Josh Kendall

Commentary: New SEC funds should bolster academic support

For the first time in history, South Carolina is projecting a budget of more than $100 million.
For the first time in history, South Carolina is projecting a budget of more than $100 million.

Welcome to the Ray Tanner-as-Montgomery Brewster Era of the SEC.

Tanner is South Carolina’s athletics director. Brewster was the fictional baseball player portrayed by Richard Pryor in “Brewster’s Millions.” Brewster was a minor leaguer who had to spend $30,000,000 in 30 days in order to receive a $300,000,000 inheritance.

On Friday, Tanner presented his budget to South Carolina’s Board of Trustees. He showed great restraint not showing up atop a wheelbarrow of cash while smoking a giant cigar. For the first time in history, the school is projecting a budget of more than $100 million. One-hundred-and-six million to be specific.

The Gamecocks will make $100 million for fiscal year 2014-15, but the budget was set at $94 million coming into the year. Budgeting $106 million this year is a sign of bullish confidence in the state of college athletics finances.

And why not?

The SEC is sending each of its schools $31.2 million this month thanks to a $7.5 million bump from the SEC Network, and the conference hasn’t opened up the network’s cash spigot all the way.

In “Brewster’s Millions,” Pryor’s character can’t leave any trace of the $30,000,000 he has to spend. Tanner and the rest of the SEC athletic directors are under no such constraints. There are traces of their work everywhere. You can’t drive through an SEC campus without seeing more and more monuments to football money. The Gamecocks are building, among other things, a $15 million indoor practice facility that might be used by the football team 10 times per year. Georgia’s about to build one that costs $30 million.

Meanwhile, tuition at the University of South Carolina has increased every year since 1987. In fact, tuition has increased two-and-a-half times the rate of inflation since then. It’s time for all the SEC schools to step up and leave a trace more permanent than anything they can do on the athletics field.

The Gamecocks will give $3.3 million to the university – this above and beyond the bills they pay such as scholarships for athletes and police services. It’s exactly what an athletics department should be doing. In fact, it should be mandatory for everyone in college football’s richest contract. No later than next spring’s conference meetings, the SEC should require each school to make an annual donation to the academic side of their universities.

Tanner would be fine with making the payment mandatory, he told The State.

“I feel very comfortable about giving back,” he said. “I wish we had the opportunity for giving back even more. I do believe that we fit very well in this university.”

Everyone in the SEC should have the same fit. If athletics departments still are a part of the higher education mission as administrators want to shout from the rafters that they are, it’s time they all help educate the kids in their state, not just the ones who can fill their stadiums and arenas.

SEC officials have had this very conversation in the past. In 2008, when the league renewed television contracts with ESPN and CBS, league administrators discussed at their spring meetings requiring this very kind of donation. At the time, the schools could not agree on what constituted giving to the university. Many claimed then, and some claim now, that the money they give to the school for services like scholarships or campus police at events should count as a donation. That’s simply paying your bills.

However the SEC wants to calculate the figure, now is the time to act on that almost decade-old impulse. The money then was nothing like it is now, and the time never has been better.