T. Boone: Good For College Sports?

The ink on the stories about Sean Sutton's unceremonious dismissal as Oklahoma State's basketball coach had barely dried when Kansas fans began to freak over the imminent run that would be made by the school on current KU coach and Cowboy favorite son, Bill Self.

This was a totally different freak, though, than when Roy Williams was courted away by North Carolina five years ago. That freak was about a guy who was a total sucker for things like “home” and “family,” not to mention “waffles,” going back home. Besides, he was called home – home being located in a beautiful area that is college basketball crazy, by the way – by his mentor and hero. He was begged to take the helm of one of the top three college basketball programs in the country. Sure, the Tar Heels had fallen on hard times, but they were just a couple of seasons removed from a final four. Come on, admit it: that kind of an offer would resonate with just about anyone, no matter how much you love your current job.

No, this week’s freak was different. As much as Cowboy fans want to think it is, this wasn’t about coming home and family and basked breakfast products slathered in Mrs. Butterworth’s.

This most-recent Jayhawk panic attack was induced by money.

Legendary corporate raider and athletics director wanna-be Boone Pickens has already made a $165 million donation to Oklahoma State to, among other things, renovate their football stadium. Doggone it – what the name of the stadium? Oh, yeah: T. Boone Pickens Stadium.

Part of that money will also go to build Oklahoma State a new baseball stadium, tennis facilities, a soccer and track complex and an equestrian center as part of an athletic village that will cost the school more than $300 million. Where’s the rest of the money going to come from? Well, Okie State athletics has invested over $300 million with Dallas-based BP Capital Management. Guess what the BP stands for.

You get the drift.

Kansas fans weren’t worried about Bill Self being unhappy in Lawrence. He isn’t. Kansas fans weren’t worried about Bill Self taking Oklahoma State’s coaching job because it’s a better job. It isn’t.

What worried KU fans was the Benjamins; specifically, how much money was T. Boone Pickens going to throw at Bill Self to try and get him to leave Kansas?

I’ve heard guesses of anywhere from $4 million to $9 million a year. KU money sets Bill Self’s family up for life; Boone Pickens/Oklahoma State money sets his grandkids’ families up for life.

I don’t think Self is going anywhere. It’s just a gut. I think he’s truly happy where he is. He’s building his own program for the long haul. His family has started to put down some roots, maybe for the first time in his career. Next week, he’s going to meet with his boss and get a big, fat pay raise and contract extension in the neighborhood (I’m speculating) of something like seven years at $2.5 million per, $3 million with performance incentives. That’s a lot of Pizza Shuttle, my friends.

So Oklahoma State will make a run at someone else, then, and it won’t be an assistant from at a recently-successful tournament team. I don’t think they want a mid-major success story. They want a Self or a Calipari or a Billy Clyde. They want a rock star, and to get one to Stillwater, Oklahoma, T. Boone is going to have to pay. A lot. I mean, we’re talking borderline Oprah money, here.

There are already low-level rumblings that T. Boone’s willingness to throw his money around is going to make a permanent and negative impact on college athletics. A huge college sports fan buddy of mine likened him to George Steinbrenner. “We don’t need someone like that in college basketball. It will escalate coaches’ salaries to the point that most schools won’t be able to land a good coach,” he worried aloud.

Oh, it will make a huuuuuge impact. Furthermore, it probably will allow the rich to become richer, in the short term.

In the long term, however, T. Boone’s millions could be exactly what college athletics needs.

I believe in the law of supply and demand. Let the market play itself out and see what happens. Sure, Steinbrenner was a blowhard bonehead a lot of the time, but I could easily argue that baseball is bigger and much better than it was 35 years ago, before George bought the Yankees and really cracked open the checkbook. Since then, a lot of people in baseball – owners, players and teams – have made a lot of money in that span, despite what Bud Selig and Don Fehr want you to think. But making money is why anyone goes into any business, right?

A fan of nearly any major league baseball team in the country can now go home and watch their favorite team every day, and not just locally but on any one of a bunch of cable networks or packages offered by Major League Baseball. A Diamondbacks fan in Reading, Pennsylvania, can drink watch his team from the comfort of his living room Barkalounger. I’m not even a baseball fan, and I know that’s a good thing.

These improvements have all been made possible because a couple of decades ago, a number of baseball owners made the conscious and costly decision to position baseball not as a sport but as entertainment. As an entertainment option, it had to compete with every other entertainment option out there. To compete, it takes big names and big money. Baseball the entertainment option has not only survived this leap of faith but has thrived because of it.

So, if Boone Pickens wants to spend $6.5 million a year, go nuts. I am convinced that this move could move the NCAA closer to becoming the for-profit entity that it really is, along with the athletic departments at its member schools. That’s an honest and, I think, appropriate move to make.

The NCAA still claims that intercollegiate athletics is a “student activity.” That’s a joke, particularly at the Division I level. Let’s be upfront and call this what it is: entertainment.  Let smart, well-connected people run it instead of letting academicians bumble their way through it under the auspices of higher education.

There are a lot of old guys in Indianapolis who have an awful lot invested in maintaining this façade, but once the schools start investing even more than they already are, the accelerated arms race is on, and it’s going to be crazy. Those old men won’t have a choice but to either adapt or get off the gravy train.

A word of caution, though: Boone needs to keep in mind that George was able to buy multiple World Series titles. Money can’t buy college national championships anymore. Too many people, including opposing coaches and fans, are watching. John Calipari is really, really good, but could he have convinced Chris Douglas-Roberts and Derrick Rose to do time in Stillwater? Kevin Love or Sherron Collins or Ty Lawson at Eskimo Joe’s? Never gonna happen.

A great coach might experience success in Stillwater, and money can build shiny new facilities and cheerleader uniforms and a team plane, but in the end, all the money in the world will never make Oklahoma State a college basketball blueblood.

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