Let's have a reasonable discussion about Clemson discontinuing its men's track and field and cross country program

Over the last 15 years, all of Clemson's athletic programs but one have increased spending by a factor of 3.3 times or less, while football spending has increased by more than fivefold

On Thursday, Clemson announced it will discontinue its men’s track and field and cross country program at the end of the 2020-21 season, as Clemson Athletic Director Dan Radakovich said in a statement that after “an exhaustive examination” and “careful analysis,” that it’s in Clemson’s long-term interest to cut the program.

That announcement was followed by an open letter from Radakovich, who wrote that “while this decision comes during the significant financial challenges due to the ongoing pandemic, those challenges are just one of many factors that led to this decision,” and he cited more than $2 million in annual savings that will be created by discontinuing the program. Radakovich said Clemson’s men’s track and field and cross country program was the only men’s athletic program on campus whose removal could provide significant savings and also allow Clemson to comply with Title IX in the future.

Clemson isn’t the first DI school to cut at least one athletic program since the start of the pandemic and it almost certainly won’t be the last, but given its status as having the No. 1-ranked football team in the country right now and a head football coach whose contract will climb up to $10 million annually in 2027, the Tigers are the perfect microcosm for a predictably zero-sum discussion about athletic department budgets and where that money goes, relative to a school’s football program.

Please do not make this just a football versus track and field/cross country debate, at least in terms of the athletes themselves, because that distracts from better, smarter, more important discussions, such as NIL rights or how the cost of attendance for Clemson’s 25 men’s track and field and cross country walk-ons is $34,765 for South Carolina residents and $57,757 for non-residents, which means the university is probably making somewhere in the neighborhood of $900,000 to $1.2 million per year from the tuition paid by program’s walk-ons alone.

That doesn’t include the tuition paid by the scholarship athletes on the team, which had 28 scholarship athletes in the 2019 fiscal year who shared 14.6 grants-in-aid, according to Clemson’s 2019 NCAA Financial Report.

You can probably assume that prior to Thursday, and hopefully still after the announcement, that Clemson’s men’s track and field and cross country athletes didn’t want the school’s football team to be any worse, and you can probably assume that Clemson’s football players don’t want to see their fellow athletes lose their program and be forced to transfer if they want to continue competing at the college level.

So don’t ask those athletes to fight in a battle they didn’t wage.

However, it is fair to examine where, how and why operating expenses have grown inside Clemson’s athletic department over the last two decades. There are 14 athletic programs that the Tigers sponsored in both the 2004-05 and the 2018-19 school years, and on average, the annual operating expenses of those 14 programs have increased by roughly 185 percent over those 15 years, based on an analysis of Clemson’s NCAA Financial Reports, which were obtained by Out of Bounds.

Clemson’s men’s track and field program – a program that reported $2.25 million in total operating expenses for the 2019 fiscal year, which is the most recent year for which data is available – was right in line with the athletic department’s average, nearly to the tenth of a percentage point, as the program saw its operating expenses increase by 185.3 percent from 2005 to 2019.

Clemson’s football program had the highest percentage increase among those 14 programs with a 412-percent increase, or in other words, its operating expenses saw more than a fivefold change over those 15 years.

Even if you adjust for inflation, the value of $1 in 2005 was roughly $1.31 in 2019, which would suggest an inherent 30-percent increase in expenses, but inflation alone doesn’t explain the 185-percent average increase in expenses among the 14 Clemson athletic programs examined.

For better or worse in this head-to-head, football-versus-track debate that has been fought in deadlock on the front lines of Twitter, it’s ironically fitting that Clemson football’s reported recruiting expenses in 2019 ($2,234,173) were nearly identical to the total operating expenses for Clemson’s entire men’s track and field and cross country program for the year ($2,251,751).

Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney has often referred to his program as “little ole Clemson,” which was a more accurate depiction of the school’s football team when Swinney spent his first full season as the school’s head coach in 2009. Up to that point in the decade, starting in 2000, Clemson had finished the previous nine college football seasons ranked No. 16 in the AP poll, unranked, unranked, No. 22, unranked, No. 21, unranked, No. 21 and unranked, respectively, so the Tigers had an on-again, off-again relationship with the final AP Top 25 poll and they were steadily something between a seven-win team and a nine-game winner.

As friend of the newsletter, Extra Points’s Matt Brown, often and wisely points out, it can be futile to compare the reported spending of one school to the reported spending of another school because of the potential for different accounting principles at different schools. That’s not at all to suggest anything nefarious by any school but it just reflects that different schools can potentially classify similar expenditures differently and that reading a bottom-line number for one particular category may not tell the entire story of a program’s expenditures.

While acknowledging that caution about reading too far into potential differences in accounting, Clemson’s reported recruiting expenses in 2005 ranked in the 65th percentile among 37 Power Five schools for whom Out of Bounds has obtained NCAA Financial Report data. Clemson ranked in the 72nd percentile out of 43 Power Five schools for whom Out of Bounds obtained data for the 2009 fiscal year, which was the school year when Swinney was the interim head coach, before having the interim tag removed in December 2008.

Then, in an analysis of reported college football recruiting costs in 2019, Clemson ranked fourth nationally as one of four schools whose reported recruiting expenses cracked the $2-million mark.

Clemson and Alabama are schools 1a) and 1b), in some order, in the College Football Playoff era, and the Tigers’s program is funded at a similarly elite level. If you take Clemson football’s 412-percent increase in total operating expenses from 2005 to 2019 and you compare that to other notable college football programs, you’ll find that even other schools that have won a national championship in that 15-year span haven’t increased their level of spending to the degree that the Tigers have, on a percentage basis.

While it may not to be prudent to compare two different schools’ reported expenses, we can presumably compare two different years of expenses at the same school and potentially glean something from the change in expenses, assuming the school conducted its accounting using the same principles in both years. That goes to say that there might be more to learn from comparing, say, Clemson’s 2014 recruiting expenses to Clemson’s 2019 recruiting expenses than there is from comparing Clemson’s 2019 recruiting expenses to Ohio State’s 2019 recruiting expenses. Make sense?

Based on NCAA Financial Reports from 2005 and 2019, Clemson football’s percentage increase in total operating expenses outpaced that of recent national champions such as LSU, Ohio State, Florida State and Florida, as well as historically strong programs, such as 2018 national runner-up Georgia, four-time College Football Playoff participant Oklahoma, Michigan and Nebraska.

If you’re curious, the oldest available data from Alabama’s NCAA Financial Reports is from the 2008 fiscal year, when the Crimson Tide’s football program reported $27,638,909 in total operating expenses. In the 2019 fiscal year, Alabama reported $69,718,057 in total expenses, which marked an increase of 2.52 times since 2008.

Clemson football’s reported total operating expenses increased by 3.55 times during that span, which marks a relative difference of more than 100 percentage points as Clemson saw a 255-percent increase in total operating expenses compared to a 151-percent increase for Alabama.

The Tigers’s increased spending on football – obviously combined with the hire of someone who’s going to be considered an all-time great head coach in Swinney, an elite defensive coordinator, a lineage of talented quarterbacks and the school’s best recruiting classes ever – has quite literally paid off, and Clemson shouldn’t apologize for its success on the gridiron.

But after Clemson chose not to institute salary reductions and furloughs in its athletic department until Sept. 1, the decision to cut men’s track and field and cross country may not sit well with some, especially when a one-year, 10-percent salary reduction for all members of the school’s football coaching staff alone would nearly match the $2 million in projected future, annual savings from cutting men’s track and field and cross country, which Radakovich touted in his open letter.

Clemson athletic department employees who make at least $400,000 will take at least a 10-percent pay cut from Sept. 1 through June 30, 2021, according to a news release.

Even after taking a pay cut, Swinney, who was the highest-paid coach in the sport last season at $9.3 million, is still the third-highest paid coach in the sport this season, behind only Alabama’s Nick Saban and LSU’s Ed Orgeron, per USA TODAY. Saban and Orgeron had not taken a pay cut at the time USA TODAY’s database was published but Orgeron has since agreed to a five-percent pay reduction.

Coaches such as Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley had previously agreed to a one-year, 10-percent pay cut, prior to an ESPN story published in July about which head coaches were or weren’t taking pay cuts, and Swinney was among the latter group at the time the story was published.

While we can acknowledge the financial benefits for Clemson’s athletic department if staff-wide pay reductions were imposed sooner, Swinney shouldn’t be shamed for not volunteering a pay cut sooner or for not volunteering a more significant pay cut. That’s his money – money that he earned on the free market – but any decision to keep his high, nine-figure salary intact opens him up to scrutiny, too.

But it’s incongruous when Swinney can earn an eight-figure salary from the free market, while Clemson’s athletes, across all sports, are locked out of that market. It’s incongruous when the Tigers’s men’s track and field and cross country athletes are asked to sacrifice the program that brought them to Clemson for the sake of financial savings, when the adults in charge of the department and those employees who receive the biggest paychecks weren’t asked to contribute to department’s now-important savings during the first five months of the pandemic.

In an internal document obtained by Out of Bounds from the University of Minnesota, Minnesota President Joan Gabel was provided answers to potential FAQs after the Big Ten postponed fall sports in August, and one question asked, “How will you respond to critics who believe the University already pays too much for athletics?”

The last two lines of the recommended answer read, “The nature of those programs, and the national competition for talent, drives the current compensation that coaches in particular enjoy at present. We are not immune from having to compete in the current market.” That’s a market in which Clemson, at least in regards to football, has caught up to the pack in the last 10 or 15 years, and now the Tigers are among the schools that help set the market in regards to coaches’ salaries, recruiting costs and facilities.

The choice of the word “immune” in that Minnesota document has stuck with me, as college athletics and the spending that comes with it could almost be interpreted from that phrasing as some sort of malady, or at the very least, a powerful, external force that comes with an incredibly high cost just to get in the door.

There’s a sentiment that exists, right or wrong, that the revenue produced by a college football program is “football’s money.” But for non-profit universities, that money has to go somewhere.

While we’ve addressed how college athletic department financial reports can’t always be taken at face value, Clemson reported a profit of just $1.8 million in the 2019 fiscal year, which wouldn’t be an especially impressive number if that was the profit margin for one of the leading businesses in a massive industry. After Forbes published its annual list of the most valuable sports franchises, Philadelphia Business Journal noted that the Philadelphia Eagles increased in value by roughly $300 million since last year.

So, Clemson spends almost all of the money it brings in and it decides where that money goes – $17.6 million was spent on scholarships in the 2019 fiscal year compared to $24.4 million on coaches’ salaries and $23.3 million on support staff, by the way.

Clemson’s athletic department has decided that an increasing percentage of its budget goes to football, which is all well and good, but it has refused to say the quiet part out loud, which is that it costs a lot of money to maintain a college football superpower and that when a once-in-a-century pandemic comes along, some other athletic program will be the first to make a sacrifice – and to be sacrificed, if it comes to it.

“The timing and decision are not a result of any one factor, but a series of considerations,” Radakovich wrote in his open letter.

Likewise, so is the pushback Clemson has received from its decision. Critics of Clemson’s choice to rid itself of men’s track and field and cross country didn’t reach their conclusion from any one factor, but rather based on a series of considerations and decisions made by Clemson’s athletic department – as well as the Tigers’s peers nationally – about who in college athletics gets to be the beneficiaries of the most significant financial investments and who has to make the biggest sacrifices.

That’s the part that wasn’t spelled out in Radakovich’s letter, but it was the part that critics of Clemson’s decision certainly vocalized in their responses.

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Recap of the last newsletter

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“Some of the most accomplished programs in the history of the sport used to play in-season, home-and-home series against regional opponents, often with the second game coming in the middle of conference play. If this scheduling approach worked for John Wooden, then surely it could work for some coaches and schedule-makers during a pandemic.”

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Thank you for reading this edition of Out of Bounds with Andy Wittry. If you enjoyed it, please consider sharing it on social media or sending it to a friend or colleague. Questions, comments and feedback are welcome at andrew.wittry@gmail.com or on Twitter.