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Editorial: Muschamp buyout clarifies USC's priority. It's not education.

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Tanner Muschamp Caslen (copy) (copy)

Will Muschamp (center) with Athletics Director Ray Tanner (left) and USC President Bob Caslen after the Gamecocks beat Georgia last season. Jenny Dilworth/Special to The Post and Courier 

Three months after USC President Bob Caslen told faculty and staff that COVID-19 revenue shortfalls would “require a new level of creativity and shared sacrifice from our entire campus community,” athletics director Ray Tanner predicted in September that his department could come up $58 million short on its $127 million budget.

The Post and Courier’s David Cloninger reported that Mr. Tanner talked of “slashed salaries, paused projects and what Tanner has said is the last option he wants to consider — eliminating sports,” declaring that “Everything is on the table.”

This month, we learned that when Mr. Tanner said “everything” and Mr. Caslen talked of “shared sacrifice,” they didn’t really mean “everything,” or sacrifice that’s shared by everyone.

They didn’t mean anything so drastic as the university living with the consequences of its decisions.

They didn’t mean they’d let a losing coach keep coaching rather than paying him up to $13.7 million to not coach. On top of whatever obscene amount of money they will pay a search firm to help secure a new coach, and whatever even more obscene amount they will pay to hire that new coach, and to buy out the contracts of any of the assistant coaches the new coach doesn’t want to keep around.

For anyone who imagined that Mr. Caslen’s promise to control costs would include breaking from the football-first mentality and running a university whose top priority is producing well-educated graduates — or even well-rounded student-athletes — the decision by Mr. Tanner and Mr. Caslen to fire football coach Will Muschamp was a sobering jolt to reality.

The fact that they would act at this moment, when the university is in such a difficult financial situation and football isn’t bringing in the money it usually does, makes it extra galling.

Both men implicitly acknowledged that Mr. Muschamp excelled at the tasks one would consider important if the job of the university was to improve the lives of students: He turned out a high number of NFL players and a high number of college graduates and had few disciplinary problems with the team.

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But like his predecessors, he failed to win enough games to satisfy Gamecock fans, who have an immutable belief that the next football coach will be the one who produces a solid winning record. (One news article declared that Mr. Tanner “had no choice” but to commit the university to a multimillion-dollar expenditure because “Fan apathy if Muschamp returned threatened Williams-Brice Stadium with thousands of empty seats next season when USC hopes it can be at full capacity again.”)

The school renegotiated Mr. Muschamp’s contract last year, after Mr. Caslen sent out mixed signals about the coach’s future and critics pointed to his $19 million buyout clause, at the time the 15th highest in the nation. But by his and Mr. Tanner’s telling, that figure was cut to just under $14 million at Mr. Muschamp’s request, to free up money to pay his assistant coaches more. So the school shouldn’t get any political credit for cutting the cost by $5 million. Columbia’s State newspaper reported that it’s still more than all but 27 other coaches in the nation could get paid for not doing their jobs anymore.

And political credit — or blame — should be front and center at the Statehouse the next time Mr. Caslen comes looking for money. Lawmakers need to begin the conversation by asking why he needs any tax money when he obviously had $14 million (plus all those add-ons) to spare.

If he tells them he was spending “private money,” they should remind him that under S.C. law, money collected to support the university is public money, even if it comes from private donations.

“Athletic department money”? That’s 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.

This might make sense if all that matters is winning football games. But that shouldn’t be all — or even most — of what matters at South Carolina’s flagship university.

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