Skip to main content
Original Issue


John McKay of USC attacks critics of football's mounting costs, arguing that the same can be said of academics and that the game usually supports an entire athletic program

We are assuming that the University of Texas football team will be so good it will win all its games and the national championship this fall (see cover). We can be sure (no assumption necessary) that the football team will make a lot of money, enough to finance the university's entire athletic program with thousands of dollars to spare. We are assuming that the Southern California Trojans, the defending national champions, will again be a joy to see and a Rose Bowl envoy. We can be sure that they will be responsible for a river of cash enriching the school. At Alabama, the as-usual assumption is that the team will rule the Southeastern Conference and take in another big bowl game; the surety is that it will make so much money they will have to bale it to get it to the bank. And so it will go, down the line with the best and most marketable teams.

Not everyone will be tickled pink with these fiscal triumphs, of course. Some will just blush. The matter of how big a business college football should be is an issue the game has wrestled with most of its adult life. Even prosperity is no guarantee against uneasiness. One prominent private school minimizes its considerable football success by sticking the athletic department with such phantom charges as practice field fees and library rentals to tone down the grand figures.

The breast-beating by academicians and the customary deceits and self-delusions of the loosely knit membership of the NCAA is, though tiresome, never completely out of vogue. Like a low-grade virus, there persists an element that cannot face up to the reality that major college football is not amateur sport. That there are no surprises when the roll is called for the first day of practice. That these are not pickup but handpicked teams, being paid with an education to serve their school in the most meaningful way they can.

But the argument here is not with the failure to define the college game accurately, but with the fallacies in financing it. The "spiraling" costs of football against the return on the investment. The dilemma, for some, of having to face what seems a perpetual inequality of competition. For every Alabama there's a little bit of Vanderbilt. For every booming Big Eight there's a puffing Mid-American Conference.

What brings these issues back into focus just now is a decision reached in August to subdivide the NCAA from two divisions (major and small colleges) into three. It was a sensible move, long overdue. The realignment was said to be for "competitive and legislative purposes," but it is pronounced "economics." Requirements—scholarship numbers, recruiting limits, etc.—and goals presumably will separate one from another.

The top division now includes 126 "major college" teams, but that number embraces the Marshalls as well as the Michigans, the Temples as well as the Tennessees. The number could drop quickly when guidelines are settled on. This division, the one we are concerned with here, will be expected to compete as equals for the top prizes: bowl games, national attention (and TV money), and the simple, hackle-raising gratification of being all-gloriously No. 1. In terms of goals alone they are worthwhile, but they have the double edge of being lucrative. It is a game for high rollers.

And those who are already in but with their toenails barely over the line will raise once more the familiar doubts: How can we afford it? Where is it taking us? And is it really worth the trip?

Despite the caviling and bellyaches, and an occasional dropout (Fordham, Santa Barbara, Buffalo, et al.), there are more schools playing at the "major" level than ever. Business, in fact, has been good; attendance and revenues are at alltime peaks. Nearly all schools finance their athletic programs with football money, and the programs are expensive.

When Bear Bryant returned to Alabama in 1958 the athletic budget was less than $300,000 and the line at the bottom of the sheet was as red as the team's jerseys. Alabama had won four games in three years. The revenue for last year was $2.6 million, and the profits $103,253, all from football. Bryant estimates that the program has provided millions of dollars for stadium additions, athletic offices, a field house, a dormitory and sizable contributions to nonathletic departments.

Any cursory diagnosis of finances across the whole of college football would appear to show an unalterable pattern of rich getting richer. Tennessee finances a mammoth $2.8 million sports program, and winds up with an excess of $313,000. Vanderbilt, its atonic neighbor, spends little and profits less. Poor attendance and the absence of television exposure limit the surplus to $61,000, not nearly enough to cover accumulated building debts.

Southern Cal, the current idol of field and screen, spends $1.9 million to make $2 million; it does not control its budget separate from the school, but it gets what it needs. It has been in the black 12 straight years. Meanwhile, California, on a 10-year binge of dwindling attendance, dawdling gate receipts and, lately, NCAA probation, goes $538,000 over budget and into an austerity program.

The increased costs in tuition, training-table food, dormitory lodging, insurance, medical care, equipment, etc. are especially felt at a school like Ohio University. Ohio's stadium seats fewer than 18,000 and is seldom filled, and the need for budget-building revenue leads to its having scheduled such teams as Perm State, Northwestern and South Carolina on the road. It is hard for Ohio University to make ends meet.

But in the end what are costs except a measure against value? One who believes, and is outspoken in his belief, that college football is not only financially feasible but important beyond dollars-and-cents reckoning, who believes there is no such thing as a chronic loser on the field or at the gate, and who—hold onto your pompons—does not think it necessary that you spend your pockets off to succeed is John McKay of USC, the No. 1 coach of last year's No. 1 team.

The nags of college football are not trodden lightly on by John McKay:

"Very few people say, 'I'm against intercollegiate athletics.' They say, 'I'm against football.' Why? Publicity. When you're against football you get publicity. I asked [representatives of the NCAA] in Chicago, 'Why do you spend 99% of your time talking about football? What is the fascination?' Well, they say, the costs. They complain about costs. I said, 'If you had three restaurants and two were losing money would you harass the one that was keeping you in business?'

"It's ridiculous. Why undermine the one sport that holds the others up? If all we care about is showing a bigger profit, then let's cut out the sports that have no chance. I personally wouldn't want that because if it's worth having a well-rounded athletic program it's worth paying for. You can't measure those things in costs. The medical school 'costs' money. The business school 'costs' money.

"They talk about cutting football scholarships. We don't give many at USC, but what's right for us might not be right for Darrell Royal at Texas or Frank Broyles at Arkansas. But why football scholarships? We've won more national championships [in all sports] than anybody, but if we allowed ourselves what the new NCAA table calls for we would need 49 more scholarships to 'save money." We could have water polo scholarships. We could start a wrestling program and have 13 athletes on scholarship, an ice hockey team and have 16. If you tell me we would save money doing that, with sports that haven't a chance to make a dime, then I'll have to say you're insane."

There are ways to keep a program in the black, McKay says. Surprisingly enough, despite the economic cushion his football teams provide, McKay holds his purse strings as USC athletic director in a tight fist.

"Some people try to keep up with the Joneses. We don't. We don't 'always travel first class.' We don't 'always stay at the best hotels.' We don't spend a lot of money on equipment. We don't need all different color jerseys and three extra pair of pants and 24,000 dummies. We've got enough dummies coaching and playing. Our equipment costs were around $22,000 in 1960. They'll be around $27,000 this year despite prices having doubled.

"We don't have 13 or 14 coaches like some schools in the South. We have eight. We don't have four or five practice fields. In our league we don't give $15 a month laundry money or books. I'd rather we gave the books because they're the tools of an education, but that's the league rule. What does $15 a month for 180 guys on scholarship [in the entire intercollegiate program] save us? Figure $15 times 180 times nine months. That's what we save.

"So there are ways. Coaches say, 'You gotta have a dormitory like Alabama's to win.' We don't have a dormitory. Our guys stay in apartments. We still win. Players win games, not dormitories. Coaches in some conferences have to have 40 or 50 scholarships, whatever the others get. The largest number of scholarships we've given in one year since I've been here is 29. One year we gave 13, last year 19.

"We have an advantage over an Arkansas or a Nebraska in that we're in a densely populated area. Our recruiting costs are about a tenth of what some might be. But I don't believe you ever need to recruit more than 16 players a year—if you're right on those 16. If you have 22, say, and you're right on them, you'll have 88 players in the four classes. If you can't win with 88, you can't win. Numbers is not the answer.

"Coaches are like people. There are good ones, there are very average ones, there are damn poor ones. The very average ones and the damn poor ones have one statement in common: "Well, if I had his players I'd win all my games, too. That same guy will bring in 50 players a year. He doesn't say, 'I've got 50 players who aren't any good.' That would be insane. He says, 'You oughta see our freshman team! Wait'll next year!' "

Beyond the spirit a winning football program generates ("You can feel it build on a campus. All the smiles. Everybody running around saying, 'We're No. 1.' Lose 27 in a row and see how many smiles there are"), McKay has seen it act as a remarkable stimulus for endowments. Not just donations for the athletic department, but for the entire school.

"Our fund raisers tell me endowments go up when we win. They say how much easier it is when you walk into an office back East and the [potential donor] says, 'Hey, I saw the team win on TV Saturday. Great!' He may not be a big football fan, but he can identify with it. And at the half when they show the president and the medical school and all the buildings and he says, 'That's my school," how much do you think that's worth? How much would the air time cost us?"

McKay says he does not presume to know what passes through a man's mind when he is writing out a $2 million endowment check, but he has suspicions. An insurance tycoon named David Marks, now in his 80s, has given huge gifts to USC, his latest a $350,000 tennis pavilion. Marks became a lover of SC football when he rode a wagon to see the team lose a game more than 50 years ago. Marks wears a USC cap and comes to the practices. The staff calls him "The Punting Coach."

"Football is not the only game ever played," says McKay. "A good football team doesn't have a university, a university has a good football team. It can be done anywhere.

"Last year Washington State under Jim Sweeney beat Oregon, beat Stanford, beat Washington. They won seven out of 11. Only two years before they were 1 and 10. Sweeney went to work. Tommy Prothro took two Oregon State teams to the Rose Bowl. Johnny Majors turned Iowa State around. Vince Gibson saved the whole program at Kansas State [income at Kansas State has more than tripled in Gibson's six years there]. It can be done.

"Is it ever going to be even? Everybody the same across the country? No. Places like ours have built-in advantages. Population for one. Tradition. But even then there are no guarantees. We had tradition, and we had a 1-9 season and didn't go to the Rose Bowl from 1954 to 1962 [McKay took the job in 1960]. Alabama had great tradition, but it wasn't winning anything when Bear Bryant went back. Bob Devaney took over Nebraska when Nebraska had had 20 years of losing. Now they're big winners. He went to work.

"Is it O.K. to play at the top level and lose year after year the way Washington State and some of them have had to do? Yes. Winning isn't everything. That's a terrible philosophy to go by. It's enough that you play. You desire to win, you try to win, but it's enough to play.

"One more thing. I've heard about all I can stand of this stuff that you can't win because the pros draw all the people. Nuts to the pros. Who ever went to the University of the Rams? We have 110,000 people who went to USC living in this area. We sell 49,000 season tickets [up from 19,000 in McKay's first year] only because that's all we're allowed to sell. Tulane proved the same point in New Orleans last year. They had 85,000 for a night game, the biggest crowd in Tulane history.

"What do the pros have that we don't? Well, they have less exciting offense. Our total offense was 430 yards a game last year. The Dolphins led the National Football League with, what, 360? Oklahoma averaged 370 yards rushing the football. Miami set an NFL total-yard age record by averaging about 210. We had 39 points a game. The Dolphins averaged 28.

"The pros have one big thing: identification. Everybody knows John Unitas. But we can do the same with an O.J. Simpson or a Mike Garrett. And now an Anthony Davis. We have to. It's our job to make sure people hear about Anthony Davis. 'You oughta see Anthony Davis run!'

"Get people interested in your program and in your players and you'll win. Jim Sweeney's going to win at Washington State.

"Is he going to beat us?"

(Big McKay smile and a puff on a McKay cigar.)

"I hope not."