We get what we overpay for

What is better than winning? Loyalty? Fairness? Generosity?

If we’re talking about big-money college football, the answers are: Nope. Nope. And nope.

The University of Washington spent last week scrambling to replace its fugitive football coach, Steve Sarkisian, who walked out on a contract that was paying him $2.7 million a year (plus perks and hefty incentives recently enumerated by Seattle Times reporter Lewis Kamb.)

On Friday, the Huskies announced they had lured Chris Petersen from Boise State, reportedly offering him a 5-year deal worth $3.6 million per year, which could make him the highest-paid coach in the Pac-12.

During this pause in the action, let’s wander away from the new $280 million Husky Stadium and visit UW’s classrooms. These are filled with students who saw hefty tuition increases for three of the past four years and faculty who endured a prolonged wage freeze. College costs are defrayed by a Legislature that is burdened by obligations to K-12 schooling and scarcely able to help higher education.

According to sports-fan orthodoxy, skeptics are not permitted to raise their eyebrows about the kind of money spent on elite football programs. First, football generates more than enough revenue from tickets, broadcast rights and bowl appearances to cover its own costs. And second, these revenues help underwrite secondary sports like tennis, golf and crew.

Universities, of course, are fixated on yet another revenue stream: donations that flow from wealthy alumni. Many battle-scarred administrators can attest that it is easier to wrangle financial gifts for academic programs if the MBAs, scientists, doctors and lawyers writing the checks are pumped up about the football team’s national ranking. As if the quality of academics were directly tied to their alma mater’s ability to beat the spread.

Big-money college football culture has not developed unilaterally; there are enablers throughout every institution. But that doesn’t mean things aren’t wobbling out of balance. Like Hollywood and the music industry, this culture is being defined by its glitterati, the coaches.

Sarkisian has gratefully described training he got from a former boss, onetime USC head coach Pete Carroll. On a regular basis, Carroll put his assistants through mock job interviews — so when good opportunities arose, they’d be ready to jump.

And jump is exactly what Sark did last week. He hadn’t come to UW to put down roots or build a tradition. He came to collect $2.7 million a year until something even more lucrative came along.

When asked about the coach’s departure, Husky quarterback Keith Price assessed the situation realistically: “It was a business decision. I’m not mad at him.”

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