The $600,000 College Football Lawsuit Over 'Who Calls the Plays'

Texas and Oklahama State are battling it out in court with $600,000 at stake. This is just another absurd display of college football's glaring contradictions.

Apr 14 2015, 3:50pm

Last month at the Payne County, Oklahoma courthouse, attorneys for Oklahoma State University pressed University of Texas head football coach Charlie Strong and his offensive assistants Shawn Watson and Joe Wickline on a simple question: Who calls the plays for the Longhorns offense?

Seems like an easy enough question, right? Not so fast. "I'm a decision-maker. I make calls. I call plays," Wickline said. But all three coaches testified play calling was shared between Watson and Wickline; that Watson called pass plays and Wickline called run plays. Watson said, "When I walk in the room, I get it started." Watson acknowledged it was his voice that sent the plays over the headset. "It can only come out of one mouth," he said. And when asked who called the most plays in Texas's blowout bowl loss to the University of Arkansas this past December, Strong said simply, "I don't know."

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The question of who calls plays for the Longhorns, who went 6-7 and ranked 109th out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivison teams in scoring at 21.4 points per game in 2014, doesn't seem like it's worth the time and effort of public employees and state-compensated attorneys. But it has been since the lawsuit was filed back in October, thanks to a clause in Wickline's contract that could force him to forfeit $600,000 for making a "lateral move" to Texas rather than accepting a promotion with play-calling duties as called for in his contract with Oklahoma State.

Y'all ain't ready for Joe Wickline's performance polo swag. Image via Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

This, right here, is the magic of amateur sports. In a world where men like Clemson University head coach Dabo Swinney can say "As far as paying players, professionalizing college athletics, that's where you lose me," his fellow coaches are arguing in an out-of-state courtroom over contract law and hundreds of thousands of dollars. In that same world, Texas Athletic Director Steve Patterson can make this argument: "The university is largely creating the value," he told Texas Monthly last year. "No corporations are going to be lining up to pay them money out of high school. They also get a huge benefit on the college stage by having such assets as strength coaches, nutritionists, psychological support, tutors, mentors, media training. All of that costs money. It is too easy for those in the sports press to say, 'You are manipulating and using these kids. You are giving them nothing.' We are not giving them nothing."

At its core, Patterson's argument is no different from Donald Sterling's infamous, "Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game?" rhetoric. It's no different than Darren Rovell's claim that we watch college basketball not for the athletes but for the laundry, a claim economist Andy Schwarz dismantled in this space last month.

Wickline's case makes the contradictions of the claim crystal clear. He is under contract to make $575,000 per season with the Longhorns. At least one of his fellow assistants has clauses in his contract worth as much as $185,000 for incentives like winning the Big XII championship or the national championship. If the university truly created the value, as Patterson claims, where are these salaries and bonuses coming from? If Texas fans are paying to watch laundry, what is Joe Wickline doing to make him worth $575,000 per year to Texas, and worth restrictive contract clauses and a lawsuit to Oklahoma State? If Texas fans are paying to watch laundry, why are incentives for championships necessary? What makes Wickline worth more than the thousands who would gladly don a burnt orange polo and a headset and stroll the Texas Memorial Stadium sidelines for free?

"Sir, the question was, 'Are these your football plays?'" Image via Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The answer is obvious: Despite Texas's horrible offensive display last season, they still won more games with Wickline than they would have with your dad calling plays and coaching offensive linemen. Texas and Oklahoma State are in the market for wins, and that's why they pay their coaches and "compensate" their athletes. Value doesn't exist without high profile victories and conference and national championships. There's a reason the University of Alabama's Nick Saban makes $7,160,187 and South Alabama's Joey Jones makes $435,000, and it's not because of the logos on the front of their high-performance polos. If the University of Texas creates the value of its football team, why was it willing to pay Saban $100 million to come coach, as Paul Finebaum reported in his latest book?

No matter what the Steve Pattersons of the world say, people simply won't pay as much to watch a losing college football team. It doesn't matter how much history is in the program or how recognizable its team colors are, people will stop showing up when the wins stop piling up. If the University of Texas really created all of the value of its football team, their coaches wouldn't have spent last Wednesday in an Oklahoma court quibbling over a $600,000 contract clause and what the definition of a play-caller is. Texas and Oklahoma State are fighting over Joe Wickline because he wins football games.

Wickline and the rest of his coaching brethren provide value, and so do the players he instructs, the players who executed his and Watson's plays every Saturday last fall. One side makes six figures yearly; the other is compensated in the equivalent of educational gift certificates. That these coaches are engaged in six-figure court battles over who calls plays on the sidelines while players have maximum restrictions on food allowances only magnifies this contradiction. And as long as men like Wickline are earning half a million dollars and fighting over half a million more while players get nothing—or at least nothing they can freely spend—there's no reason to take anything an enterprising administrator like Steve Patterson says seriously.