Shoot For The Clouds

Shoot For The Clouds

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A famous person may once have said "Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars." Of course, this is true until you're about six or so* and realize that a) the stars and the moon are not all one big happy family and b) only an idiot would think that a trajectory designed to achieve lunar orbit could end up near any star except one. It's a useful metaphor, though, especially when reversed: reach for the stars, because if you fall short, you'll land on the moon.** The ideal goal is aggressive but reachable, so that you can strive to improve and still keep things in perspective if you don't end up quite as far as you intended. Some schools do this well – you can generally find them at the top of the Directors Cup standings – and others maybe not so well.

But what if you aimed even lower? What do you think would happen if, instead of shooting at a lofty target, you aimed at something a lot closer? Spoiler: we already know, and you're all mad about it, but today I'm going to make sure you know why you should be mad.

*oh come on, we're an engineering school, our kids learn that in preschool along with things like "nobody likes red or white" and "let's not talk about football."
**which again would be a miserable accomplishment for a NASA team, yes, yes, I know. "Sorry boss, thought we'd reach Alpha Centauri, looks like Luna again. My bad." Tough crowd here.

Morgan Burke got a nice little contract change recently (OK, March 2014), which the fine folks at the Journal and Courier were able to lay out for us. I'm going to pull some details so we can get an idea of what his bosses expect of him ... specifically, with respect to bonus compensation. Burke qualifies for a bonus as long as two things are true: the annual cumulative GPA of all teams exceeds a certain threshold, and the number of teams finishing in the top half of the conference hits a certain total.

Yes. Top half of the conference. Burke's failed seven-year-plan was big on top-25 accomplishments, so you'd expect that to be part of his contract, right? No ma'am. "Top half" and "top 25" are close to the same thing in only a handful of sports, especially with the conference expanding to 14 teams ... but Burke's goal was to have every team finish in the top 25, so the contract talks about bonuses if every team meets that goal, right? No sir. Not that his pay doesn't reflect that. Here's a money quote from the article.

Burke’s contract targeted placing his overall compensation within a range of the 80th to the 90th percentile of Division IA athletic directors. [Assistant vice president of external relations Shelly] Triol said the current adjustments place Burke in the 73rd percentile.

Burke asked for a salary befitting an AD who really could pull off top-25 finishes. He got a salary that probably puts him in the top half of the conference. So what were his targets in the contract? Behold: before and after.

[table id=13 /]

So. Burke's bosses expect that at least 10 of his 20 teams will finish in the top half of the conference. Actually, they don't, because who among us gets a bonus for expected work? Well, the contract says it that way, so I will too. If 13 of 20 teams finish in the top half, he has exceeded expectations, and if 16 teams or more do it, he's greatly exceeded expectations. (I will say that on both of those counts, I concur with the trustees. If Burke's overall program is that successful, he will indeed have exceeded my expectations of him.)

You may also have noticed that the bonuses are getting bigger while the targets are getting smaller. This is ... not what one normally expects. If anything, once you've shown you can hit the targets they set for you, the targets rise, right? Or at least you'd hope so, because otherwise, there's no reason to expect better results.

There's a catch, too. Let's take a look at Purdue results over the last three seasons. Finishes listed below are regular-season conference rank for sports that have standings and postseason conference tournament finish for sports without standings; in case of a tie, I award the place they tied for. (Example: if volleyball finishes in a three-way tie for fourth, I'll show a 4.) If your eyes are aging like mine, click for the embiggening.

Purdue top-half finishes 2012-15

On the far right, we have 2012-13, the last full season before Burke got his raise. Purdue's performance was ... not good. Only five sports out of twenty made the cut (all women's sports, FWIW), and only one of those finished in the top quarter of the conference, as women's golf took home a conference title.

In the middle is 2013-14, the season during which his targets changed. According to his bosses, he passed, even though the average finish was below the midpoint, even if just by a hair. The introduction of two generally-poor programs had an immediate impact, lifting the Boilers a spot or two in many sports ... but the Big Four all declined, with football and men's basketball dropping five spots each and volleyball and women's basketball falling one spot each.

On the left, we have the most recent season, 2014-15. How did Burke do? Well, let's just say that he showed the trustees how well-placed their faith was in him. Only 8 of 20 teams finished in the top half of the conference, the same number that finished 10th or below (which is worse than it sounds, because again, not every sport is contested by all 14 teams). For the second straight year, no team finished higher than 3rd. Big Four performance was mixed: volleyball and men's basketball passed easily, but football and women's basketball were significant disappointments.

I'd say there's a lesson here – that if you expect mediocrity, that's all you'll get – but the lesson is really in what Triol says about the contract. Burke is being rewarded for his "prudent and effective management of ... finances." Yes, she actually says "athletic program and finances", but it's easy to see what's important to them. He runs the program on the cheap, and the trustees keep paying him to do it.

It's too bad they clearly don't understand how to run a profitable athletic department. Even a tolerable football program could keep enough money coming in to feed the machine: a solid program could buy gold-edged chairs for the trustees in one of the fancy new wings on Ross-Ade they'll never have the money to build. But a terrible program won't bring in enough money to finance much of anything Purdue's direct competitors don't already have, despite the flood of TV money coming in ... and that flood is only guaranteed until the next contract renegotiation. Between the decreasing quality of the on-field product and the rapid decline of TV-only viewers, the conference may end up well under the numbers Delany projected when he added two schools more ill-suited to the conference than basically anyone else who was available. It's a shame nobody in a position of power seems to know that.

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