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Editorial: Can USC finally make a smart decision about a losing coach?

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Frank Martin (copy)

USC apparently won't pay basketball coach Frank Martin $6.5 million to not coach after S.C. Sen. Darrell Jackson warned that the legislature wouldn't look kindly on squandering so much money on athletics. AP/Sean Rayford

The S.C. Legislature has a tendency to meddle — in executive decisions that, under the state constitution, are supposed to be the province of the governor; in local matters that, under the constitution, are supposed to be the province of city and county governments; in college matters that are legally within its purview but that affect colleges whose budgets are funded almost entirely without state funds.

But there’s nothing wrong — and we’d suggest a lot right — with informing the University of South Carolina that it needs to make a choice: It can keep asking the Legislature to spend $35 million on its new medical school — or helping it to pay for deferred maintenance, or whatever pet project it wants funded on a given day — or it can keep squandering money paying overpaid coaches to stop coaching. It can’t expect to do both.

The bad news is that this overdue message was delivered not by the full Legislature but by a single state senator, Darrell Jackson, who was quizzing USC President Bob Caslen during a Thursday budget hearing before a Senate Finance subcommittee.

The good news — assuming it holds — is that Mr. Caslen seems to have taken the message seriously. Sources tell The Post and Courier’s David Cloninger and Andy Shain that USC officials decided after that Statehouse encounter to retain basketball coach Frank Martin for a 10th season despite a losing record this year, essentially reversing course on what until then seemed like a certain firing.

That’s good news not because we want USC to lose basketball games, or because we’re huge fans of Mr. Martin — we don’t have strong feelings one way or another about USC’s third-winningest basketball coach, although we do think it would be declasse to fire someone whose losing season stemmed at least in part to three COVID-19 team pauses and his own two bouts with the disease.

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It’s good news because our Legislature has no business giving discretionary funding to a school that is so much more concerned about athletics than academics that it would seriously consider paying a coach $6.5 million to not coach. While also spending a ridiculous amount of money to search for a new coach, who will be paid too many millions of dollars to actually coach — at least until the school decides to buy out that contract, too.

It’s good news because the Legislature doesn’t need to give discretionary funding to a school that would do this just four months after it agreed to pay former football coach Will Muschamp what turned out to be $12.9 million to not coach. Which the school had no business doing.

It’s good news too because perhaps this means USC will either let Mr. Martin continue working on a two-year contract rather than extending it or else renegotiate it — his current contract promises 100% of the money he would make if he stayed, unless he’s fired for some “cause” other than a losing season — to eliminate the buyout clause or to specify that “cause” includes a losing season.

College officials defend buying out coaches’ contracts by saying they’re using “private money” or “athletic department money.” But money is fungible, and under S.C. law, money collected to support the university is public money, even if it comes from private donations. And “athletic department money” is university money, because the athletic department wouldn’t exist without the university, and so by all rights any extra money it has should go to academics.

It would be great for all S.C. colleges to have winning athletic teams, but contrary to what Mr. Caslen suggested to the Senate Finance subcommittee on Thursday, winning teams are not essential to the financial success of a college or university. They’re certainly not essential to the university's actual mission, which is educating our state's children.

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