Rutgers' folly

Bergen Record

February 27, 2014

AND SO it continues, this folly that is Rutgers' maddening race for big-time college athletics gold and the prize of riches that awaits at the finish line. In Rutgers' dreams, the Scarlet Knights trail by just a step in this race, a couple of halting breaths behind such NCAA superpowers as Alabama or Texas or Ohio State, places where athletics don't just pay for themselves, but pay out lavish contracts to attract the top football and basketball coaches in the land. Programs whose spending, it seems, knows no end.

Indeed, not only is Rutgers nowhere close to these imagined rivals, it is faltering near the back of the pack. As Staff Writers Patricia Alex and Leslie Brody report, Rutgers increased its subsidy to the university athletic department by two-thirds during the first year of President Robert L. Barchi's tenure, to the tune of $47 million in total subsidies. Reportedly, the increase of $19 million makes Rutgers the most highly subsidized public sports program in the nation.

Rutgers officials say the huge increase was largely to pay for the fallout from recent high-profile scandals that have damaged the athletics department and also for costs associated with the public university's entrance into the powerful Big Ten Athletic Conference, where Rutgers will have the privilege of squaring off against big-name opponents like Penn State and Michigan and, eventually, share in the collection of millions of dollars in revenue for TV broadcasts.

Of course, all this glory-chasing comes at a time when middle-class students across New Jersey are being priced out of attending the state's most prized public university. And just as Rutgers' subsidy of its athletics program continues to rise, so do tuition costs. Indeed, tuition and fees for residents at the state university top $13,000, one of the highest rates in the country for a public school. Meanwhile, those tuition costs come as the state faces a crippling budget shortfall.

Perhaps the powers that be at Rutgers are right and the Big Ten will be the athletic program's magic ticket to fame and a more sustaining budget. Perhaps the thrill of national championships, big bowl contracts and March Madness exposure are just around the corner. Yet we are skeptical: To begin with, Rutgers continues this chase with Barchi at the helm. He's the man who so badly bungled the firing of abusive basketball coach Mike Rice and oversaw the short-sighted, controversial hiring of new athletics director Julie Hermann.

We tend to agree more with Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver, D-Essex, who suggests that Rutgers may be "chasing a pipe dream." Unfortunately, Oliver is one of the few people in Trenton willing to speak candidly about Rutgers' athletics misfortunes, where millions and millions of dollars keep disappearing in a hole said to lead to big-time riches just down the road.

Maybe it's time Rutgers readjusted the school's athletics goals. Maybe it's time to quit believing it's going to rain gold.

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