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Ramsey: What state government can learn from college football

Dec. 4, 2017 at 11:52 p.m.


Why run government like a business? Friends, there is a better way available: Run it like a major college football team.

Find those underperforming state agencies. The fastest way to find them is to ask the people who watch them all the time. When you find a stinker, fire the management — even if it costs you $10.4 million, even if some of the people getting canned were innocent bystanders, assistants to the person in charge. Then, and this is the beautiful part, bring in a star from another state — even if the people in that other state are souring on the star you're hiring.

Do with state agencies, in other words, what Texas A&M University just did with its football program and what the University of Texas at Austin did a year ago. Locate a hot prospect — a Jimbo Fisher or a Tom Herman — and pay them a kabillion bucks to revive the program you're not happy with.

Got rats in your buildings? Vermin infesting your programs? Fire someone. Hire someone. Demand results. Repeat every five to 10 years as needed.

Big-time sports programs in both the private and public universities have itchier trigger fingers than the state does. That's the point, really. When the basketball team doesn't make the NCAA tournament in March for too many years in a row, when the football team doesn't get into something more prestigious than the Particle Board Bowl or their other athletes aren't producing trophies and the kind of attention big sports bring to schools, universities jump.

Governments don't jump. The state is rarely fast to act when things go wrong. Unless something has generated a pile of headlines or an angry mob of legislators, the state isn't even quick to notice trouble.

Those headlines are often about problems that have festered for years without notice or without sufficient notice to prompt change. The past few weeks have enough examples to make the point at the state and federal levels:

An infestation of rats in the Brown-Heatly Building in Austin, home to the state's Health and Human Services Commission.

Persistent sexual harassment in the Texas Capitol where, until the headlines began appearing, policies for reporting and responding to complaints were informal at best and virtually nonexistent at worst.

The U.S. Air Force's failure to report crimes and other behavior that would, if properly handled, prevent people like the Sutherland Springs shooter from obtaining the guns he used in a Sunday attack on a church.

The audience isn't paying attention to government in the way that it does to Texas football. That makes a difference. But a lot of the reactions to bad coaching or to terrible practices in sports programs are quick and — even when ill-advised — certain.

UT-Austin got a new coach when the powers there had a bellyful of complaints from boosters and fans and sports talk jocks and the whole sports crowd. Charlie Strong lost his job. Tom Herman, that particular moment's Wonder Coach, was lured by the prestige and bank account of Longhorn football to leave the University of Houston. Strong moved to a job as head coach at the University of South Florida, which, by the way, has nine wins and one loss this season. UT is 6-6.

A&M picked Florida State University's pocket to get Fisher, whose team this year has a win-loss record of 5-6 — the kind of record that endangers those all-important postseason bowl invitations. With Kevin Sumlin, the Aggies complied a 7-5 record this year.

But the brass was unhappy. The institutional trigger fingers were itchy. They wanted results. They wanted them fast. Sumlin got a $10.4 million going-away settlement. Fisher got a fat contract, the details of which are not precisely public (ESPN and others reported he got a 10-year, $75 million contract).

Maybe the Aggie football team will get better, maybe not. But they're trying to fix it. The recognition of deficiency, the quick response and the demand for excellence were all there.

Imagine running a whole government like that.

— Ross Ramsey is executive editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune.

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