Do They Really Want to Be Like Rutgers?

Now that March Madness is over—by this I mean both the NCAA college-basketball tournament and the state budget process—let’s start talking about another form of insanity that involves both collegiate sports and state institutions.

You’d have to be a dedicated watcher of the ESPN sports crawl to notice this, but over the last few years, some odd place names have begun appearing in college-sports results. Buffalo, for one. Albany, for another. And Stony Brook, too.

The state-university schools in those places were once known primarily for their strong academics—they were among the public Ivy League colleges, the state equivalent of CCNY back in the day.

About a decade or so ago, however, SUNY Buffalo rechristened itself as the University at Buffalo, perhaps to shed its unfortunate reputation for academic excellence, and decided to begin fielding a big-time college football team. For years, Buffalo existed mainly to provide its New Jersey cousin, Rutgers, with a guaranteed victory—no small achievement in the late 1990’s.

With Buffalo leading the way, SUNY Albany and SUNY Stony Brook also rebranded themselves (as the University at Albany and Stony Brook University, respectively) and decided to get into the big-time sports game, too. As a matter of fact, just recently, Stony Brook announced that its football program is joining the Big South conference, whatever that is.

Apparently, it wasn’t enough that these schools provided thousands of smart New York kids with a first-rate education.

The students, somebody decided, needed to paint themselves in school colors and cheer from the sidelines in order to fully develop their academic potential.

I’ve been waiting for years to hear some lawmaker raise a question about the state university’s conversion to big-time sports. How much is Division I sports costing taxpayers? Does New York really need to be in the company of the football factories of the South and Midwest?

More than 20 years ago, dozens of colleges and universities around the country tried to take a page from Boston College, birthplace of the so-called “Flutie Effect.” As writer Murray Sperber, a retired professor of American Studies at Indiana University, has noted, Boston College saw a flurry of applications and donations after Doug Flutie won the Heisman Trophy in the early 1980’s. But Mr. Sperber, in his book College Sports Inc., showed that the move to big-time sports was ruinously expensive and never delivered the promise of bowl-game riches.

Rutgers University, the state university of New Jersey, cheerfully ignored Mr. Sperber’s warnings by pouring tens of millions into its football and basketball programs. For years, Rutgers football was a Big East joke, capable of beating Buffalo but almost nobody else. This year, of course, the team finally made it into the Top 15—but at what cost? The tab for football at Rutgers is so huge that the athletic department recently found itself in the hole for a million bucks. The department cut crew, men’s swimming and several other low-profile sports.

Just yesterday, Rutgers enjoyed another high-profile athletic success, with its women’s basketball team playing archrival Tennessee for the national championship. I suspect that folks in Buffalo, Albany and Stony Brook were watching with envy, and dreaming of doing likewise.

Maybe it’ll happen. Maybe it won’t. But why are these schools—supported as they are with tax dollars—proceeding with little or no supervision? If any State Comptroller in the last decade has studied the cost-benefit analysis of big-time sports at SUNY, I’m not aware of it.

In the meantime, I know of several parents who are discouraging their children from attending Albany. Word on the street has it that the school is best known today for its parties.

I’m sure that’s unfair. But I’m also sure that building a big-time sports program at SUNY may hurt, rather than help, the schools’ reputations for excellence.