If you dropped one of today's athletic directors into a time machine and dialed up 1930, the first full season after the onset of the Great Depression, Mr./Ms. AD would recognize what ailed college sports. The numbers may be different but the issues are the same. Income is shrinking and debt taken on in the good times must still be served.
College sports suffered during the Great Depression the same as the rest of the nation. Attendance plummeted. Schools fired assistant coaches, cut sports and everything else. In 1931, the Southern Conference, the precursor to the Southeastern Conference, even reduced payment for officials from $75 per game to $50.
History doesn't reveal any magic formulas for athletic departments to use to wriggle out of the current economic crunch. In fact, history shows that magic formulas create as many problems as they solve. One of the worst economic fiascoes in NCAA history began as an attempt to pare athletic budgets. Former Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner Gene Corrigan chaired a special NCAA committee in 1990-91.
"That was the committee that took on the size of coaching staffs and came up with the restricted-earnings coach," Corrigan said recently.
The restricted-earnings coaching position in men's basketball replaced a full-time assistant with one whose pay was limited to $4,000. The affected coaches sued the NCAA, won the case and settled with the NCAA for $54.5 million.
"That's a pretty good day's work!" Corrigan said, laughing at the memory. "I can't imagine why the attorneys let us do that. That's what happens when you try to save money."
That's what happens when universities try to save money through the NCAA.
"From a national standpoint, it's difficult to impose regulation on how [the members] spend their resources," NCAA executive vice president Tom Jernstedt said.
The NCAA has been successful in limiting the size of coaching staffs and the number of scholarships that a school may offer. But those measures are seen as regulating competition as much as they are costs. In the mid-1970s, the NCAA set the football scholarship limit at 105 and limited coaching staffs to six football assistants and one basketball assistant. The limits survived a federal court challenge by Alabama football assistant Dude Hennessey and basketball assistant Wendell Hudson.
The NCAA, in 1978, cut the number of football scholarships allowed from 105 to 95. In the early 1990s, in the same era as the restricted-earnings coach, the NCAA cut football scholarships again, to the current limit of 85.
And that is about the breadth of what the NCAA may do.
The reason, other than restraint-of-trade laws, is the same reason that individual schools spend too much money in the first place: competition. Athletic departments measure their bottom line not only by P and L (profit and loss) but by W's and L's. Economic pressure makes the difference between winning and losing even more stark.
"The very nature of competition makes it a very difficult job to address," said former Southeastern Conference commissioner Roy Kramer. "The whole nature of games is so competitive [that athletic departments] try to find a way around it. Being an old AD, I understand that. That's your job. Athletic departments are not much for good savings institutions. It just does not work that way."
In the depths of the Depression, Texas hired D.X. Bible away from Nebraska in 1937 with an offer of $15,000 per year for 10 years. The University of Texas president, H.Y. Benedict, made $8,000 at the time. The state legislature responded by more than doubling his pay.
That is the nature of an athletic arms race, the origins of which predate the Depression. In the 1920s, the so-called Golden Age of Sport, the economy seemed as if it could only go up. Sound familiar? As in the past decade, many schools borrowed money to build new stadiums and other facilities.
Take the University of Missouri, as recounted in the 1974 book "Ol' Mizzou, a Story of Missouri Football." The school increased the size of its stadium to 25,000 in 1926 and built a new field house as well, at a total cost of $597,673.19. Winning football and a flush economy allowed Mizzou to cut the debt to $275,000.
And then, disaster.
First came the Depression. Then came a disastrous hire. Missouri brought in 23-year-old Frank Carideo, a just-graduated star from Notre Dame, to coach the Tigers in 1932. Missouri had paid the previous coach $8,000. It paid Carideo $6,500. When he went 2-23-2, and attendance dried up, Missouri hired Don Faurot and paid him $4,500. By that time, the debt had increased to $500,000, almost the original cost of the stadium.
Faurot, who would become a Hall of Fame coach, directed Mizzou out of the financial ditch. But Missouri didn't climb out any faster than the rest of the nation.
In 1928, a ticket to the Yale-Harvard game cost $5. In 1940, on the opposite end of the most miserable economic decade in American history, a ticket to the Yale-Harvard game cost $3.85. And fans, according to author Thomas G. Bergin in his 1984 history of the rivalry, complained about the price.
Even Notre Dame, already the most national of college football teams, couldn't escape the effects of the Depression.
According to "Shake Down the Thunder," the 1993 history of Notre Dame football written by Murray Sperber, the Depression shook even the House That Rockne Built. In 1931, Notre Dame played host to Pittsburgh and Penn and cleared a total of $47,000, approximately one-quarter of the $192,000 that the Irish took home from road trips to the two schools the previous season.
A drive to raise $1 million to build and maintain a field house in memory of the recently deceased coach Knute Rockne topped out at $160,000. The university suspended the drive until 1937, raised another $200,000, and built the building anyway.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com. His book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.