Saban move didn't start college arms race

ATHENS – It certainly didn't start with Nick Saban's $4 million a year contract.

The arms race that was highlighted earlier this year when the University of Alabama lured Saban from the NFL with that deal has roots going much deeper. In fact, when it all started, hardly anyone noticed.

It was 1984, and Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie threw a 48-yard touchdown pass to Gerard Phelan on the last play of the game to beat Miami 47-45. The pass made Flutie a household name around the country that year, but its bigger impact, which was recognized by only a handful of people, still is rippling through college athletic department budgets.

Boston College saw a 12 percent increase in applications to its university the following year, and a theory was born. It's known in academic circles as the Flutie Effect, and it goes like this: high-profile athletic success equals more attention for the school which equals more applicants for the school which equals a pickier admissions office which equals a better class of students.

Thus, every dollar spent chasing the dream of athletic glory can be excused as a means to a greater end. It has worked at places like the University of Miami, which saw applications increase 33 percent in the three years after its 1987 national title, and Georgia Tech, which had a 21 percent increase in the three years after its 1990 national title.

However, those are the exceptions, according to Robert Frank, an economics professor who prepared the Knight Commission called "Challenging the Myth." Multiple studies have suggested that the Flutie Effect is non-existent at most schools that subscribe to it, according to a Frank's report.

"Wouldn't one be better off spending some more money on Noble Prize winners or spending money on an advertising campaign," said economist Jonathan Orszag, who also has studied college athletic spending. "Imagine if you spent a couple million dollars on an ad campaign, how many people would be exposed to your school?"

The second-most prevalent argument in favor of increased athletic spending is that it will be offset by increased donations, Orsazg said. However, multiple studies have shown limited evidence of that, he said.

In fact, a 1994 report by Paul Grimes and George Chressanthins conducted at Mississippi State from 1962-1991 found that donations actually went down as the football team's winning percentage went up.

Still, Frank and Orszag acknowledge there are winners in the spending game. For example, Boise State.

The Broncos have slowly grown their football program into a national name, and they took another huge step forward by beating Oklahoma 43-42 in a dramatic Fiesta Bowl in January.

Applications to the school immediately increased, Boise State athletics director Gene Bleymaier said.

"I think that's directly related to the Fiesta Bowl," he said. "Especially for an institution that is young like ours to have that kind of a stage and then to perform the way that we did significantly benefits the university, the academic side as well as the athletic side."

The Broncos have managed their success without breaking the bank, Bleymaier said. Boise State's 2006 budget was $18 million, less than half the average of the BCS conference schools.

"It certainly has benefited our university and our community," he said. "We're part of the common good here. We haven't done it by overspending or pouring a lot of money into the department. We've just been fortunate and had success and consistent success. I think for the money that has been invested in our program the returns have been significant. It has turned out too be a tremendous investment."

The winners of the game are the problem, says David Ridpath, the director of the Drake Group, a college athletics watchdog group.

Ridpath loved watching Boise State's win, not to mention the feel-good run of the George Mason basketball team to the 2006 Final Four, he said. However, he fears those rare examples only exacerbate the arms race.

"In reality, it was the worst thing to happen in college athletics because now everybody thinks they can do it and everybody will be held to that standard," he said.

The rapid rate of increased spending can't end well for college athletics, particularly those at the mid-major level, Ridpath argues.

"It will eventually catch up the Ohio States of the world, but that's farther down the road," he said. "It's already caught up with the mid-major schools."

The Drake Group has advocated government intervention in college athletics such as revoking the tax-exempt status of college athletic departments or even an antitrust exemption that would allow athletic directors to better control coaching salaries.

"It has shown no signs of abating," Ridpath said. "I don't know if they're going to stop it. It's kind of like the mob. We have to look somewhere above and beyond college athletics, because they have not show the ability to check this themselves."

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