We like to request records from public universities from time to time. We also like to request the requests made to these universities, which lets us know who's snooping around where. Mainly, it's reporters. Occasionally, though, one of our meta-requests reveals some high-level intercollegiate inanity, such as this petition from the University of Illinois's office for planning and budgeting to the University of Michigan's office of budget and planning. What did Illinois want? A look at Michigan's nether regions (contractually speaking).
Here's the background: In August 2011, Illinois hired Mike Thomas as athletic director, replacing longtime AD Ron Guenther. The school gave Thomas a $475,000 annual salary, plus another $100,000 in deferred compensation. According to an Illinois board of trustees decision from September 2011, Thomas would also receive $200,000 in annual "supplemental compensation" for "achieving academic and athletic performance goals." That's quite a caboodle of cash. Seems like everyone should be happy. But Illinois president Michael J. Hogan was not happy.
At some later date, Hogan directed his university's office for planning and budgeting to procure the contracts of other Big Ten athletic directors for "comparative purposes." We found the following e-mail, dated Nov. 22, 2011, in a response to a records request we sent to Michigan:
Huh. Why the need to compare? And why on such a strict deadline? Could it have anything to do with the indication from the analyst that Thomas's contract hadn't been finalized? Kind of weird to think Thomas would have been working for almost three months without a finalized agreement. What's more, the salaries of athletic directors are public and readily available—on the website of the highest circulation newspaper in the United States, no less. It's hard to imagine that Illinois administrators wouldn't already know that Michigan's athletic director Dave Brandon earns a total salary of $700,454 per year, with a potential bonus of $165,000. (We retrieved this information by querying Google for "athletic director salary" and clicking the first result.)
To get to the bottom of this, we called Barb Welge, the director of institutional studies and analysis at Illinois. Welge is the boss of the woman who sent the original request to Michigan. She chalked up the request to due diligence. And then she said this, which made us sad:
"Our office typically gathers this type of information on compensation for comparison purposes."
Right, right. Comparison purposes. "I'll show you mine, if you show me yours" (contractually speaking). This is three months after you hired the guy. We told Welge she could find the salaries of all the athletic directors on the website of the highest circulation newspaper in the country. To which she responded:
"Oh! Well I guess I wasn't aware that they were publicly listed. And actually, if you have their website where they're listed, that would be great, nice to have."
We forwarded her the link to the first result from our Google search. We asked if salary size was all that Illinois was seeking to compare. No, Welge said. The school was also looking for certain contractual stipulations among Big Ten athletic directors. She didn't offer specifics but she did note that one typical item of interest in another school's contract would be a country club membership. Yes, a country club membership. The right to play unlimited rounds of golf and masticate steak slowly in wood-paneled rooms is the kind of one-percenter perk that has become standard in college sports contracts.
Welge couldn't say whether a country club squabble explained the un-finalized status of Thomas's contract. But none of these reindeer games surprise us at this point. At this level of college sports, it's only natural for one school to sneak a peek beneath the other guy's Bike cup (contractually speaking). What's unusual, and almost cute in a virginal way, is how clueless Illinois seems about it all.