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Miller’s reported $18M raises eyebrows at UA, little anger

New Arizona men's basketball coach Sean Miller, fighting back tears, announced that he will leave Xavier University.

New Arizona men's basketball coach Sean Miller, fighting back tears, announced that he will leave Xavier University.

The University of Arizona has spent the past 10 months in a massive reorganization partially necessitated by sweeping budget cuts resulting in a least 200 layoffs, eliminated majors, college and departmental mergers and hefty tuition and fee increases.

Into this desert of want comes the news that UA has reportedly offered Xavier University basketball coach Sean Miller an $18-million, seven-year contract to lead the Wildcats in the house that Lute built. And while most people understand that Miller’s salary will come from an athletic department that is self-supporting, it is still a little difficult for faculty leaders and Arizona Board of Regents members to digest.

“Basketball programs have traditionally been a huge cash generator, so (Miller) will pay his own salary in a few years,” said J.C. Mutchler, chair of the Arizona Faculties Council and an assistant professor of history at UA South. “That said, the idea that we’re thinking of paying someone $2 million in his first year when we’re counting paper clips and laying off secretaries is truly troublesome.”

Regent Robert Bulla, chair of the regents human resources committee, said the proposed contract for Miller that regents were expected to review in executive session Tuesday morning would probably give them “heartburn,” but it is necessary for UA.

“The basketball program is important to UA’s entire athletic program and if you’re not halfway competitive, you won’t get good people,” Bulla said. “Market rates these days are pretty high – it’s crazy – but the UA program needs a very good, strong leader and so we have to pay market rates.”

Bulla, who has served as a regent for seven years, said he couldn’t remember ever having a multi-year contract longer than five years.

“I’m not saying we wouldn’t approve more than five years, but we’d have to evaluate it,” he said. “We have to recognize also that there are other sources of revenue that have to be considered with these coaching contracts, like Nike or something like Nike. All those factors have to be considered in our decision. If the regents aren’t happy with it, I’ll hear about it pretty quick.”

Bulla said board members are “stressing over everything” right now because the high-level basketball hire comes at a time when the academic sides of the state’s three universities have been asked to tighten their belts dramatically.

Wanda H. Howell, chairwoman of the UA faculty senate, said that she was concerned in general that the rapid increases in coaching compensation was a “dangerous progression toward making college sports professional.” But she wasn’t specifically concerned with Miller’s salary “as long as everyone is clear that this isn’t coming from the general fund.”

“Compared to other schools, I think (UA Athletic Director) Jim Livengood has done a very good job of being self-sufficient for athletics,” she said.

UA students, who are facing a nearly 10 percent hike in tuition next fall, might be wondering if the price of winning at basketball is worth it. But Stephen Bieda III, president of the Graduate and Professional Student Council said students who understand that athletics are self-supporting are OK with a big-ticket salary “so long as the athletic department uses restraint.”

“If they were to come to the UA administration for money, which has not happened so far, then I would be fundamentally opposed in this current fiscal environment,” Bieda said.

James Moore, president of the UA Foundation, said that he wasn’t worried about donations toward Miller’s salary being a money-suck away from other charities.

“We aren’t involved in putting together athletic salary packages,” Moore said. “But the thing we have to fundamentally understand is donors invest in things that are important to them. About 98 percent of our donations are restricted by the donor for a specific program.”

Moore said contributions to the foundation are down about 20 percent compared to last year at this time, but that was because of the economic downturn, not seeking a head basketball coach.

“I’ve never seen any real strong correlation between (the size) of athletic contracts and its impact on philanthropy. Donors really direct how their dollars are going to be used.”

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