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Something for Nothing

The landscape is littered with fired coaches who are living off the fat of their contracts

If the economy ever gets going again, I Know Where it will spring to life first. The University of Pittsburgh announced last week that Paul Hackett would be stepping down as its football coach even though he had three years remaining on his contract. Pitt will pay more than $500,000 to Hackett, who went 13-20-1 in his three seasons there, to make sure that he and his clipboard no longer grace the Panthers' sideline. This wouldn't ordinarily cause the slightest stirring in college sports, where the practice of buying out coaches' contracts is commonplace. It's just that things have gotten a mite out of hand in the Iron City. And that's where my theory about the economy comes in.

Pitt, you see, had bought out the remaining three years of the contract of Hackett's predecessor, Mike Gottfried. And four years before that, it had forked over $700,000 to get rid of Foge Fazio, who had three years left on his deal. Now, with the canning of Hackett, three consecutive Pitt football coaches have been bought off, each within 18 months of signing a contract extension. The school almost found itself making payments to all three of them at the same time.

Spending still sluggish? You read it here first: Western Pennsylvania will be the locomotive that drives the recovery, what with Pitt ponying up almost $2 million to get three coaches to walk the plank. This is what's known as priming the consumer-spending pump. But Pitt is only the most egregious example of a spendthrift attitude that can be found everywhere in college athletics. Consider:

•Arkansas rolled over Jack Crowe's five-year contract at the end of last season when the Hogs went 6-6. One game into this season Crowe was fired. A single loss, to The Citadel, brought him from the heights of a presumably satisfactory job evaluation to the depths of pink slipdom. Losing to The Citadel may indeed be unpardonable, but paying Crowe $600,000 to do nothing is even more so. And what about the Razorbacks' coach next season? He'll be Danny Ford, who has been living off the $1 million package Clemson gave him in 1990 to cease coaching the Tigers.

•There's no bigger big-bucks broker than Bill Cosby, Temple '77. Last week Cosby helped his alma mater buy out the contract of Owl coach Jerry Berndt for $400,000. Of course it was Cosby's largess that helped to lure Berndt to Temple in 1989. The Coz giveth; the Coz taketh away.

•Queen Elizabeth wins last week's award for Greatest Understatement in the Anglophone World for saying, "1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure." But Auburn president William Muse merits special mention for this utterance, occasioned by Pat Dye's resignation: "Auburn has been very generous with Coach Dye." Despite having been implicated in major NCAA violations, Dye will be rewarded with a package worth as much as $1 million over seven years. The school's decision is more than just bad management. It's an endorsement of the notion that cheaters prosper. Auburn ought to look toward Colorado State, which, upon discovering that coach Earle Bruce had held improper practices and physically abused players (page 15), terminated Bruce, who had two years left on his contract, flat out.

•In its zeal to hurry Johnny Majors from his corner office by Jan. 1, Tennessee offered him a job as a fund-raiser at $120,000 a year. Majors turned it down, which is a good thing for the school inasmuch as Majors would have had to spend most of his time just recouping his own salary. Instead Majors took a reported $600,000, straight up, to go quietly. Is Majors, whom boosters wanted so badly 16 years ago that they bought out Bill Battle, really mid-six figures' worth of lousy coach?

Ignore the issue of whether or not these firings were justified. Set aside, too, the question of whether or not coaches deserved to have such generous contracts in the first place. Just ask yourself if college football's subsidies to the idle rich might be money better spent on a swimming pool or a weight room or, god forbid, the women's soccer team.

Some schools defend the buyouts by arguing that the money is often provided by wealthy boosters, not by the institution's general fund. True enough. Several members of Pitt's Golden Panther Club are making it worth Hackett's while to leave. But a university president who allows boosters to insinuate themselves into the hiring and firing process shouldn't be surprised when those same Babbitts start handing out ATM cards to recruits. And when boosters start feeling proprietary about an athletic department, the result is creeping Steinbrennerism—an altitude marked by the twin beliefs that only fear can create a winning atmosphere and that only money can mitigate a problem. To see Steinbrennerism become institutionalized at the college level is to be reminded that the term booster is often a misnomer. Those who call themselves boosters often really want to be participants.

Let administrators keep this in mind: It once seemed worth backing up the Brinks truck to hire this coach who is suddenly so inept that people are lining up to pay to get rid of him. Rare is the coach who's really worth a five-year rollover contract, much less a 10-year tuck-you-in. It's also true that no coach is worth hiring in the first place if a school is unwilling to give him enough time to accomplish the job he is being asked to do.

Meanwhile, may Pittsburgh lead the economic recovery. But bear in mind that one leading indicator won't improve as a result of college football's buyout spree. That, as ex-coaches know all too well, is the unemployment rate.