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Commentary: Public universities complain about budgets while bleeding money on coaching changes

Head coach Bret Bielema of the Arkansas Razorbacks at AT&T Stadium on September 24, 2016 in Arlington, Texas. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

A USA Today report released Monday detailed how publicly-funded universities are essentially wasting tens of millions of dollars each year because they fire their coaches and athletics directors mid-contract.

According to the report, major college athletics departments will pay at least $110 million for expenses related to contract buyouts. That includes payment to coaches and administrators who have been fired, as well as payment to the former employers of the replacements they hire.

In one example, Arkansas fired both its head coach, Bret Bielema, and its athletics director, Jeff Long, this past season. Bielema's buyout could be as much as $15 million dollars, and the school owes Long nearly $5 million.

On top of that, the school hired former Southern Methodist University coach Chad Morris and former University of Houston AD Hunter Yurachek. Arkansas agreed to absorb those two buyouts, so that amounts to another $2 million for Morris and $350,000 for Yurachek. That's before the school even pays a cent of their salaries.

And finally, Arkansas may have to pay up to $3.6 million in assistant coaching buyouts. So, for a mediocre football program to turn over its coaching staff and hire a new athletics director, it could cost more than $25 million up front.

That's just one of numerous examples that happen every year, when universities that depend on state and federal funds decide they need to win more football games.

Meanwhile, on campus, tuition goes up year after year. The University of Arkansas Board of Trustees approved another tuition and fees increase in May 2017, which the school's website touts as "the smallest increase for undergraduate students from Arkansas since the 2010 academic year." A small comfort to the students bearing the financial burden.

Then, we hear quotes like this one from Arkansas Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz: "Ideally, the University of Arkansas would not have to raise tuition or fees on our students and their families, and believe me this action is not taken lightly."

And here's the kicker: "We worked to keep the budget lean and to contain costs. In addition we asked our administrative units to cut 1 percent from their budgets and the academic units to reallocate 1 percent of their budgets toward strategic priorities."

This seems like a good time to remember that no matter how popular a school's football team is, public universities' primary function is providing higher education. But when it comes time to make ends meet, students pay more and academic departments get less, while there is seemingly no limit to how much an athletics department can spend if the "right coach" is available.

Now, this isn't all about Arkansas. They're just an example. And to be fair to them, the athletics department budgeted $2.35 million to be transferred from athletics to the university in 2016-17.

But while so many public schools have hands out to the government asking for more taxpayer money to be allocated to them, you have to wonder how the conversation about higher education funding would change if athletics departments weren't given free reign to recklessly spend millions to get rid of coaches they get sick of a few years into a bloated long-term contract.

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