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Guest view: Priorities in Final Four all wrong

11:04 PM, Apr. 7, 2013  |  Comments

No matter which team wins the NCAA championship tonight, one thing is certain: Its coach will be extremely well paid for getting there. Salaries for the Final Four coaches range from $1.2 million to nearly $5 million - including some hefty bonuses for getting to the finals.

So goes big-time sports these days. Coaches get paid for performance, with bonuses for hitting targets during the season and in the tournament. Fair enough. But it's too bad no one remembered that this is college basketball and that the players are student-athletes, a point the NCAA strains to make at every tournament news conference. Despite that distinction, the bonuses overwhelmingly reward performance on the court, usually taking little notice of the classroom.

University of Michigan coach John Beilein will pocket $175,000 in bonuses if he wins the NCAA title. But nowhere in his contract is a single dollar encouraging him to improve his players' academic achievement.

At Wichita State, just $20,000 of coach Gregg Marshall's potential bonus of $800,000 is for academics.

Such "warped priorities," as Education Secretary Arne Duncan and former basketball star and Rhodes Scholar Tom McMillen wrote in USA TODAY last month, are characteristic of big-time college football and basketball programs.

In a survey of 50 football and basketball coaching contracts, they found average athletic incentives of $600,000 per coach, compared with $52,000 for academic performance. This 11-to-1 ratio reinforces the message that winning in the classroom takes a back seat to winning games. Which should be no surprise to anyone following college sports.

For years, schools have recruited talented young players who bring riches to their institutions, allowing coaches to demand gargantuan salaries. In return, players get valuable scholarships. At best, 2% move on to the NBA. But scholarships are meaningless unless students graduate. Far too many leave with no NBA bid and no degree.

Just 47% of Division I basketball players who started school in 2005 graduated by 2011, compared with 63% of all students. Two of the Final Four teams couldn't even manage that. In recent years, on average, the University of Louisville and Wichita State graduated a third of players. (For all students, Louisville's graduation rate is 48%; Wichita's is 42%.)

Despite these dismal records, Louisville's Rick Pitino got compensation of nearly $5 million and Wichita's Marshall nearly $1.2 million.

Jim Haney, head of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, argues in the opposing view that players are already making substantial academic progress, pointing to a 74% basketball graduation rate.

True, the NCAA made progress this year by enforcing post-season bans on teams for failing to meet academic benchmarks. A ban on the University of Connecticut, a basketball powerhouse, is a wake-up call.

But the 74%? Not so fast. That figure, touted by the NCAA, is based on creative math that amps up graduation rates by excluding all the players who leave their original schools. It pretends they never existed.

Players don't need fuzzy math. They need an education.

With all the money sloshing around college sports, more could be spared for academic bonuses. Giving coaches a bigger stake in academic success could help students win not just on the court but also in the classroom.

USA TODAY

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