The laments that accompanied the handwringing had a familiar ring. It’s bad public policy and demonstrates a skewed sense of priorities, critics said. A regrettable circumstance, high-ranking officials agreed, but everyone else is doing it and we have to follow suit if we’re to remain competitive in the marketplace.

No, these were not the standard pronouncements accompanying yet another multi-million-dollar corporate incentives giveaway by North Carolina’s myopic politicians. Rather, they were offered in response to the news that UNC-Chapel Hill had decided to give football coach Butch Davis a $291,000 raise and one-year contract extensiondespite a weak 4-8 record in his first season and a lucky victory over a perennially bad Duke team. The salary boost brings his total annual compensation package to more than $2 million.

After the raise was announced, newspaper columns and editorials uniformly ripped the deal. Former UNC system president Bill Friday bemoaned the college athletics “arms race,” noting that the increase far exceeds that offered to the university system’s president and chancellors, and dwarfed the annual salaries of English professors. Friday called the raise and salary package “dramatically out of balance” and called on the UNC Board of Trustees and the system’s Board of Governors to correct these “excessive imbalances.”

You have to feel bad for Friday. A dinosaur who still believes in the academic mission of universities and the quaint notion that substance should trump style, he and other old-schoolers can only shake their heads at the new breed of academic “leaders” who are ultimately responsible for setting university policy. Politicians and bean-counters rule the roost in the UNC system these days. The chasm between Friday and Erskine Bowles could hardly be more pronounced.

Trustees chairman Roger Perry allowed that the situation was unfortunate, but quickly dismissed the idea that the board would think twice about approving the deal. “Unless we unilaterally disarm our program, we are going to have to stay competitive,” he said. “This is an issue that’s much, much bigger than just us.”

Perry is certainly correct that the university’s position was being dictated by forces beyond its control. Nationally, coaches’ salaries have escalated at a pace rivaling those of corporate CEOs. The negotiations with Davis came within days of his name being floated in the media as a possible replacement for departed coaches at Arkansas and Texas A&M, schools prepared to pay far more than Davis was making at UNC. Though Perry claimed with a straight face that the decision to negotiate the raise had nothing to do with the prospect of losing Davis, the timing of the deal argues otherwise, and few observers are buying that line.

Nor is UNC the only school throwing money at football coaches. Clemson’s Tommy Bowden, who had a far better season than Davis and has been at the school for nine years, leveraged similar rumors into a hefty raise and contract extension a couple of weeks after Davis. Duke is facing the prospect of having to spend significant bucks to hire a replacement for the fired Ted Roof, who received one of the lowest salaries in the Atlantic Coast Conference; athletics director Joe Alleva has promised to elevate the program from laughingstock to league player, a Herculean undertaking that will begin with hiring an experienced coach. That coach won’t come cheap.

N.C. State may not be far behind. A Sporting News columnist recently published the grapevine report that head coach Tom O’Brien, who makes less than the majority of his conference counterparts, may be on the short list for the high-profile Michigan post, and State athletics officials are doubtless squirming at even the remote prospect of his departure after only a year on the job.

Some columnists have pointed the finger at Davis and Bowden for playing their respective institutions, suggesting that neither one may have had any intention of leaving and may even have helped fuel the speculation about other jobs in order to wrangle a better deal. But even if this were true, the coaches can’t be blamed for being in a position of strength and taking advantage of it. Like companies who squeeze absurd incentives out of state and local governments to remain where they are, the coaches are just looking after their own best interests. They don’t write the checks, they just cash them.

If the issue of universities spending too much on athletics stopped at coaches’ salaries, it might be easier for those who care about higher education to swallow. But head coaching salaries comprise only a fraction of the cost of staying in the game. Many schools, including N.C. State, UNC, Duke and N.C. Central, have spent tens of millions each to expand their stadiums and build state-of-the-art practice and training facilities. Universities justify those expenditures the same way they rationalize paying exorbitant salaries to coaches: Everyone else is doing it, and we have to keep up with the Joneses if we expect to recruit the best athletes.

Another civic parallel here: Cities around the country, including Raleigh, have been building ever larger, higher-tech convention centers in the hopes of attracting major corporate get-togethers with their attendant economic infusions. If they don’t, so the thinking goes, the business will go elsewhere. But as so many of these cities have discovered (and studies have confirmed), a glut of convention centers without the business to support them means that most will lose a great deal of money, at taxpayer expense. That the money could have been better spent on real community needs is hard to dispute.

And make no mistake, spending vast sums on athletics is a tradeoff for universities. According to recent data, more than four of every five major-college sports programs must be subsidized by student fees and other institutional subsidies to balance their budgets. N.C. Central, for example, which incurred large financial obligations when it moved to NCAA’s Division I this year and will have to spend far more if it ever hopes to compete with its rivals, which it can ill afford. The architects of the N.C. Central move don’t have to worry about the consequences: Former president James Ammons and ex-athletic director Bill Hayes both fled Durham for similar jobs at Florida A&M.

UNC-Chapel Hill trustee Bob Winston rejects the notion that the school has shifted its institutional priorities. “I believe that if you look at the reputation of the University of North Carolina and where we have focused the vast majority of our time and resources,” Winston told The N&O, “it is clear that we believe the academic mission is the most important mission of the university, and it will continue to be so.”

Winston may indeed believe what he says, and voices of dissent are few and far between. Reputation, on the other hand, may correlate only marginally with reality. And if he’s correct that the Davis raise does not mark a change in direction, it’s only because that change has already taken place. At UNC-Chapel Hill, undergraduate education in particular has been steadily descending to afterthought status for years. Cuts in operating budgets and hiring freezes have become the norm on campus (and throughout the UNC system), even though money always seems available for new building projects and the university’s grandiose Carolina North expansion plans.

The perceived need to spend relentlessly on football is consistent with this trend, which amounts to image über alles. Image has always been a factor for impressionable 18-year-olds considering their college enrollment options. But image is also apparently what now drives boosters and other alumni to pump millions into athletics departments rather than tenured professorships or libraries, and inspires legislators to approve subsidies for athletes even as they slash academic budgets.

For several reasons, UNC’s image as a viable football school would have taken a big hit had Davis left for greener pastures. Rebuilding that image likely would have cost far more than the extra few million the coach will earn during the course of his contract. To those in charge, therefore, there were no other options other than to pay up front. Nor will there be in the future. While dodging questions about potential suitors in an interview last month, Davis discussed a proposed 10,000-seat expansion of Kenan Stadium. Adding that even further expansion might be possible down the road, Davis inadvertently addressed the bigger picture: “Where it’ll end, I don’t know.”