WHEN coach David McWilliams leads his Texas Longhorns onto the field for the Mobil Cotton Bowl in Dallas New Year's Day, he will be carrying in his pocket a new contract guaranteeing him an annual base salary in excess of $100,000. A group of wealthy University of Texas boosters recently contributed $1 million to the Longhorn Foundation to establish a permanent endowment that will give McWilliams an additional $60,000 every year. A television show and a speaking contract with a leading sportswear manufacturer also significantly bolster the coach's annual income. As the head football coach at one of the nation's preeminent universities, McWilliams makes more money every year than the salary George Bush earns as president of the United States. A more apt comparison: The coach's income tops that of virtually every professor at the University of Texas.
Many enthusiastic Longhorn fans believe McWilliams is worth every burnt-orange penny he receives. They point out that he led his third-ranked team to a 10-1 record this year, including a perfect 8-0 mark in the Southwest Conference. Few sportswriters had predicted that Texas would finish much better than 6-5.
During their 1990 ``Shock the Nation Tour,'' the Longhorns beat archrivals Texas A&M, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Texas had not defeated all three during one season since 1983. And when McWilliams's team plays in the Cotton Bowl, it will be vying for UT's first national football championship in two decades.
No one can question McWilliams's prowess as a coach. His success this season certifies that he is at the top of his game. The approach of college football's most exciting and colorful day is, however, an appropriate time to question the amount of money Texas and many other major US universities spend on athletics - and the priorities those expenditures reflect.
What is at issue here is not the propriety of one institution's paying one particular coach a six-figure annual salary; many other major schools do the same. Rather, it is whether any university should pay any coach that much for an endeavor that has far more to do with entertainment than with education.
Perhaps entertainment, in the form of big-ticket sports, has replaced education as the primary mission of many universities. Otherwise, it is increasingly difficult to justify multimillion-dollar athletic budgets.
For more and more students, and the parents who pay their tuition, the cost of a college education is almost prohibitive today, even as rising operating expenses force many institutions to cut vital academic programs and support services.
The money now devoted to intercollegiate athletics by the institutions themselves and by boosters and advertisers - tens of millions of dollars on New Year's Day alone - could be better spent to cap tuition or to strengthen underfunded academic programs.
The $60,000 annual income the Longhorn Foundation's new $1 million coaching endowment will produce, for example, surely would do much more good for the University of Texas and the state it serves by being used for one of the following purposes:
Paying the salaries of three tutors to work with incoming freshmen whose deficient reading, writing, or math skills will likely limit their capacity for learning and impair the effectiveness of the time and energy they spend studying.
Funding scholarships to educate a dozen students who commit themselves to teaching in the impoverished Rio Grande Valley or inner-city Houston or Dallas public schools after graduation.
Buying 1,500 new books for the university's library system, giving students access to additional scholarly resources.
Unfortunately, such a dramatic restructuring of institutional priorities simply won't happen. No major school would dare transfer more than a token amount of money from athletics to academics. That's the way our society wants it to be, as New Year's Day makes abundantly clear.
But, come Jan. 2, the bleary-eyed morning after eight bowl games have satiated even the most gluttonous football junkies across the country, what genuine, lasting dividends will this expensive investment have earned for us?
Empty beverage cans and stale potato chips - what a priceless legacy to pass on to future generations.