ORLANDO, Fla. — Imagine a distress call from a university. The chairman of the Department of Biological Science wasn’t performing up to expectations and needed to be let go, but there was a problem.
The department was financially strapped. And if the chairman were fired, the school would have to pay him $18 million.
It sounds preposterous, but that’s essentially what’s playing out at Florida State.
Willie Taggart did not meet expectations as football coach. The athletic department — which had a $3.6 million deficit last year — decided to fire him.
To paraphrase “Ghostbusters,” who they gonna call?
Seminole Boosters Inc.!
Florida’s universities perpetually battle and beg for education funding. But when it comes to athletics, a few phone calls can make an $18 million problem go away.
I’m not here to wistfully long for the old days, when “student-athlete” wasn’t a punchline and football wasn’t the most vital program on campus. The truth is, that Age of Innocence wasn’t all that innocent of cheating, scandal and warped priorities.
The only real change is the money. There’s so much now it accentuates how crazy society is when it comes to sports entertainment.
Taggart was making 36 times as much a year as fellow Tallahasseean Ron DeSantis, whom some might argue has a more consequential job as Florida governor. And if DeSantis were fired, he would not get an $18 million golden parachute.
The buyout phenomenon epitomizes today’s sports lunacy. After hiring him with much pomp and circumstance less than two years ago, FSU will now pay Taggart $18 million not to coach its football team.
It could have been worse. FSU would have owed Taggart’s predecessor, Jimbo Fisher, $40 million if it had fired him.
He voluntarily left for Texas A&M and a $75 million contract. If the Aggies fired Fisher today, they’d have to pay him $60 million.
Coaches command such contracts for a simple reason — they can.
A winning football program has an impact far beyond the stadium. Since hiring Nick Saban in 2007, Alabama’s enrollment has skyrocketed and studies show the school’s economic impact on the state has gone from $1.8 billion to almost $2.6 billion.
Tuscaloosa businesses get a $19 million boost every weekend the Crimson Tide play at home. It’s not all due to Saban, but his $8.8 million salary has certainly paid off in the football-mad state.
Conversely, a bad hire can trigger a recession. FSU’s athletic department expects its operating revenue to drop from $84 million to $75 million this year, due largely to a decrease in ticket sales.
Average attendance at Doak Campbell Stadium (capacity 79,560) is 54,213, a 30-year low. Taggart’s record was 9-12, and there was no turnaround in sight.
FSU did a cost-benefit analysis and decided it made more financial sense to fire Taggart than keep him. It was a defensible business decision in what has become a multi-billion-dollar industry.
We can tsk-tsk how the pursuit of athletic superiority has corrupted educational priorities, but millions of us need to acknowledge our roles in this spectacle.
Colleges are manufacturing a product consumers are willing to pay for. If FSU, Florida, et al, got out of the football business, they’d be kissing away hundreds of millions of dollars.
You could even argue FSU boosters are the white knights in this scenario. They gave the athletic department $6 million to balance this year’s budget.
Taggart’s payout will be in four installments, and there apparently are plenty of people willing to put their money where their disgust is.
That would include 4-year-old Grayton Grant of Tallahassee. He set up a “Free Willie” lemonade stand two months ago to raise money for Taggart’s buyout.
He charged $20 a cup and raised $241 in about three hours. People have the right to spend their money any (legal) way they want, and many boosters also donate to their university’s general fund and other projects.
But wouldn’t the College of Fine Arts or College of Engineering like to have a booster club willing to fork over $18 million in a crunch? How many professors would that hire or scholarships would that fund?
We can only hope FSU does a better job vetting its next football coach
(Hint: Don’t hire someone with a 47-50 career record).
And we can bid a sudden farewell to Free Willie.
People can question your coaching acumen, but nobody can say you’re not smart.
You had the foresight to pursue a career that really matters in higher education these days, as opposed to becoming something silly, like a biology professor.