NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (AP) -The cost of a football stadium expansion and scrutiny of coach Greg Schiano's pay have some faculty, students and alumni questioning Rutgers' decision to invest in a big-time sports program.
As the Scarlet Knights prepare for Monday's opener against Fresno State, university officials are touting how sports success in recent years has improved the visibility of New Jersey's state university. Others are fretting about the message it sends to spend more on football just as state aid to the university is slashed.
``Rutgers is well on the way to becoming what students call a school of last resort,'' said William C. Dowling, a professor of English. ``That is death to a school of Rutgers' history, stature and tradition. And sports have been entirely responsible for the damage.''
In the latest controversy, a newspaper reported that Schiano, whose contract this year is worth $1.6 million, gets an additional $250,000 per year from Nelligan Sports Marketing, a firm the university hired in 2000 to market the athletic program. The payment is guaranteed by Rutgers if sponsorships don't cover it.
The university is conducting an internal review of financial controls in the athletic department, coaches' contracts and the deal with Nelligan. Rutgers president Richard L. McCormick announced the review in July amid a series of reports in The Star-Ledger of Newark about possible problems in the athletic department.
The state comptroller's office also has requested documents on the athletic department and is considering a full audit.
Rutgers Athletic Director Robert E. Mulcahy III said that, for sought-after coaches, a clause like Schiano's is common and ``is a resourceful way to complete the compensation package.'' Nelligan Sports Marketing founder and chairman T.J. Nelligan denies that the provision was withheld from the public.
Despite the criticism, McCormick says top sports and academic programs can coexist. He says they do at places like the universities of Michigan, Virginia and California, Berkeley.
``Although our success in athletics may bring people through the door, it is our outstanding academic programs, world-class faculty and unique campus community that make them want to stay,'' McCormick said in a written response to questions from The Associated Press. ``Indeed, academics are, and will remain, our priority at Rutgers.''
A debate over whether sports are a savior or downfall of academia could take place at almost any big American university. But Rutgers is different because the push into the sports spotlight is relatively recent, and success was sudden.
One of the school's biggest football wins came in 1869, when it defeated Princeton in the first intercollegiate football game. After that, there wasn't much success to celebrate.
Fifteen years ago, Rutgers finally decided to join the big time by becoming a member of the Big East.
In 1995, the university hired basketball legend C. Vivian Stringer to coach the women's team. Schiano, an assistant at Miami, was picked to take over the long-struggling football team in 2000.
Their teams have thrived, even as the university eliminated varsity sports such as tennis and men's swimming.
The women's basketball team has become a fixture in the NCAA tournament and made the Final Four in 2000 and 2007.
The football team has had three winning seasons and bowl appearances in a row. Schiano was named national coach of the year in 2006, the year the Scarlet Knights opened the season with nine straight wins.
``It's one of the best stories in college sports,'' said T.J. Nelligan, founder and chairman of Nelligan Sports Marketing.
Nelligan said that because of the teams' success and his company's work, sponsorship revenue from Rutgers sports has grown from $1.5 million in 1999 to $4 million last year. That brings money to the athletic program that taxes and tuition do not have to, he said.
But Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College professor who studies the economics of sports, said only a handful of college sports programs - Rutgers is not one of them - bring in more than they spend. And when it happens, he said, the extra money usually stays in the athletic department.
Gifts to Rutgers have grown along with the wins. For the fiscal year that ended June 30, it reported bringing in a record $121 million in private donations.
Zimbalist warns such gains may not last but Rutgers officials say it's not only about money, anyway.
A good sports program can raise the university's profile, which can help in all sorts of ways, they say. In Rutgers' case, the Empire State Building was lit up red in the football team's honor in 2006.
And the red Rutgers ``R,'' virtually unseen a few years ago, has become ubiquitous on cars around the Garden State.
``You can't deny that it boosts the morale,'' said Chris Keating, chairman of the student assembly.
Courtney McAnuff, the university's vice president for enrollment management, says Rutgers' tables have quickly become popular at college fairs. He said more students have applied, taken tours and accepted admissions offers. And, he said, the average SAT score for incoming students is up.
Prospective students ``are more apt to open our e-mail or letter because they recognize the brand name,'' McAnuff said.
In an additional development this summer, stirred up by another newspaper report, Mulcahy was on the defensive about whether there was any impropriety in the contract with Nelligan because his son was working for the company when its initial deal with Rutgers was finalized. The department said there was nothing wrong.
One group of alumni, faculty and students, known as the Rutgers University 1000, has been warning about detrimental effects of major sports for a decade.
The group ramped up again in the last year as the university decided to spend $102 million to expand the football stadium. New premium seats are to debut for Monday's game; some 13,000 new seats for the masses are scheduled to be built for the 2009 season.
Dowling, the professor of English, has become one of the group's main voices and is so passionate he wrote a 2007 book, ``Confessions of a Spoilsport: My Life and Hard Times Fighting Sports Corruption at an Old Eastern University.''
He said the recent revelations are only symptoms of the problems of major sports.
``What we worry about is the extinction of Rutgers as an institution of higher learning,'' he said.
Adrian Barr, a graduate student in art history and a member of the Rutgers 1000, said that the football team is getting ``all the glossy, expensive, granite-clad new buildings'' while academic buildings are falling into disrepair. ``The central library resembles a prison library, it's so rundown'' he said.
The university says that in the last five years, it spent 20 times more money on its non-athletic buildings than it did on sports facilities.
University officials boast that their football players do better than most when it comes to progress toward graduation, but critics note that Rutgers' place in the U.S. News and World Report college rankings has been slipping. In the latest edition, it was 24th among public universities, down from 16th in 1998.
In the last few years, the state government, suffering from its own budget crunch, has slashed its subsidies for Rutgers. This year, the state reduced its aid by 10.8 percent. In reaction, the university raised its costs by 8.5 percent for students, who now pay about $21,500 a year for tuition, fees, room and board.
Yan Lipovetski, a senior majoring in comparative literature and finance, believes it's a mistake for Rutgers to try to build name recognition through teams instead of academic programs.
``The best thing,'' he said, ``is that the debate is actually taking place.''
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