Wiedmer: Who's in charge of these guys?

Wiedmer: Who's in charge of these guys?

May 28th, 2009 by Mark Wiedmer in Opinion Columns

So Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive took his football coaches to the woodshed, did he? Threw all 5-9, 170 pounds of himself into every word he said - Slive's description - did he? Basically said that membership in the SEC is as much responsibility as privilege.

And when he was done with Wednesday's tongue-lashing of his spoiled brats at the SEC's spring meetings, the Commish reportedly flashed a smile and told the assembled media, "I believe they got my message."

But why is this message just being delivered on the final week of May? The behavior of new Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin has been a major embarrassment for more than four months. LSU coach Les Miles has delivered occasional zingers in the direction of former Tigers coach and current Alabama boss Nick Saban for at least 15 months. And if South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier didn't invent the verbal jab, he's been perfecting it for the past 30 years.

This isn't to say Slive waited too long. He has already censored Kiffin once for wrongly calling Florida coach Urban Meyer a cheater. You would normally think that a public reprimand from your conference czar would demand a private humbling from your school president and athletic director.

Of course, UT president John Petersen is a lame duck and AD Mike Hamilton has steadfastly refused to publicly denounce Kiffin's crass conduct.

In fact, in anticipation of this week's league meetings in Destin, Fla., Hamilton even seemed to bolster Kiffin's apparent belief that any publicity is good publicity.

"When you think about the fact that our football program was 5-7 last year and we've got a coach that's not coached a game yet in college football, yet we're on the front page of USA Today sports (Tuesday, May 19), it's really quite amazing," Hamilton told the Associated Press last week.

"Now we prefer that attention to always be positive, but sometimes you take the good with the bad in that regard."

So much for the chain of command being 1) president, 2) athletic director, 3) coach. At UT, the buck apparently stops with Kiffin. And perhaps that's the way it should be. Every multi-millionaire for himself, even as league revenues are evenly split among all 12 schools. Just kick it off or tip it up and may the best jerk win.

Beyond that, the very fact that USA Today chose to plaster Kiffin across its sports front in late May strongly supports Hamilton's assertion that bad publicity is only slightly less desireable than good publicity as long as it doesn't sour recruits on your program.

Let's also quit embracing the quaint notion that universities are really in this to benefit the athlete above all else.

Maybe former Kentucky basketball coach Billy Gillispie deserved to be fired after two seasons, a decision that may well cost Big Blue close to $6 million. Gillispie hadn't been seen rolling metal balls in his hands or accusing the Wildcats of pilphering strawberries but the Captain Queeg-like coach appeared to have a Caine-tucky Mutiny on his hands if UK hadn't fired him.

So maybe dismissing him after UK's first season outside the NCAA Tournament in 18 years really was for the good of the players. But paying new coach John Calipari was for strictly for the good of the game's winningest program.

Same with Tennessee football. Phillip Fulmer's best days may have been behind him, but the guy was in the SEC title game a year earlier. Hamilton didn't axe Fulmer because he couldn't coach. The school dismissed him because too many fans needed to foot the bill for the $240-million renovation of Neyland Stadium believed he couldn't coach.

It always comes back to money, and at a time when fans everywhere have far less of it, all SEC schools might want to start putting the fans and the athletes first.

In other words, in these tough economic times, let charity and clarity begin at home.

For starters, freeze season ticket prices at 2008 rates this year and next. Also suspend until the 2010-11 school year those annual "gifts" that often determine where those tickets are located. This doesn't mean the ticket holders don't have to pay them, just that they'll have a little extra time to fulfill earlier commitments.

End the extravagance. Stop trying to build locker rooms for 20-year-old kids that would make Donald Trump blush. If it takes mahogany over oak to sign the best running back this side of Herschel Walker, do you really want him?

Tie meaningful coaching bonuses to academic performance. Wins and losses are going to ultimately determine their long-term employment, but make graduation rates and degree advancement rates six-figure bonuses.

Quit making college basketball a year-round sport. It's no wonder these athletes struggle in school. They start playing exhibition games in October and stage their national championship in April. Who has time for class?

Finally, if you think a football playoff's good for the UT-Chattanoogas and Applachian States of the world, do the same for the UT-Knoxvilles and Arizona States. The FCS guys finish their playoffs before Christmas. Surely the big boys could squeeze one in by the start of the second semester. Besides, the television money alone might just save college athletics at every level.

But whatever you do, please do it quietly. The rest of us have too many real problems of our own to listen to immature multi-millionaires try to manufacture problems by hurting each other with words.