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Is football really money in the bag?

If money is the root of all evils, Michael Sokolove thinks the USF football program is headed for disaster.

In the cover article of the Dec. 22 issue of The New York Times Magazine titled “Football is a Sucker’s Game,” USF is the centerpiece of Sokolove’s feature on the finances of Division I-A football. The near 8,000-word feature takes a deep look inside the USF football program and questions why anyone would want to jump into the multi-million-dollar game of big-time football.

“In college sports, the heady mix of anticipation, adrenaline, camaraderie and school pride is the gloss over the grubby reality,” Sokolove wrote. “Pro sports operates within some financial parameters, governed by a profit motive. College sport, by contrast, is a mad cash scramble with squishy rules. Universities run from conference to conference, chasing richer TV deals; coaches from school to school, chasing cash. It’s a game of mergers and acquisitions — of running out on your partners before they run out on you.

“It’s understandable why universities with hundreds of millions already invested in sports can’t find a way out,” Sokolove continued in the article. “Far less understandable is why a school like USF would, with eyes wide open, walk in.”

But for those close to the program, such as Vicki Mitchell, associate athletic director for development, it’s all part of being the best.

“In any endeavor, USF seeks to be at the highest level, not mediocre,” Mitchell said. “If we put our foot in the water, whether it’s academics or athletics, it’s not to be average. It would be a disservice to suggest we expect anything but the highest level.”

Mitchell compared USF’s financial stake in athletics to the commitment the university makes to its research. With $18 million set aside for the new athletic facility and coach Jim Leavitt’s contract extension worth more than $2.5 million, the Bulls have made a major investment in football.

“When we recruit faculty, we need to have labs,” Mitchell said. “The biggest issue when we recruit researchers is the pay and the tools. Whether it’s chemistry or football or basketball, you have to have the tools and pay what the market demands.”

Mitchell would know best, as she captained capital drives for the university before switching to the athletic department in May to work exclusively on fundraising for sports. Sokolove said it’s just the bills getting bigger and bigger, but for Mitchell, it’s a matter of retaining talent.

“In academics, the university develops associate professors until they reach a point where they’re extraordinarily marketable,” Mitchell said. “Then, a university with more money, history and facilities will try to snap them up. On the field with our coaches, we have to pay them more so they can recruit better and we retain them, but they become more visible and more marketable. A point comes where the decision is whether you’re able or willing to keep them.”

However, all that spending could be flushing dollars down the drain. The University of Michigan, which regularly sells out the 100,000-plus seat “Big House” every game, lost $7 million on athletics between the 1998-99 and 1999-2000 school years, according to statistics Sokolove used from Andrew Zimbalist’s book Unpaid Professionals: Commercialism and Conflict in Big-Time College Sports. USF claims to just about break even on the costs of football, but that was before tacking on Leavitt’s new contract and the debt for the bond the Bulls will have to take out to finance the athletic facility, and that’s without computing the costs of things, such as field maintenance or laundry detergent, which apparently runs the Bulls $8,000 a year, wrote Sokolove in the article. The football budget also includes no mention of sports medicine, strength and conditioning or academic tutoring, all of which are extracted from the $5-million general expense account for the athletic department, according Sokolove. The Times also said there’s no mention of the $2-million membership fee to play football in Conference USA in 2003, which was borrowed from a general endowment fund.

Still, USF Athletic Director Lee Roy Selmon said he’d be content to break even.

“I think it can be (revenue generating) if you manage the controls in such a manner,” Selmon said. “If it could break even, that would be pretty good.”

Even with all the talk of dollars and cents, Selmon insists that the athletic department hasn’t lost sight of what’s truly at stake.

“Our facility is far cheaper than other comparable schools, so we’ll control costs as much as we can,” Selmon said. “We don’t have to be exactly like some other school. We don’t have the resources, so we have to be mindful, making sure we get what’s effective for us. We have a lot more to talk about, and this university has a lot to offer that other places don’t.”

What impressed Sokolove the most was what the USF players were doing with the opportunity. But that effort is a group project. In addition to coaches, athletic department staff and sports information, the university supplies an academic services program, under the direction of Phyllis LaBaw, of four full-time counselors and 40 tutors to accommodate the 450 USF intercollegiate athletes, for which football accounts for 105. With a budget of $400,000, LaBaw and her staff tend to all the needs of USF athletes. LaBaw, who Sokolove described as “half den mother, half drill sergeant,” holds a special bond with the football players, who she said require more attention than most.

On top of her work with their studies, LaBaw helps the players balance meetings, class, practice and fatherhood. Of the 105 players, LaBaw estimated in the Times article that 30 players have fathered approximately 60 children. A particular anecdote from Sokolove’s story noted the box of 5,000 condoms provided by a Tampa AIDS group that sits under her desk.

“It’s not as open as it seemed, but they do feel comfortable addressing sensitive subjects with me,” LaBaw said. “In academic services we provide support and develop, so they do rely on us for information and knowledge. We provide comfort, so they feel close enough to share sensitive subjects that they might not with other people.”

Even though the story dealt with sensitive subjects, Mitchell didn’t feel Sokolove painted an unrealistic picture of the burgeoning USF football program.

“It was an objective look at college football, which portrayed USF in a sincere light,” Mitchell said. “It was positive and showed USF is doing the right things. It was more about college football than USF. USF was just a window that the writer used to look at the perception of college football rather than focusing on USF.”