At the start of November, the University of Arizona announced that it was eliminating 21 full-time positions and 15 unfilled positions in order to offset financial losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Yesterday, the same university announced that they are ready to pay former head football coach Kevin Sumlin over $7 million to do absolutely nothing for the next year.
Sumlin was fired the day after his Wildcats were beaten 70-7 by rivals Arizona State. That loss brought Arizona’s record to 0-5 on the season, and they have now lost 12 straight games dating back to last year. Sumlin absolutely deserved to lose his job, but as is often the case when a middling football program decides to jettison the head coach they thought was going to deliver them to the upper echelons of the sport, getting rid of Sumlin will cost Arizona an absurd amount of money.
Think of how many times this year you’ve read a headline about an athletic department cutting jobs, or eliminating entire sports programs. These losses are always presented as the inevitable costs of the pandemic, an unavoidable bloodletting that must be done in order to keep the school’s lights on. You can’t just expect things to go on like business as usual while a deadly virus is keeping fans out of the stadiums and causing games to be cancelled, you know?
Except it can still be business as usual whenever the people in charge decide it should be. Arizona couldn’t find two pennies to rub together when a few dozen jobs in the athletic department were on the line, but now the school has decided that they can pull together the $7 million that’s needed to get Sumlin out the door. Some very rich boosters are about to receive some frantic phone calls. I wonder if they received any calls when all those other jobs were on the line?
And what is all this for, anyway? It’s so that Arizona can go on pretending like they are some kind of college football powerhouse in the making, a prestigious program that simply cannot abide losing seasons and bad coaches. That’s the kind of thinking that brought Sumlin—the man who turned Johnny Manziel into a star—to Tucson in the first place, and allowed him to build a $7 million golden parachute into his contract.
From here the cycle will just continue. Arizona will find some other big-name coach, one who’s probably living off his own fat buyout, and throw millions of dollars at him. Maybe he’ll lead them to a winning season or two, or even win a bowl game. Or maybe he won’t, and in three years Arizona will be paying someone else millions of dollars to go away.
No matter how much the world crumbles, nothing will ever stop universities and their bloated athletic departments from shoveling money into various furnaces so that one day their boosters can brag about watching the team go 7-5 and win the Life Alert Bowl. One day in the not-too-distant future, after surviving nuclear war, famine, and disease, you will find yourself warming your hands over a burning oil drum in the blasted landscape that used to be your home. Another traveler will stop by to share in the warmth of the flames, and he will switch on an old ham radio that he keeps clutched to his chest. A voice on the radio will inform you that Will Muschamp, who is still collecting a $10 million buyout after being fired by Texas, has just accepted a job at Northwestern.