. There, he’ll work as the University of Arkansas’ offensive coordinator under head coach Bret Bielema.
The move makes sense for Enos, who finished 26-36 overall in his five years in Mount Pleasant. His stock at CMU is likely to never be higher, seeing as he stands to lose his two most potent offensive weapons in wide receiver Titus Davis and running back Thomas Rawls. With a tougher schedule and fewer weapons, it appears the Chippewas are due for a step back in 2015, and a losing season after three consecutive six-loss campaigns would not look good on Enos’ resume.
Arkansas, meanwhile, is a program that looks to be on the rise. Second-year coach Bielema led the Razorbacks to a 7-6 record, including upset victories over nationally ranked LSU and Ole Miss, after having only seven combined wins in the previous two seasons.
It’s a good fit for Enos if he wants to be a head coach in a major conference one day, especially considering Bielema’s run-heavy offensive mindset is largely in line with his. If he could take Arkansas’ offense and lead it to success in the SEC West, considered one of the toughest divisions in college football, Enos could be looking at major head coaching opportunities very soon. That was never likely to be the case had he stayed at CMU.
It was also never likely he’d get the kind of money he’s about to receive at Arkansas.
According to USA Today‘s coaching salary database, Enos received $360,000 from CMU in 2014, which, as Insider previously reported, made him a relative bargain by college football standards. Meanwhile, outgoing Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney reportedly received $552,000.
Small programs left behind
That’s a big deal, not only for Enos but also for its implications for smaller, MAC-level schools.
Simply put, the gap between the so-called Power Five conferences (the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC) and the rest of major college football is vast and is likely to grow wider in the years to come. It’s certainly on display with Enos’ departure.
The Mid-American Conference, frankly, cannot compete with the Power Five for coaches anymore. Twenty years ago, it would have been tough to imagine someone willingly taking a step down from head coach to offensive coordinator, even if the new job was at a bigger program. Now, though, it’s more lucrative for a coach to make that jump.
More money than ever is being dumped into assistant coaching salaries nationwide. An astounding 138 assistant coaches, most from Power Five schools, made more than Enos did last year, according to USA Today. Forty-three assistants made more than the highest-paid MAC coach, Ohio’s Frank Solich ($554,500).
How can MAC schools possibly compete considering how much money they are already pouring into athletics? Take CMU for instance. Its athletic budget is listed at $25.7 million in the university’s 2014-15 general operating budget, and it operates deeply in the red. It is subsidized by the university’s general fund to the tune of $18.5 million, meaning students and taxpayers are on the hook for about 72 percent of the athletic budget.
To put that into perspective, that means the money athletics drains from the general fund exceeds the budgets of the College of Communication and Fine Arts ($18.3 million) and the College of Medicine ($18.3 million), and is roughly on par with the College of Health Professions ($18.8 million).
Furthermore, that means each of CMU’s more than 27,000 students, including part-time and Global Campus students, subsidize the department to the tune of about $684 annually, on average. That number is significantly higher for a student living on campus or studying full-time.
Students and taxpayers will be on the hook for more athletics money next year, as well. The Board of Trustees approved construction of an $8 million lacrosse facility in December, and, as Insider previously reported, the MAC announced it will follow the Power Five’s lead and require scholarships that cover the cost of attendance for student-athletes. According to MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher, that means schools will be on the hook for an extra $500,000 to $1 million per year.
For a school like Arkansas, which has an annual athletic budget of roughly $92 million, that amount of money is a relative drop in the bucket. For MAC schools, most of which have budgets between $20 million and $30 million, that could spell financial trouble.
Costs hard to justify
As the gap continues to grow between the larger schools and smaller schools, as it becomes harder for schools like CMU to retain coaches, as financially burdened students are asked to pay more for sports every year, it would be wise for the Board of Trustees, President George Ross, and the powers-that-be at all lower-level Division I schools to re-evaluate the role of athletics in a post-autonomous Power Five world.
After all, what is the real benefit of having students, many of whom graduate thousands of dollars in debt, subsidize athletics?
Defenders of the current collegiate model typically say winning football and basketball programs build up student pride, increase alumni donations to the university and lead to more and better applicants for that program’s school.
These defenses fail to pass the smell test, though.
After all, attendance has long been an issue for CMU and other MAC-level schools who struggle to compete for attention against the Power Five on fall Saturdays, and student sections are rarely seen full during the year.
Meanwhile, a study for the National Bureau for Economic Research found that while alumni donations are likely to increase while a team is winning, the effects are minimal for non-Power Five schools.
Average applicant pools and the average SAT scores of those pools do have direct correlations with winning football teams, though, and that’s especially true for smaller schools.
However, the report’s author warned Inside Higher Education that the benefits of investing in a winning program are vastly outweighed by the surging costs. More:
Jason Lanter, an assistant professor of psychology at Kutztown University and past president of the Drake Group, a faculty organization that has urged greater scrutiny of big-time athletics in higher education, said colleges need to look at the report with a grain of salt and realize that athletic success has a minimal impact on academics.
He said he is concerned about how an investment to boost athletic success would impact opportunities for students. “We need to think about the impact that this has on an institution as an educational system,” he said. “If our mission is to educate young people, help them prepare for after college, then what does athletics do to help benefit that after college component?”
He and Anderson both said that since a lot of Football Bowl Subdivision teams still lose money, the positive effects outlined in this report aren’t enough to justify additional spending.
Considering that even mediocre coaches like Enos are being poached from universities like CMU by bigger schools, any notion of coaching stability in a smaller football program can be tossed out the window, making consistently winning a much more difficult job. That, in turn, makes the supposed benefits of winning much more sporadic, making the large investments in athletics harder to justify.
Enos’ departure should open the administration’s eyes to the vast gap between CMU football and the big dogs of the college football world. That gap will only grow wider in the years to come, so CMU and other MAC schools have two choices.
They can choose to continue down the path they are currently on, forcing students to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars per year subsidizing athletics in the pursuit of possibly winning games and possibly getting more applicants that way, knowing full well that success is not guaranteed.
Or they can choose a new path, one that de-emphasizes the role of athletics on campus. CMU is not the University of Michigan. It is not Michigan State University. It’s not even Arkansas, as Enos’ departure makes perfectly clear. It will never receive the publicity or reap in the benefits of a winning program that universities like them can and do.
So, why should it operate by the same rules as them?
Dropping down to the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly Division I-AA, could do much to both rein in the costs of athletics while also allowing CMU a better chance to compete on the field year in and year out.
Should that prove to be too much to ask for, CMU and other schools at its level must lobby hard for the Power Five conferences to essentially break off from NCAA Division I football, a scenario many analysts view as inevitable given their recently granted autonomy.
Either way, it’s not fair for CMU students to be asked to subsidize an athletic department for thousands of dollars over the course of their collegiate careers because of a misplaced notion that it can academically benefit from operating under the Power Five’s rules.
That makes absolutely no sense, and it has proven to be nothing more than a rip-off for students in Mount Pleasant and at other smaller FBS schools.
If CMU’s administrators and trustees want to back up their talk about caring about students and keeping college affordable, they will discuss all possible scenarios when it comes to re-aligning its budget priorities away from athletics and back toward academics.
And now is the perfect time to begin.
Irwin is the founder and editor of CMU Insider.