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Mitch Daniels’ Open Letter to Purdue

Mitch Daniels had some interesting things to say about athletic spending.

Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier today Mitch Daniels, the esteemed President of Purdue, distributed an open letter to the people of Purdue aimed at students, alumni, and faculty as sort of a "State of the University address. In it, he addresses ongoing research, student success, athletics, anti-discrimination and more. While the research and student successes are excellent, for the purposes of this blog I wanted to discuss the athletics section. If you would like to view the full letter it can be found here.

Here is what President Daniels had to say, with my comments following each section:

Few activities can infuse life into a campus as much as our intercollegiate sports teams do. No, sports is not the core purpose of a university like ours and yes, the size and emphasis on college athletics is a uniquely American custom, not seen anywhere else in the world or even in the U.S. until the last century or so. But its role in bringing students together with each other, and with alumni and members of our neighboring communities, cannot be denied.

I can get on board with this. As the President of a major university, education is the primary concern. He states the obvious that intercollegiate athletics has exploded in its importance and has become a major component of the U.S. college experience. Hell, I arguably attended Purdue explicitly because I grew up a Purdue fan.

Nor can the growing abuses and excesses that should trouble even those who, like me, are avid lifelong sports fans. Providing the enjoyment and excitement that athletic competition creates without surrendering to the collapsed standards that the unconstrained pursuit of victory often produces, is a challenge of increasing difficulty, especially in the top-tier division in which Purdue participates.

This seems close to another "athletics arms race" quote. It is no secret that Daniels is against the unrestrained spending that many schools have. Even then, Purdue is more often a spender because its position in the Big Ten has it with a much larger budget than most of Division I. It really is a difficult position to be in. Our university is more well off than 80% of Division I, but is far behind that upper echelon so it is kind of stuck in the middle. How do you compete with the elite without spending like them, yet you're well above the MEACs and SWACs of the world that have no chance?

2015, like all recent years, saw a rash of scandals, both behavioral and financial. There were more incidents of schools recruiting or transferring in players with histories of violence against women or other unacceptable misconduct. One high-profile Division I coach was quoted as saying, "We were doing fine until classes started."  Peer institutions, while heavily subsidizing athletics from student tuition and fees, still run deficits forcing the cancellation of "non-revenue" sports. Coaching salaries and total budgets continue to escalate. With tongue only partially in cheek, one college president I know of quips, "We hope to be a university our football team can be proud of."

As opposed to having a football team the university can be proud of? It is not much fun on the other side of things, Mitch, but are you telling me we are somehow better because we don't recruit woman beaters? Um, okay?

Also, I don't think we have to worry about canceling non-revenue sports since we already sponsor the fewest in the Big Ten. There aren't many to cancel! The budget problem is also greatly helped by the Big Ten money coming in. Imagine if we subsidized even a little. Purdue has a $2.443 billion endowment and is in the middle of a massive $2 billion fundraising campaign. We're not exactly broke.

Against this discouraging backdrop, Purdue continues to hold itself to standards of which our Boilermaker family can be proud. Athlete conduct has been generally exemplary, and when transgressions have occurred, they have been dealt with promptly and firmly. "Student athlete" is an oxymoron at some colleges, but not ours: Purdue is home to real students, taking real courses, getting honest grades. Again in 2015, as it has for almost three decades, the all-athlete GPA exceeded that of the student body as a whole.

Again, the student side of things is absolutely excellent. I agree that there have been missteps, but they have been dealt with and it is even encouraging to hear stories like Dwayne Beckford righting things at Marian University as a former Boiler. I am very glad that our athletes are true students. I just would like to win some football games too. The Boilermaker family is not exactly proud of that.

And our athletic department remained one of the few in America that pays for itself. As it stands, fewer than 2% of our undergraduates participate in an intercollegiate sport. We can be glad that the other 98% are not involuntarily charged to subsidize an activity beyond their abilities and perhaps outside their areas of interest.

Yes, this is good, but Purdue is not exactly broke, and we have one of the largest enrollments on campus in America. If we had to subsidized it would not nearly be as drastic as, say, Valparaiso doing so. Thankfully, we have that B1G cheddar funding almost everything.

It is highly likely that the next few years will bring us markedly increased athletic revenues, regardless of the winning percentage of our men's football and basketball teams. Our Big Ten Conference, led by the extraordinarily skillful commissioner who created the Big Ten Network, is in the process of renewing the conference's national television contracts at much higher rights fees.

Great, you're basically saying that no matter what the football team does, nothing will change because of that sweet, sweet B1G cheddar. Do you not realize that a good football team brings in a lot more money than one in the toilet playing in an empty stadium? In 2014 Purdue somehow made $4.4 million on football, and that was 13th in the conference ahead of only Rutgers. How much did the big boys make? More than 10 times that! Michigan's $64 million profit is almost all of Purdue's $71 million budget for 18 sports!

If successful, this would represent a fundamental acceleration of an already apparent trend. Not long ago, the vast majority of Big Ten athletic department revenues came from ticket sales and related receipts; soon, the commissioner reports, a majority will derive from media payments. So the impending major increase is a big moment. But not necessarily a purely positive one because, if every penny of this new revenue is poured into athletics, it will simply fuel the next round of an arms race that is already out of control.


On one hand, the new infusion will enable many schools to end their subsidies and onerous student fees and retain general revenues for academic purposes. And, within limits, it will enable our university to compete more evenly with schools who assign athletics an even higher priority than we might think appropriate.

Nice dig at the rest of the Big Ten. Might not want to piss them off before they kick us out for having a lousy football team for their media ratings.

If the new contracts eventuate as expected, I will speak in favor of a conference-wide approach that commits a meaningful share of incremental media dollars to the academic missions of our universities. There is great opportunity here, for Purdue and the other Big Ten members, and maybe also to make a statement of value to the rest of American higher ed and to our fellow devotees of excellence in college sports.

Yes, there is a fantastic opportunity here for that and it is a wonderful idea. I also think it would be a fantastic idea if I won the $700 million Powerball tomorrow night. Also, if the Palestinians and Israelis could just get over there 5,000 year feud that would be great too. None of these are happening. It really irks me that Mitch is crying poor and begging for Big Ten money from the athletic department when the following is true:

1. The athletic department ALREADY gives money back to the school ($1.5 million a year according to this article).

2. The athletic department has the second smallest budget in the Big Ten with the fewest sports.

3. As mentioned above, the University is actively involved in a campaign to almost DOUBLE its existing endowment by 2019.

So, are you kidding me, Mitch? This is like if Bill Gates asked me to help fund his research for Windows 11. His ideas are good, but they are based in a dream world where the rest of the conference that already outspends us in every way is going to voluntarily try and hold itself to the standards of one of its lowest and, quite frankly, least important members. I can't help but imagine the other 13 schools in the Big Ten bursting out with laughter at trying to follow "The Purdue model", because it clearly doesn't work.

Now I do not advocate spending recklessly and I have no delusions that Purdue will someday have the budget and revenue streams of an Ohio State or Michigan, but it is pretty clear that something has to change because Daniels' approach simply does not work to be competitive in the Big Ten. Nothing will change, either, as long as he is calling the shots. By any performance metric aside from balancing the budget Morgan Burke would be under fire from the university President, but not at Purdue. He balances the budget and handles financials how Mitch wants him to, regardless of missing obvious ways to increase revenue such as "have good football team".

And it is more than just revenue from ticket sales. You think the President of Clemson is not absolutely elated for all the free "Hey, come to Clemson" advertising they are getting this week in advance of the national championship game? You think that doesn't increase overall donations and university exposure? You think more people are not aware of Clemson and either considering as a school or even thinking, "hey, I might buy a Clemson shirt?", and thus increasing their overall revenue? Clemson, as a school, is not much different from Purdue. THEY ARE A FREAKING LAND-GRANT SCHOOL TOO! It goes beyond simple spending too. As we have seen with Darrell Hazell, even win you modestly increase spending it can have disastrous results if the right people aren't making the right decisions. But none of this matters at Purdue. Extra revenue and exposure from success? It doesn't matter. we have to reign it all in because it is out of control according to Mitch.

So basically, the next time we play "Where's Mitch?" at Ross-Ade Stadium it should be quite easy to find him (and not because hardly anyone else is there). He'll be at the bank cashing another Big Ten media rights check. It's a good thing we started the Big Ten otherwise we'd be out.