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High status athletics have a high price

Canisius College did more than hire a proven coach upon bringing Jim Baron into the fold. The Griffs overhauled the culture within their basketball program by pledging a financial commitment comparable to some of the bigger spenders in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

But will it ultimately be worth the price? Basketball's a loss leader at many a mid-major institution. It's virtually impossible for the Griffs, who play in the 2,200-seat Koessler Athletic Center, to recoup in real dollars the investment it's taking to ascend to conference standards. Baron alone comes in the vicinity of $300,000 a season. His delay in taking the job concerned the pay for his assistant coaches and the creation of support positions -- an administrative assistant and a director of basketball operations. Add in the requisite academic support staff and the cost of player scholarships and the annual price tag exceeds $1 million -- before the team steps on a plane or a bus or books a hotel.

Tickets sales and broadcast income can't offset that kind of spending and student fees used to subsidize athletics can be pushed only so high. But this is the way of the college basketball world, even at the mid-major level. To operate as a bare-bones entity is to concede advantages that undermine a school's ability to compete.

The lowly last 10 years on Main Street were in large part a product of Canisius falling behind the financial times, although dollars the last couple of years were spent addressing other shortcomings, such as the locker room and the team room. If that rings as extravagant, it isn't. More than 300 schools play Division I basketball. Recruiting has as much to do with facilities as it does with the school or the coach. Remember we're dealing with players in their late teens who in most cases entertained long-held ambitions of playing Division I. The shine on the floor matters. The question surrounds what Canisius and the other Big 4 schools can hope to realize out of what has become an increasingly expensive proposition.

Certainly St. Bonaventure hit the mother lode last month, with its men's team making the NCAAs and the women advancing to the Sweet Sixteen. From a university standpoint, the exposure and awareness generated by Bona's two-step March offset perhaps two or three years of expenses associated with those programs. The successes fortify campus pride. Alumni become more willing offer financial support. Everyone walks with a lighter step. But accomplishment comes at a price through an increase in coaches' salaries in order to ward off the bigger and wealthier courters.

While Big 4 schools never will aspire to keeping up with the Kentuckys, doubtless they're affected by the trickle-down effect. We've reached the point where two Colonial Athletic Association coaches, Shaka Smart of Virginia Commonwealth and Paul Hewitt at George Mason, have joined the seven-figure club once associated only with BCS automatic-qualifier schools. Those salaries are alarming considering the Atlantic 10, traditionally a higher-ranked conference that receives more NCAA Tournament bids, has no coach in that stratosphere. At least not yet. But all it takes is one conference member to up the ante. Remember, Baron left Bona for conference rival Rhode Island 10 years ago when the Rams almost doubled his paycheck, heightening the stakes in a league where three or four teams usually advance to the NCAAs.

Canisius, Niagara and the University at Buffalo all play in one-bid conferences.

Much has been made about the formation of the super conferences. From a local standpoint, it'll be interesting to see if this evolves the other way. Are Canisius and Niagara in no-win situations against Iona and Fairfield? How does UB keep pace with, for one, Akron and its LeBron James connection and the addition of former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, ostensibly to a fund-raising position?

Is it worth maintaining the status quo when there are other Division I conferences where the chase for a single bid costs a lot less?