It is hard not to think of the similarities between UConn and Oklahoma State University as one reads the Sports Illustrated special report on that university’s football program, The Dirty Game.

Like UConn, Oklahoma State’s football program endured a long period of mediocrity. Like UConn, efforts were made to quickly revamp the program with new coaches, costly stadium and facility upgrades, and more aggressive recruiting. Like UConn, OK State enjoyed a fast rise that took them to the national spotlight far sooner than most imagined possible.

According to Sports Illustrated though, the quick transition at Oklahoma State was accompanied by, or perhaps emerged from, a culture of football hero-worship that allegedly manifested itself as cash payments to players, no-show jobs, widespread academic misconduct, rampant drug use, and sex as a recruiting tool.

Many of the assertions are hotly disputed. ESPN, for example, reported that university documents dispute some of the basic facts presented in the Sports Illustrated story.

ESPN
Regardless, they serve as a cautionary tale about big-time football and the culture that spawns to sustain it. UConn fans may not like the recent slide back into football mediocrity but compared to the risks of meteoric success like OSU, there may be something to be said for the brand of football brought to UConn by head coach Paul Pasqualoni in recent years.

Posting a record of 10 wins and 14 losses during his two years in charge, Pasqualoni has come under criticism for producing poor results despite being the state’s third-highest paid employee. The Journal Inquirer wrote, “But Pasqualoni? Two mediocre years and another “building” year ahead don’t justify $1.6 million in pay.” After last week’s dud of a game against Towson, one report noted, “if you listen very closely, you can hear the nails being hammered into the coffin of Paul Pasqualoni’s head coaching career at UConn.” 

Despite finishing sixth in the conference two consecutive seasons and being the team leader as game attendance drops steadily at Rentschler Field, there is an upside. Pasqualoni’s results suggest an absence of the corruption that may have permeated Oklahoma State.

There is no better example of the corruption than its effects on academic achievement at OSU. SI points out that OK State’s Academic Progress Rate (APR), a measure of academic achievement used by the NCAA, was 926, one of the worst in the nation. On the other end of the spectrum, last year Notre Dame earned the distinction of having both the No. 1 ranked football team, the top graduation rate for players, and an APR of 970 all at the same time. UConn football’s APR in 2011-12 was 958.

UConn fans, of course, are already intimately familiar with the significance of the APR after the UConn men’s basketball team was banned from postseason play last year for poor performance.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the profit motive that spurs big-time collegiate athletics. At Oklahoma State, the football program cost $26.2 million but produced gross revenue of $41.1 million in 2011-12. Profit in one university component ultimately means that other university costs, such as student tuition rates, are defrayed by athletic achievement.

If success on the football field or the basketball court can offer academic opportunities to a student who may not otherwise be able to afford college while also fostering institutional pride, then it is worth the investment. But when the cost, as highlighted at OK State, is a corrupt culture that actually devalues academics and cares little for the institution, then it is worthless.

UConn should strive to be like the institutions that succeed in both athletics and academics. Examples like Notre Dame, or Duke in basketball, demonstrate that it is possible. Until we reach that point, however, a few more losses are a small price to pay to avoid a culture that values only athletic achievement.

Heath W. Fahle is the Policy Director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy and a former Executive Director of the Connecticut Republican Party. Contact Heath about this article by visiting www.heathwfahle.com