Daniel Moore

Free cars for coaches at M.A.C. schools continue despite economic downturn

Vehicle perks seen as effective recruiting tool by proponents

Daniel Moore

The fleet fills parking spaces outside Kent State University’s Memorial Athletic Convocation Center while the lots surrounding academic buildings are vacant of 2012 Ford Fusions provided by local dealerships. At Kent State, the athletic director and every head coach receives something no faculty or staff member would ever consider asking for: a car for $150 a month.

The fleet is part of an incentive package similar to other schools’ in the Mid-American Conference and throughout Division I athletics. M.A.C. schools provide 304 total cars and monthly stipends to its athletic employees.

Kent State doesn’t bother with stipends. It hands out 33 vehicles and foots the bill for the insurance. Athletic Director Joel Nielsen defends its policy as necessary to keep up with the competition.

“It’s one of those competitive advantage situations where if we weren’t doing it, we’d be at a competitive disadvantage,” Nielsen said. “So by doing it, you keep up with your peer institutions.”

But Welch Suggs, a sportswriter and Associate Director for the Knight Commission, said in the grand scheme of things, education and students should be the highest priority. The Knight Commission works to ensure that intercollegiate athletics programs operate within the “educational mission” of their universities.

“These coaches better walk around campus and say thank you for their cars to every student they see,” Suggs said.

James Campbell is a distinguished professor of political science at the University of Buffalo, where coaches of Olympic and revenue sports receive $400 stipends. Campbell agrees with Suggs that while college athletics is a “different market,” it should never weaken academics.

“The value of a good professor in mathematics or in physics or political science is probably worth more to the students than a good assistant coach would be,” Campbell said. “In some universities, the athletic program pretty much pays for itself. At others, it draws resources from academics. I think where it draws resources from academics, it has to be looked at very closely to see whether that’s worth it.”

Many schools in the M.A.C. are facing multimillion-dollar budget deficits and decreased state support.

Ball State President Jo Ann Gora last July defended this year’s tuition hike of 3.9% by citing a cut in money from the state, the South Bend Tribune reported. Indiana has declined since 2002 from being 35th in the nation to 45th in terms of state funding, Gora said.

However, Ball State hands out 15 cars and 22 stipends — the second most combined incentives in the M.A.C. Its athletic director, who drives a 2012 Toyota Venza, said he sees no problems from the growing divide between academics and athletics.

Ohio University’s assistant athletic director of media relations describes giving free cars to coaches as “essential,” the elimination of which would make it hard to attract top coaches.

And some of the car policies outside the M.A.C. are tough to beat. In addition to giving a car to the entire coaching staff of football, men and women’s basketball, the University of Kentucky provides not one but two cars for its athletic director, head football coach and head men’s basketball coach  — 23 cars in all.

At Kentucky, these cars are not only for coaches but also for tickets. The university gives dealerships 2 season tickets for each car it receives. This dealership-university relationship extends even further at Central Michigan, which hands out cars to coaches with instructions for pleasing their dealer.

CMU gives its coaches a list of ideas to build a “strong relationship” with their dealership. It suggests inviting the car dealer to lunch or dinner, giving them tickets for a sporting event, asking them to play a round of golf and even inviting their children and relatives to a sports camp.

John Cropp, Kentucky’s associate athletics director for administration, said providing vehicles is not “very essential” for attracting coaches but is only “keeping up with the Joneses.”

“It’s what our competition does,” Cropp said. “But the way our league has gone, salary is much more important.”

So if M.A.C. schools are doing what their competition does, and their competition is “keeping up with the Joneses,” what happens to Division I schools that break the trend?

Ohio State announced March 8 it would downgrade its courtesy car program from leasing cars to more than 80 athletic employees to providing stipends. The policy, which will cost OSU $612,000 annually, gives head football coach Urban Meyer a $1,200 monthly stipend.

Denny Hoobler, Ohio State’s associate athletics director, said public perception of the cars, especially in light of recent NCAA investigations, led to the decision to “go the stipend route.”

“There was this perception that, boy, they’ve got all these free cars,” Hoobler said. “(The issue of athletics vs. academics) always seems to always come up here at Ohio State. You’re paying a football coach $4 million … It is an issue, but as I said, on the athletics side, it just seems to be kind of part of doing business, if you will. If you go to Michigan, or you go to Knoxville, Tenn., go Athens, Ga., or Austin, Texas — they all have these type of programs and it seems they have in some way survived the test of time.”

But Nielsen doesn’t view Kent State’s policy as a sign college athletics is taking away from academics. In fact, he said, he challenges those who think the policy is pointless.

“I think we being in the M.A.C, we’ve got a good sense on how to spend money,” he said. “How much money we need, how to fundraise and how to be responsible to the institution … I would challenge most people to say there is frivolous spending.”

Some schools refused to elaborate on its car policy. Northern Illinois University, which hands out nine vehicles at the discretion of the athletic director, would not comment further because it created too much work for them.

Its associate athletic director for communications emailed the following refusal: “Due to the amount of time that [the Cars for Coaches Project] has now required of different people in our department and in our university, which has included your filing of FOIA for documents we volunteered to provide after we had already answered many initial questions, no one in our athletic department will be available for an interview.”

David Ridpath is assistant professor of Sports Administration at Ohio University and a member of the Drake Group, an organization that helps “defend academic integrity in the face of the burgeoning college sport industry.” When he was a Division I coach, Ridpath received a car.

“Honestly, that’s one of the things I really miss from athletics was getting the perk of a car,” he said.

He said free cars for coaches impact recruiting much more at M.A.C. schools than larger Division I schools like Ohio State or Florida. On a national level, he said, coaches’ perks in general need to be drawn back in light of recent tuition hikes and an economic recession.

“We have to work with Congress on restricting the college athletic salaries because it’s so far out of control right now, especially when the rest of the campus is suffering economically.”

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