But when I ask Maturi why the university should continue to invest millions in a quest to compete against football programs that even he admits are a cut above his own, he sprints rhetorically to the very territory that seems to argue against it. “I’ve always been a believer in the idea that intercollegiate athletics should be an extension of the mission of an institution,” he says. “We are a major research institution, the flagship institution in the state of Minnesota. We certainly have a goal for our research programs to be nationally ranked. The goal of the athletic department is to be nationally ranked. We shouldn’t have intercollegiate athletics at this level without trying to be the best we can be.”
The trouble with this argument is that despite the hiring of million-dollar-a-year football coaches, the building of state-of-the-art facilities, and the spending of millions on recruiting, tutors, dormitories, and promotion—in other words, making a total commitment to a winning football program—Maturi himself acknowledges that the Gophers will never become a top-tier Big Ten football program. Like the Iowas and Purdues and Michigan States and Wisconsins, they might compete for a year or two or three or four, but they’ll never approach the sustained excellence of the Michigans and Ohio States and Penn States. The Wolverines football team, for example, will generate some $25 million this year, more than twice what the Gophers can muster.
“They’re a different breed than the rest of us,” Maturi explains. “There are more quality football players that come out of Ohio high schools in a year than come out of Minnesota high schools in five or ten years.”
Ohio State gets the best of those players, while the Gophers can’t even recruit all the decent players in Minnesota. The same is true in Michigan, in Pennsylvania, and in every football-mad hotbed around the country. The top football players will gravitate to those programs with the best reputations, the swankest facilities, the greatest opportunities for success. In a way, it’s no different from the National Merit Scholars yearning for the chance to climb the academic ladder at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Stanford. It’s the kind of prestige that self-generates, the kind of prestige Minnesota cannot claim.
And though Maturi admits that the industry is barely sustainable, what with academic scandals, ridiculous amounts of TV money, and generally out-of-whack priorities, he knows the university can’t afford to abandon the chase. “There’s too much money in college athletics, way too much reward in winning,” he says. “But none of us can have it any other way, because the train’s already left the station.”
And the Gophers are on board because, without even the relatively meager revenues the football program generates, twenty-two of the university’s twenty-five intercollegiate sports— from track and field to volleyball—would most likely have to fold up their tents. Only men’s basketball and hockey pay their own way.
These programs have actually competed for national championships in recent seasons—the hockey team took home NCAA titles the last two years and the basketball team rose to the Final Four in 1997 (an achievement admittedly stained by a massive academic-fraud scandal). Still, only football has the economic power to fuel an entire athletic department.
Besides, in our sports-crazed society, it turns out that there are few more effective marketing tools than an appearance by your football team on national TV. When I ask Maturi to consider the unthinkable—a University of Minnesota without a Big Ten football team—he points to Northwestern University, whose own struggles with gridiron mediocrity in the seventies and eighties had officials there contemplating an end to the program.
“You go ask Northwestern what happened to them after going to the Rose Bowl,” he says. “Their pool of applications was its greatest in history after the Rose Bowl, so there must be something to this.”
It is, I suppose, a sad commentary on the American academy that an elite university like Northwestern has to rely on the success of unpaid, shoulder-padded students to entice each new class of freshmen onto campus. And it’s ironic that college athletics’ so-called arms race seems to be escalating at a time when so many universities are reeling from cuts in state funding.
The U of M took a $185 million hit from the legislature this year and responded with layoffs, massive tuition hikes, and general belt-tightening. Meanwhile, when a grateful alumnus recently pledged $35 million toward a new Gopher football stadium, it sparked a flurry of exuberance that seemed curiously oblivious to the absurdity of it all.