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What Grantland and Sports on Earth got wrong about Rutgers football
Rutgers is 6-0, and that of course means that they're getting more attention from the national media. The idea was "in the air" so to speak, as if Hollywood suddenly decided that the world needed two movies about volcanos, Snow White, asteroids, or casual sex. As could be expected, not all of the takes are positive. Some of it, like the criticisms of the team's schedule, you can't control. Let's get to December and examine everyone's resumes then. For now, let's discuss two pieces today from Sports on Earth (a new venture from USA Today) and Grantland (Bill Simmons's site on ESPN) however. Both budding new media ventures decided to give the contrarian feature take to our beloved Scarlet Knights. How'd they do?
First, Matt Brown from Sports on Earth.
Rutgers made a commitment to joining college football’s arms race, and the program keeps chugging along with rhetoric familiar to any college football program, a few years after crashing and burning financially -- an era that ended in 2008 with the firing of former athletic director Bob Mulcahy "amid revelations of unchecked spending and secret deals," in the words of The Star-Ledger.
As a novice to the topic, Brown likely is not aware that the Star-Ledger's investigations were largely fictionalized and discredited. Their claim that Greg Schiano's contract contained a clause tied to stadium expansion was completely incorrect, as was the claim that the athletic department secretly paid Schiano out of an arrangement with Nelligan Sports Marketing. In fact, the Ledger has disinterestedly reported on Schiano's payments from Nelligan several years sooner. Mulcahy was completely vindicated by an internal university audit, but was dismissed on a demand from a New Jersey legislator who threatened to cut the school's funding if Mulcahy was not cut loose. There is not a single record or evidence of any financial misdeeds or malfeasance under Bob Mulcahy. His ethics and integrity are and remain beyond reproach. What happened here was that a former political rival of Mulcahy's (he came to Rutgers after decades in New Jersey politics) fed the paper leaks in a successful attempt to get him fired.
Beyond that critical error, unfortunately while Brown's article is pessimistic, it is mostly correct. Being stuck in the Big East is not a good outcome. It may well be the case that adding Boise and such will counteract the losses of West Virginia, Pitt, and Syracuse, and the Big East may still earn a decent television contract, but there is a significant prestige gap.
And there’s little indication that New York City cares about Rutgers football -- or Syracuse for that matter. Syracuse brands itself as "New York’s College Team," but at "New York’s College Classic" against USC last month -- played in New Jersey, of course -- there were at least as many fans of the team from California as there were for the team from upstate New York. Syracuse may not have a strong foothold in the city, but it does have assets that Rutgers can’t match: a prestigious basketball program that adds to the ACC brand, and, despite mixed results, a football tradition that features a national championship, some prominent bowl games and Jim Brown and Ernie Davis. It has name recognition that Rutgers lacks.
One mishap that a lot of commentators make on this topic is conflating New York City and the New York City television market. The latter includes, among other area, New Jersey, giving Rutgers a clear foothold as the college football program with the largest following in the New York City metropolitan area. This is evidenced by Rutgers having the best college football ratings both on local cable and national cable for the market. It's by no means dominant, but no one does better, and the trend lines are in the program's favor. This is no contest. The ACC added Syracuse for basketball, both directly, and to the end of destabilizing the Big East so that Notre Dame would feel the need to leave.
Let's move on to Michael Weinreb from Grantland. A lot of readers will dismiss Weinreb out of hand as a Penn State alumnus (Joe Paterno was considered to be the devil in in Piscataway, Syracuse, Morgantown, etc... long before anyone gave a hoot about Jerry Sandusky), but let's consider the merit of the arguments. As to the central thesis, Weinreb suffers from what David Hume's famous induction fallacy. X has always happened, therefore, X always will happen. This is not an argument that is new to Rutgers football, which is faced skepticism at every step over the past decade. They will never do this, they will never do that; all summarily disproven in time. The naysayers have long become a broken record, although I suppose that would not be clear to an interloper wading into these long warmed-over waters.
In fact, the first principle of this very site is arguing the exact opposite: the main causal factor in athletic success is resources. Matters of fact have played out as they have, but over time and given a large enough sample size (quite a big concern in this discussion), all things being equal, there will be a regression, and that will regression will be to the benefit of Rutgers. Not only is this a significant point of contention, but as Rutgers partisans will argue again, recent trends are working in our favor.
As to the section regarding Professor Killingsworth, my feelings on the man are clear. He is not an outright, disingenuous liar such as the infamous William Dowling. Killingsworth is coming from a place of deep faculty frustration about recent university budget cuts, but his arguments are simplistic and misleading, and most importantly, his conclusion is not correct. Killingsworth blames athletics from being immune from university budget cuts, but ignores the larger culprit of decreasing state funding, which has in turn led to massive enrollment increases, hurting the university's academic prestige. Athletic subsidies are pocket change in comparison, but sure do make a useful scapegoat.
Yes, Rutgers had to spend money to upgrade its athletic programs, but that's because they were neglected for decades. As Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti would argue, the athletic department doesn't have a spending problem, but rather, a revenue problem. Their spending overtures are more than comparable to peer athletic departments, but there is no historic football power in the Big East conference to help subsidize their operations. If they had made more of an emphasis on winning athletics sooner, they wouldn't be stuck in a conference with a horrific television contract that contributes a pittance of revenue. Pernetti has been cutting costs, but his bigger focus has been on revenue generation, and thus cannot be fairly evaluated on this point until some clear data on television revenue comes in later in the calendar year.
When I talked with Prof. Killingsworth about this over email a few months ago, he expressed skepticism that the university was telling the truth in its official athletic budget figures. Those attributed a $2 million dollar deficit to football in the most recent calendar year, with the majority of the deficit attributable to non-athletic programs. Killingsworth alleged that Rutgers had been massaging the football deficit by attributing the cost of stadium expansion to the broader athletic department. In fact, what ended up happening was that the specific change was made a year later - meaning that the $2 million figure was relatively accurate in this context. In fact, it was more than intuitive given that NCAA research has shown that on average, football and men's basketball are the only DI programs to make money, with every other sport being a money loser.
The same is true at Rutgers, meaning that the thesis that Rutgers should cut monies to its football program to reduce its athletic department entirely wrongheaded. This is the bulk of my complaint with Killingsworth and similar critics. If you really want Rutgers to stop subsidizing athletics, then in theory, they should cut their non-revenue sports and focus even more on football and men's basketball. Arguing otherwise is basically akin to saying that the federal government should cut spending by focusing on PBS instead of defense and entitlements. They want Rutgers to not subsidize athletics so much, and then demand that Rutgers put less of an emphasis on, financially, its most popular sports. The notion is ridiculous, and the fact that this is still considered serious, reasoned commentary instead of immediately dismissed as illogical nonsense is a sad commentary on the state of discourse in this country.
Update: Brown is a Penn State alumnus as well, which is whatever, except for the fact that he was a research assistant for Joe Posnanski's sick Joe Paterno hagiography. There goes any credibility he had. As much as you don't want to connect the dots, the Penn State connection here will raise more than few eyebrows.