Rick Cleveland

Just how high have college athletic budgets grown in Mississippi?

Former Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly celebrates after leading the Rebels to a Sugar Bowl victory against Oklahoma State.
Former Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly celebrates after leading the Rebels to a Sugar Bowl victory against Oklahoma State. ttisbell@sunherald.com file

USA Today’s report last week of athletic budgets at universities around the country raised some eyebrows in Mississippi.

The headlines told us Jackson State ($7.6 million), Alcorn State ($6.7 million) and Mississippi Valley State ($4.3 million), which all compete in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), all were among the lowest spenders in Division I. Valley ranked No. 228 of 230 schools, Alcorn No. 225, and JSU No. 220.

Meanwhile, Ole Miss’ athletic revenue was highest among Mississippi universities at $110.5 million, followed by Mississippi State at $94.9 million.

Southern Miss’s athletic budget checked in at $25.9 million.

Of course, everything is relative, and all the Mississippi schools were near the bottom of their respective conferences. JSU, Alcorn and Valley were all at or near the bottom of the SWAC. Ole Miss and State were among the lowest spenders in the SEC. And USM was next to lowest in Conference USA.

More figures: Texas A&M is the nation’s highest athletic revenue producer at $194.4 million. Six of the top 10 and 10 of the top 20 highest athletic budgets in the nation were in the SEC (thank-you SEC Network).

And who knew that Old Dominion has by far the largest athletic budget in CUSA at $44.6 million? (I had no idea.)

Now then, let’s really raise some eyebrows.

I have in my files a Clarion-Ledger sports section from June 6, 1989, when the newspaper reported on the athletic budgets of Mississippi’s state-operated universities. For perspective purposes, you should know that in 1989, Brett Favre was a junior quarterback at Southern Miss, Rockey Felker was the football coach at Mississippi State and Warner Alford was the athletic director at Ole Miss.

The big news was that Ole Miss’s athletic budget was the state’s largest at — drum roll, please — $8.5 million. That’s right: $8,500,000, or roughly $100 million less than it is today.

Hell, Hugh Freeze makes almost $5 million these days. State’s budget was at $7.5 million, followed by USM at $4.9 million, JSU at $2.9 million, Alcorn at $1.3 million and MVSU at just less than a million.

Remember, this was less than three decades ago.

If my math is correct, the Ole Miss and Mississippi State athletic budgets are about 13 times larger than in 1989. Meanwhile, USM’s is about five times larger, JSU’s three times larger, and so on.

In other words, the rich are getting richer — and much faster.

And the poor are staying poor.

The June 6, 1989, story that accompanied those budget figures reported that then-USM baseball coach Hill Denson was getting a whopping 15.6 percent pay raise — all the way to nearly $37,000 a year. Meanwhile, MSU’s Ron Polk, who had already been National Coach of the Year twice and been to the College World Series four times, topped the state’s baseball coaches at just short of $50,000. Now, first-year coach Andy Cannizaro’s four-year contract calls for more than 10 times that annually.

In 1989, then-MSU athletic director Larry Templeton made $75,000 a year. MSU’s current athletic director, John Cohen, who was playing baseball at State in 1989, now reportedly makes $750,000, 10 times what Templeton made in ’89.

Sure, there’s been inflation, but that much?

No, the price of a new luxury car between now and 1989 has roughly doubled. So has the cost of a gallon of gas.

Coaches, at least those in the SEC, can afford plenty of both.

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.