Rep. Pelowski on how the buyout of Tubby Smith could hurt UMN

Supports the U -- but dislikes its administrative and sports spending

Yesterday I linked to a Rochester Post-Bulletin article that quoted the state House higher education committee chairman calling the $2.5 million contract buyout for fired University of Minnesota basketball coach Tubby Smith “obscene.”

The chairman, Rep. Gene Pelowski (DFL-Winona), has been tough on spending by the U and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system. I called him up to see if he’d elaborate.

(What follows is a rundown of my radio reporting — but also other quotes, tidbits and context.)

He stood by his words, and said the buyout could hurt the university’s chances of receiving the state funding it wants for future sports facilities.

Pelowski said the buyout shows that the university can afford to pay more of the cost of construction.

He told me:

“When we have the bonding hearings, if there is anything relating to athletics, this will be a topic of conversation. Because you’re now talking millions of dollars that are apparently available that could just as well go into buildings as paying someone not to do anything — or paying someone to do an incredibly mediocre job.”

The U often puts forth bonding requests for athletics facilities, he said, even though it’s unclear whether we’ll have a bonding bill this year.

One of the potential requests if for a basketball practice facility that Smith had long sought. The university has included it in a master building plan that could cost as much as $125 million. Athletic Director Norwood Teague told reporters in February the university has considered asking the state to help pay for the project.

Pelowski said he’ll be compiling a list of past buyouts and possibly other payments to get an idea of how much the U has been spending in total.

Recent payments that have raised eyebrows include:

  • North Carolina. In October, the U paid $800,000 to North Carolina to cancel a pair of non-conference football games so the Gophers could play an opponent who would likely be weaker; and
  • Pam Borton. The women’s basketball coach — whose NCAA tournament record had drawn criticism — quietly received a two-year contract extension in the last days of athletic director Joel Maturi’s tenure, the Star Tribune has reported. The article calculates it could cost the U an extra $165,000 in the event of a buyout.

(The Star Tribune writes the U has already paid more than $4 million in the past seven years to former coaches.)

Smith’s three-year extension signed last July raised his buyout after this season from $1.5 million to $2.5 million.

Pelowski said that suggests some cash is lying around at the athletic department — and that he’ll keep that in mind when officials are in front of him at hearings:

“It’s a little bit tough to look us in the face, isn’t it, and say you absolutely have to have that new money because you … you couldn’t have found it anywhere else.”

Buyouts are pretty common in college sports. And Teague told reporters:

“When you hire a coach and you want to hire a very good coach, you have to put buyouts there. Otherwise, you have a major hand behind your back. But I’ll be smart about that, and we’ll work hard in that area (when negotiating the next coach’s contract).”

One other thing to keep in mind: The U has subsidized its athletics program in past years. The Minnesota Daily reported that the figure was $2.3 million during the 2011 fiscal year — and in 2010 it reported it had poured in $26 million in the previous five. (I’ll be calling the U to get an updated annual number.)

That subsidy may blur the athletic-academic division to some people.

Pelowski says many of his constituents are hurting, having lost jobs and houses to the recession. Some are seeing red:

“They don’t understand these types of finances at the University of Minnesota. And they’re the ones who pay the taxes. They’re the ones who underwrite the bonds for the University of Minnesota. They’re the ones who tell us whether or not we’re going to raise taxes in this legislative session to increase funding for higher education. … This is not how you should operate your university or your athletic department.”

He also questioned what the state is getting for the money:

“Look at the product. You’re paying more and more, and certainly the product doesn’t show the value of the money you have in it. So I think now you’ve approached the point of diminishing returns. … You’re paying far too much and getting far too little. The public now knows it. I think it’s time for the U to realize it, and for athletics to realize it, too. This is amateur athletics. It’s a game.”

State funding may be tight anyway, no matter how other legislators view the U’s spending.

Earlier this year, Pelowski was skeptical that the state would be able to fund Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget proposal of $240 million for higher education, which includes $80 million for the U. (That amount would ensure a two-year tuition freeze as well as support for research, among the major items.)

Indeed, he says the House bill now puts funding at $150 million, while the Senate has it at $250 million and the governor’s proposal is still at $240 million.

I’ve got a call out to Pelowski’s Senate counterpart, Terri Bonoff (DFL-Minnetonka). I’m curious to find out how she sees things.

Update: Although Bonoff said she is concerned with the payout, she says it won’t color her thinking if the U asks for state for help with sports facilities. She said she has faith in the U’s new leaders, and that Teague needs to put in his own people if he’s ever to build a successful program. She said, however, she’s meeting with Teague next week.