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What should UConn do with its football team?

The current consternation over the future of the University of Connecticut’s football program has exploded some myths about the way big time college sports are and are not paid for at UConn.

The fans and taxpayers always knew football and basketball are expensive, given the salaries paid to those who teach the sports, especially when compared with salaries paid to those who teach everything else. Add the cost of scholarships, equipment and travel and you’re talking real money. But we were always assured these wonderful, expensive sports were a marvelous investment. They not only paid for themselves, thanks to high priced tickets and lucrative television rights, they also paid for every other sport — the kinds played by full time students, like field hockey, cross country, tennis, volleyball and lacrosse.

But it turns out that these big time, semi-pro sports no longer pay for minor sports or for themselves. UConn’s Athletic Department took in $40 million last year, but spent almost $81 million. The big items were $17 million for coaches’ salaries, $17 million on athletic scholarships and $14.4 million for support staff.

Many fans and/or taxpayers are probably willing to forgive the basketball teams, which win almost all of their games (the women) or win more than they lose (the men). But they are decidedly less forgiving of the football team, which was 1-11 last season and lost slightly more than $8 million. The two basketball teams lost another $8 million together.

The head coaches of these teams are among the state’s highest paid employees. According to the official state list of the state’s best paid workers for fiscal 2018, women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma was paid $2.75 million, the fired men’s basketball coach, Kevin Ollie, got $1.9 million and football coach Randy Edsall was paid $1 million. Ollie’s replacement Dan Hurley received only $799,000 in 2018, but he also signed a six-year, $18 million contract that year. And Ollie is still trying to collect millions more he claims the university owes him.

I can’t resist pointing out that Edsall, in addition to getting a million dollars for his victory last season, also picked up an extra $32,000 for meeting various incentive bonuses. He gets an extra $3,000 every time UConn scores first, and other bonuses for getting more turnovers or tackles in a win or loss. He also gets $10,000 extra for each victory, which, the Journal Inquirer notes, has added $40,000 to his income in the last 21 games.

Now that the basketball teams are returning to their former, comfortable home in the Big East, which does not play host to football, the future of the university’s football team is up for debate. Should it try to find a home in another league or try to schedule opponents independently?  

Or should UConn become a basketball only college like the other Big East institutions that have built their athletic fame and fortune on basketball after dropping football long ago?

Dropping football isn’t the most unheard of thing you’ve ever heard of, by the way. The list of colleges and universities that have found happiness without football teams is quite a distinguished one: Boston U, DePaul, George Washington, Seton Hall, NYU, most branches of the Universities of California and Texas, the University of Vermont, Northeastern — to name a very few.

This would appear to be a good time to give some thought to joining that crowd. The university acknowledged that the game isn’t played for the current students years ago when it decided to build a fancy stadium “conveniently located 24 miles from campus,” as columnist Colin McEnroe recently wrote.  

Attendance at the far-away facility in East Hartford is down about 50 percent since 2008 when a near-capacity, 39,000 fans attended every “home” game of a team that was winning from time to time.

And football isn’t what it used to be. There have been too many stories about former All Americans and NFL stars suffering life shortening brain damage from playing the game. Parents are discouraging little boys from playing football and participation in autumn games like soccer and lacrosse is way up while kids’ football is declining.

This is especially true in a region where college football has long been dominated by the amateurs — college teams like the Little Three and the Ivy Leagues.  

We do like professional football in the Northeast, but we seem to prefer the kind that actually pays the players.

 

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.