Alabama's Sellout for Saban

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If South Florida fretted about its schools, sprawl and spiraling costs of living half as much as it agonized over its Miami Dolphins, the place might actually be the paradise it claims to be. But for now, it's loudly gnashing its sun-baked teeth at Nick Saban, the oily Dolphins coach who bolted for the University of Alabama this week after telling Miami fans over and over that he would do no such thing.

Unfortunately, it's hard to feel sorry for Miami, just as it's hard to shed tears for any community that indulges the cynical, multimillion-dollar whims of professional sports the way Americans do. When I moved here eight years ago, my mortgage broker spent less time explaining 30-year fixed rates than he did showing me all the autographed pictures of his Dolphin player clients — and his customer appreciation gift was a certificate to the steakhouse of legendary Dolphin coach Don Shula, where you order off menus inscribed on footballs. That kind of blind fan ardor lets franchises like the Dolphins get away with pinching families as much for tickets, parking and hot dogs in a football season as Florida hurricane insurers currently charge for premiums in a storm season.

No, the real victims of "crises" like the Saban saga, especially here in the football-addled South, aren't cities like Miami but rather universities like Alabama. I'm certainly a huge college football fan; and while you'd be na´ve to suggest that the Division I game was an honest enterprise when I was growing up, you'd be equally innocent not to worry that in the 21st century, money — especially the salaries being lavished on coaches like Saban — may extinguish the few embers of higher-education integrity still left glowing on the university gridiron. Alabama is so desperate to return to the football powerhouse days of its late demigod coach Paul "Bear" Bryant that it will pay Saban $4 million a year. That's a surreal record for college football, but it's hardly the exception today, when universities feel they have to match the sky-high salaries offered by the pros: just below Saban is Oklahoma's Bob Stoops at $3.45 million, while Jim Tressel, the coach of No. 1-ranked Ohio State, earns $2.6 million and may see a sizeable raise soon.

Such CEO-style compensation can only serve to erode a college's sense of priorities — which is why the House Ways and Means Committee is threatening to look into the current coach-salary arms race, especially at public universities. Congress should go full bore on this one. True, football has always enjoyed inordinately privileged status on most large campuses. To their credit, the programs galvanize a school's sense of community and, in cases like Bryant's, often showcase coaches as exemplary teachers who burnish instead of blemish a school's academic aura. But that's precisely the sin of Alabama and other schools: by morphing the college coach from Knute Rockne into Jack Welch, they're once and for all admitting that when it comes to building their self-esteem as institutions of higher learning, football is the sine qua non instead of the complement.

And the shallow-minded alumni booster organizations that donate their own, tax-deductible millions — making sure the jocks sleep in five-star hotels on the road while engineering majors back on campus scrape by to pay skyrocketing tuitions — only affirm that warped culture. The booster clubs and athletic departments counter that university classrooms and non-major sports benefit from the football and basketball riches.

Having grown up in Indiana, I've always been a Notre Dame football fan largely because the folks in South Bend at least seem to eschew that culture — to believe still in the student athlete ethos. Sure, the Fighting Irish community is guilty of its own bloated football obsessions, including the program's gilded television contract with NBC and the new 10-year contract for coach Charlie Weis that reportedly approaches or exceeds the $3 million-a-year mark itself, threatening to drag Notre Dame into the pigskin salary mud.

Still, I took consolation this week even as I watched LSU rout Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. The TV showed LSU 41, Notre Dame 14, but it flashed another number: the Notre Dame team grade-point average surpasses 3.0, one of the highest in all of Division I college football and at one of the nation's best universities. Notre Dame also graduates 95% of its players while less than half the football team graduates from LSU (a program that Saban left as coach just two years ago). Certainly, some cynics will tell you that the tough academics are part of the reason Notre Dame hasn't won a Bowl Game in nine years — they simply price themselves out of the reach of some of the best recruits.

But the big fear that many college football enthusiasts like me have is that, as examples like Alabama become more and more the norm, examples like Notre Dame will become more and more the exception — if not disappear.