Real World Dollars (Gwen Moritz Editor's Note)

Chris Bahn, the master sportswriter behind Arkansas Business Publishing Group’s wildly popular but ultimately unprofitable ArkansasSports360.com, has been hired on as Northwest Arkansas editor for Arkansas Business. And, in the immortal words of Nuke LaLoosh, he announced his presence with authority. Last week he broke the astonishing news that the University of Arkansas’ vice chancellor for advancement, Brad Choate, would be allowed to collect almost $350,000 in salary this school year despite having overspent his $10 million budget by more than $3 million last year and being on track to overspend by almost $4.4 million this year.

I personally talked to Chancellor David Gearhart about this financial mess, and he seems to think that Choate relied too heavily on the advice of a subordinate and that losing his job many well-paid months hence is enough punishment. After all, Gearhart said, there was no misappropriation of funds, no theft, no personal gain.

In my world, I told Gearhart, one need not commit a felony to be judged so incompetent as to be fired on the spot. But my world is not academia, where I’m starting to understand why costs keep inflating far faster than the general cost of living. In the real world, people who are making a fraction of Choate’s pay are routinely fired for performance failures much more minor than being so clueless as to accidentally overcommit to millions of dollars of perpetual spending. Ask yourself WWGGD — what would George Gleason do?

Last week, the same University of Arkansas agreed to pay at least $3.2 million a year — that’s more than Choate’s enormous overspending last year — to a guy who says he thinks he can get the Razorbacks football program back on track, having done pretty well with the University of Wisconsin Badgers. And to pay him another $700,000 if he meets certain performance goals. And to pay his former employer $1 million for the privilege of stealing him away.

For a barely casual observer of college football like me, this kind of money — even though it comes from private donors and athletic department receipts — is still breathtaking because I can’t seem to avoid taking the numbers out of the natural context of college football and applying them to real life.

In real life, the median American household gets by on about $50,000 a year and the median Arkansas household holds it together on about $40,000. Bret Bielema’s base pay, then, is the equivalent of 64 years of work for the median American household and 80 years for the median Arkansas household. The buyout to Wisconsin is the equivalent of another 25 years of work for the median Arkansas household.

And that’s what he’s costing if he does no better with the Hogs than the hapless John L. Smith. If he earns the incentive pay, he’ll collect an additional 17 years’ worth of Arkansas labor. And if he screws up and gets fired in the first three years of his contract, the dollars really add up: He’ll be paid $12.8 million, the equivalent of 320 years’ worth of the median Arkansas household income, just to go away. Doesn’t anyone wonder if that kind of buyout money wouldn’t be an incentive to retire early and very, very comfortably?

Oh, I know what you are thinking: She just doesn’t get it. This is the price we have to pay to have a winning football team, and having a winning football team in the Southeastern Conference is worth any price. And you’d be right. I do not get it. I do not agree that football is just that important.

What’s more, I think otherwise rational people are being played for fools. Just a Twitter-borne rumor that he might be talking to the UA got Les Miles an extended contract and a raise from Louisiana State University. And just hours after I watched the Razorbacks lose to LSU on the day after Thanksgiving, an old friend in Fayetteville was assuring me absolutely that Gus Malzahn would be “loyal” to Arkansas State University. Ha. Loyalty in college football is now a one-way street: Fans are expected to be more loyal than ever, and to prove it by paying higher prices than ever, but coaches are loyal only to the highest bidder. They don’t even stick around for the bowl games.

I wonder if Jeff Long, now making nearly $1 million a year as the UA’s athletic director, regrets not hiring Malzahn himself. Gus could be had by an SEC school for a mere 57 years’ worth of the median Arkansas household’s income.

(Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.)