Chip Scoggins: U shouldn’t pay $800,000 to avoid a so-so foe

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 16, 2012 - 4:14 PM

At a time when purse strings are tight, the Gophers are shelling out $800,000 to avoid two football games with North Carolina.

Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague graduated from the University of North Carolina, so he is well aware of his alma mater's reputation as a basketball school.

Apparently, Teague and Jerry Kill operate under the assumption that the Tar Heels suddenly are a football powerhouse, too.

The Gophers backed out of their home-and-home series with North Carolina in 2013-14 in favor of trying to find a lesser opponent. The kicker is even more of a doozy: The Gophers paid North Carolina $800,000 to cancel the series. That's right, an athletic department that struggles to make budget every year is forking over $800,000 to avoid playing North Carolina.

That would be comical if it weren't so pathetic.

We're not talking about canceling a game against Alabama. Or Southern California. Or even South Carolina.

No, somehow Kill has convinced Teague that for the good of building his program, it's wise if they avoid playing a road game against an opponent that presumably resides in their weight class.

"It's a tough decision," Teague said. "It's one that we feel like is part of our plan for building a program. It's one where Coach Kill feels like that playing in the Big Ten is hard enough. We have a young program, and we want our guys to have games in which they can build confidence and do some things rather than playing a BCS program that's pretty good right now. So it's kind of part of the overall plan."

What kind of message does that send to players, fans and alumni? The financial penalty for breaking the contract is bad enough, but it also creates the perception that the Gophers are afraid to test themselves against competent competition before embarking on the Big Ten season. Besides, would a road loss to North Carolina be so detrimental to the long-term plan that it necessitates taking such a significant financial hit?

A 4-0 nonconference record coupled with two or three Big Ten victories might qualify them for a bowl game, but that's hardly a satisfying formula over the long haul.

Good luck selling that one to a fanbase that already has had its patience and loyalty stretched way too thin. The Gophers can't fill 50,000-seat TCF Bank Stadium even for conference games, and they practically beg fans to show up on a weekly basis. They don't give fans much incentive to make that investment, however, when they put together a nonconference schedule that's embarrassingly soft.

Take 2014 for example. Their nonconference schedule features four home games -- Eastern Illinois, Middle Tennessee State, San Jose State and now whatever team they find to replace North Carolina, presumably another pushover.

"I'm always concerned about fans and their following of our program and their opinions," Teague said. "They're so much a part of what we do, so I'm always concerned about them and we take them into account when we do something like this."

Football scheduling is a sensitive issue because coaches and fans usually hold conflicting viewpoints. And the Gophers aren't the only BCS conference team that attempts to fatten its record on cupcake opponents. Everyone does it. But there has to be some limit to that philosophical approach. Kill clearly is determined to build his program by scheduling soft in the nonconference with as many home games as possible.

"If our program was further down the road it would probably be a different deal," Teague said.

Contrary to reports, Teague said he has not finalized a home-and-home series with New Mexico State as a replacement, although he admits the two schools have had discussions. If they reach an agreement and the Gophers play at New Mexico State or a different road game next season, they basically spent $800,000 to play an inferior opponent.

Teague hopes to plug the hole on the schedule with a pair of "guarantee games" -- a one-time deal with a low-level opponent for a six-figure sum -- because that would enable them to offset the North Carolina buyout cost with revenue generated from a home game. That would cushion the blow, but it still doesn't change perception that the Gophers are ducking legitimate competition.

Teague said university President Eric Kaler gave his approval to spend $800,000 (which will be made in payments over several years) to cancel a football series in an era of tight budgets.

"He wants to be smart about what we do," Teague said. "He knows that it's part of what we wanted. Certainly I have to present that to him and tell him why and give a lot of justification. He's supportive, and we appreciate that."

The Gophers probably won't find much support outside of campus. Look, they can build their football program however they choose, but they wrote a big check to avoid playing a middle-of-the-road team in a mediocre conference.

That doesn't inspire much confidence.

Chip Scoggins • ascoggins@startribune.com

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