Louisville’s President Confronts Athletic Realities

By Jamie Lisanti

Pitino will always have his tattoo to remind him of the 2013 title. (Photo: Google Images)

Pitino will always have his tattoo to remind him of the 2013 title. (Photo: Google Images)

The University of Louisville School of Medicine is four miles from the school’s main downtown campus. It is home to acclaimed doctors, state-of-the-art research facilities and students dressed in white coats and scrubs. But it is also home to overflowing lecture halls, cramped student study spaces, and an outdated curriculum – conditions that resulted in its accrediting body, the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, putting the school on probation in March 2014 for the first time in its 177 years of operation.

Less than a mile from the medical school is the newly built KFC Yum! Center: an estimated $238 million dollar arena, home of college basketball’s most valuable team worth $39.5 million, according to Forbes magazine. Inside, the arena boasts 72 luxury suites that cost from $75,000 to $95,000, four meeting rooms with a total square footage of 33,926, and a seating capacity for more than 22,000. Louisville basketball tickets sold at the KFC Yum! Center brought in $11.5 million last year.

Men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino earned just over $4.6 million from the school according to university documents, plus an additional $1.08 million in pay, reported on an NCAA-mandated outside-income report obtained by USA Today for its database of college basketball coaches’ salaries.  His extra income comes from Adidas, the shoe company, bonus money for winning the Big East Conference championship, and from the team’s Final Four appearance in 2012.

“Why not take some of that money into academics? I’d like to see the priority switch,” said Dr. Peter Hasselbacher, president of the Kentucky Health Policy Institute and a former professor at the medical school. He spoke in a phone interview as did others interviewed for this story. Hasselbacher said he thinks the medical school’s probation is a result of distractions from academics, such as Louisville’s focus on its sports ambitions, which have “caused the university to take its eye off of the ball.”

The ball the university seems to be focused on is basketball – the “front porch” of the school, according to President Dr. James Ramsey.

As a former representative faculty member on the Louisville athletic association board, Hasselbacher said he saw how college sports can corrupt the academic world. Members of the board of trustees were involved in coordinating seating and selling luxury suites for basketball games. The university spent $151,592 per athlete, while only $19,187 was spent on academics per full-time student in 2012, according to the Athletic and Academic Spending Database of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. And students paid more than $1.8 million in fees, and almost $9 million in school funds went towards athletics in 2012, according to expense and revenue reports obtained by USA Today Sports for its college athletics finances database – something Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council for Trustees and Alumni, says most colleges are not transparent about.

“It’s a pretty heavy burden for a school with only 22,000 students,” said Neal of the money used from students to help subsidize Louisville’s athletic program. “There’s not only an academic question but a moral question – one has to ask, is this sending the right message about the priorities of higher education?”

Ramsey admits it’s troubling, but it’s the reality he must face. “The educational component is far more important than the athletic component, and I may believe that, but at the same time, you’ve got to understand the marketplace. It’s more economic – I wouldn’t call it a moral issue.” When asked about Pitino and his total salary surpassing Governor Steve Beshear at $133,644, associate professor of neurological surgery, Jonathan Hodes, at $991,820, other academic professors and even his own earnings at $329,740, Ramsey said the school has to remain competitive in the college athletic marketplace, regardless of whether it is right or wrong.

Louisville had a lot to celebrate at the 2013 Final Four. (Photo: Google Images)

Louisville had a lot to celebrate at the 2013 Final Four. (Photo: Google Images)

“If we say we are going to buck the trend and ignore the marketplace and pay $500,000 for a coach, in all likelihood, we would not be as nationally competitive, not be attractive to the Big East, which was a big financial boost, and in a sense then, we would be undermining our ability to support 23 sports.” (Louisville left the Big East in 2013 to play in the American Athletic Conference last season, and next season the school will play in the Atlantic Coast Conference.)

Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich did not return several phone and email requests for comment. Kevin Miller, the executive senior associate athletic director, said in developing Pitino’s contract, he tried to create something that was comparative to that of other coaches and was reflective of Pitino’s record and success prior to Louisville. “We just felt: what do we need to do to keep him?” said Miller, who has been at the university for over 30 years and currently manages the athletic budget, a proposed $71.5 million for the 2012-13 fiscal year. Right now, Miller is helping to raise $12 million for a new academic center for the athletes, but said it’s hard to raise money for the academic needs of the athletic program. “It’s like pulling teeth. But if we needed a new weight room or something, we get it,” said Miller. At the medical school, a $7.5 million renovation is currently underway to expand student study areas and provide new lecture halls, learning labs and classrooms to students.

The athletic department, according to Miller and several other academic department sources, ensures that academics come first, supporting the “student-athlete” mantra, and it prides itself on giving back some of its earnings to the university. Last year, Ramsey asked the athletic department for $2 million to give raises to university professors and staff members, and because of the basketball program’s financial success, the request was approved. The school also reported the highest ever men’s basketball combined team GPA, a 3.47 in the fall 2013 semester, with 14 players of 371 total student-athletes recognized on the athletic director’s honor roll. Kenny Klein, the senior associate athletic director for media relations, said that change can likely be attributed to the academic preparedness and commitment of the student-athletes, who have studied majors such as sports administration, sociology, business administration, marketing and biology. He also said that Pitino talks to his team about managing finances in the stock market.

Gerard Williger, an associate professor of physics and astronomy, said being good in sports opened the door for Louisville to get into ACC later this year, and he is already seeing a positive effect on academics. Faculty research expectations will rise because of the move to the ACC, and on a departmental level, Williger is seeing tremendous opportunities for his students.

“Our undergraduates in physics and astronomy are already invited to the ACC ‘Meeting of the Minds’ research forum in Pittsburgh and we will collaborate with ACC physics and astronomy departments, which will increase our academic quality,” he said. “None of that would have been possible without athletics opening the door.”

Denny Crum, a special assistant to the university president and its men’s basketball coach before Pitino, said basketball is “just a plus-plus for the university,” and he said he believes coaches can almost demand whatever they want based on what they produce for the school. “I don’t think academics can generate that type of money,” said Crum, who won two national championships at Louisville and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Ramsey said he believes athletics is a “front porch” for Louisville because of media coverage and because of the attention that sports receive in the community, compared to the attention that academics receives. “We can make an announcement about Fulbright scholarships, but it just doesn’t get the type of coverage basketball does – it’s the stark reality.” Many athletic and university members attribute this change to the rise in television contracts and the commercialization of college sports. Dr. Joel Cormier, an assistant professor of exercise and sports science at Eastern Kentucky University and a member of The Drake Group, an organization that studies academic integrity in college sports, said the idea of sports entertainment has trumped academics at institutions.

“It’s publicity they wouldn’t otherwise get, at what price for their integrity?” he said. “They’ll give it all away at the chance to win a championship that will put them on the map.”

Pitino’s contract includes a maximum bonus of $725,000 for this year. Up to $200,000 of the total can come from his team’s academic performance, such as a collective grade point average of 3.0 (a $100,000 bonus) or an 80 percent or better graduation rate of the scholarship players, which rewards $75,000. According to Klein, the team produced the highest combined GPA for the 2013 fall semester among the university’s nine men’s sports programs. The men’s basketball team also reported a 75 percent graduation rate for the 2013 season, according to a study by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDE) at the University of Central Florida, while the overall student athlete at Louisville has an 80 percent graduation rate. Neal said one of the keys to solving the “skewing of priorities” at colleges is to make sure academic performance is reflected in the coaches’ contracts with not only financial rewards, but also fines.

UMass gave Pitino his start, and he has had several stops since. (Photo: UMass Hoops)

UMass gave Pitino his start, and he has had several stops since. (Photo: UMass Hoops)

“There should be penalties for coaches for players who aren’t graduating or maintaining a certain GPA,” she said. “Are they coming to school and not getting a degree? That should also factor into coaches’ salaries.” In order to fulfill the academic mission of schools, Neal said, board of trustees members must have greater oversight over coaches salaries and discuss the issues at hand. At the University of Louisville, board of trustees member Jonathan Blue, chairman and managing director of the private equity firm Blue Equity, said the men’s basketball team is considered the city’s professional team because it is considered a form of entertainment. “It’s not academic anymore – pure and simple. It has nothing to do with academics,” Blue said of Louisville basketball. According to Klein, the basketball team and other university sports are a part of the culture in Louisville and they give people something to rally around, which he said can also help academics.

But unlike sports, Klein said, academia doesn’t lend itself to things that are exciting to watch.

“We have a terrific medical school here,” said Klein, “But people don’t fill stadiums to watch open heart surgeries or watch scientists in their labs trying to find a cure for cancer.”

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