|« Opinion: Nicholls State May Do The Unexpected||Unbeaten SEMO Redhawks walk bridge of optimism into 2008 »|
SCSU Athletics Leadership Sees Program Ready for New Glory Era
South Carolina State University is a few weeks from reopening its doors for the student body.
But for Athletics Director Charlene Johnson, it’s not too early to hold a pep talk with some of the new and returning coaches involved with the school’s 17 sports. Crowded together in the conference room of Rowe Hall, they listen to Johnson’s expectations and optimism about the upcoming school year.
“I’m still trying to learn everybody’s names,” said Johnson as she hustled back to her office to prepare for another meeting.
Having replaced six head coaches over the past 15 months and having seen just one program (tennis) reach the postseason during her second tenure as AD, Johnson is ready to see a rebirth in S.C. State athletics.
“In terms of athletics as a whole, we’re hoping that this can actually be our year,” Johnson said. “We’ve got a lot of new faces in terms of coaches. I think the coaches have done a very good job recruiting, so we’re hoping that we can win some championships. I don’t know if it’s different from any other year, but with some of the transition, I think we’re kind of prepared now.”
From a fiscal standpoint, the athletics program is enjoying an unprecedented level of support from the S.C, State Board of Trustees. This year, the board approved a $9.4 million budget.
“Over the past several years, if you compare approved funding – funding that’s been recommended to the board for athletics – we have approved funding that has generated a budget that is if not the most well-funded program in the MEAC, it’s among the top two best-funded programs in the MEAC,” S.C. State Board Chairman Maurice Washington said.
Such a prospect was not possible six years ago when Oliver “Buddy” Pough temporarily took on the dual role of head football coach and interim athletics director. At the same time the school had to issue furloughs to salaried employees, the S.C. State athletics department had an operating deficit of $2.77 million and was 13 scholarships short of the 66 required to schedule a lucrative game against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent.
“It was a struggle just to make ends meet,” Pough said. “We were in more survival mode then.”
Through efforts such as increasing season ticket football sales and attendance at football games and taking part in lucrative “Classics” such as the Palmetto City Classic in Columbia, the Circle City Classic in Indianapolis and the Lowcountry Classic in Charleston, S.C. State found additional sources of revenue.
Although season ticket sales have not come close to the school’s desired goal of 5,000 (2,595 sold last year), S.C. State has ranked in the top 30 among Football Championship Subdivision schools in total home attendance, averaging 14,008 fans. Meanwhile, Washington said last year’s Lowcountry Classic raised between $143,000-170,000 in sponsorship revenue and $140,000 in gate receipts.
“What drives the Lowcountry Classic is the opportunity to secure sponsorship dollars for need-based scholarships and students from disadvantaged households and communities around the state,” Washington said. “It’s designed to take a home football game and not only raise gate receipts and raise gate dollars for the athletic programs, but also raise funds for need-based scholarships and those scholarships go back to maintain the 66 scholarships for football that allow us to play those competitive schools which bring in additional revenue.”
Last season, S.C. State football took part in another business venture for the first time. As part of the “Centennial Season,” the Bulldogs played two road contests against FBS opponents, Air Force and the University of South Carolina.
The two contests earned S.C. State a total of $460,000. This season, the Bulldogs could receive close to $607,000 from the two FBS contests against Central Florida on Aug. 30 and Clemson University on Sept. 20 to go along with this year’s Lowcountry Classic and home games at Oliver C. Dawson Stadium against Benedict College (Sept. 6) and Norfolk State (Oct. 11) which are expected to draw big crowds.
Despite the increased sources of revenue, it has not translated into on-field success for all the athletics program. Since 2005, only football and both men’s and women’s tennis have managed to produce a winning record and conference championship, with the latter teams the only ones to reach the postseason.
Under Hardeep Judge, the men’s and women’s tennis teams have made the NCAA Tournament four times. Entering his seventh season at the helm and second year of an extension which will pay an unprecedented $1 million over five years, Pough is already the school’s third winningest head football coach at 47-21 . The past five seasons, the program has finished no lower than second place and was co-conference champions in 2005.
The results have been less than favorable for S.C. State’s other revenue team sports. After reaching the NCAA Tournament five times under Cy Alexander, the last time in 2003, the men’s basketball program has won just one MEAC title and has yet to return to the “Big Dance” under three head coaches (Benjamin Betts, Jamal Brown and Tim Carter). This past season, the men’s basketball team suffered through the most losses in program history.
Meanwhile, the once-proud women’s basketball program has also fallen on hard times compared to its glory days when the Lady Bulldogs won the AIAW national championship in 1978. Since last winning the MEAC during the 1993-94 season, the Lady Bulldogs have enjoyed just two winning seasons under three different coaches – Germaine MaCauley, Keshia Campbell and most recently Tonya Mackey – and has now hired Doug Robertson to reverse the trend.
As for the non-revenue sports aside from tennis, S.C. State has lingered behind its MEAC brethren in the standings. Softball, soccer and volleyball have combined to post just one winning season since 2004 and the once-proud track and field program has not been competitive since the men’s indoor team won the conference title in 2002.
“It’s been a number of years since South Carolina State has actually won those championships and I think, just like anything else, with athletics it’s no different,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be a curve, up and down, up and down. I think the last 10 years or so, perhaps a little longer than that, we have not gained what I would consider our rightful place. So hopefully, that curve is about to move up for us because in my mind, it’s time.”
Johnson acknowledges S.C. State has fallen behind some of its MEAC competitors from a facility standpoint. While other schools such as Delaware State have found ways to further improve athletic facilities, S.C. State has had to perform “spot duty” when it comes to upgrading the football stadium, tennis courts and track and field facility.
Although the school now has the Andrew Hugine Suites to house student-athletes, Johnson acknowledged other schools have more modernized facilities to better attract recruits.
“We have a lot of competition as it relates to recruiting before,” she said. “I think it was a given if you wanted to come to college, you came to S.C. State because of a lot of tradition both academically as well as athletically. I think the schools in our conference have caught up. A lot of them within their state systems and faciltiies, they’ve really taken off. You look at Hampton University in terms of their basketball arena, FAMU has a really nice learning center, Maryland-Eastern Shore has a really nice basketball arena. These facilities are now not only providing athletic facilities that are good, but housing, and we’re fortunate to be back in the game with the Andrew Hugine Suites.”
Having a modernized weight room facility, as well as a wellness center, would also help improve the quality of life at S.C. State, Johnson said.
Impeding S.C. State’s efforts, she believes, is the school’s inability to secure sufficient financial support from the state General Assembly and school supporters. Although the General Assembly has reportedly appropriated more than $19 million from the Education Lottery Account to S.C. State since 2002, funds used to make renovations at Oliver C. Dawson Stadium and Dukes Gymnasium, school officials insist that’s not close to helping S.C. State keep up with other MEAC or even fellow in-state schools comparable in size.
“I think that we have to tell the story,” Johnson said. “It seems people think that at South Carolina State University all the funding is there and we have to go out and help everybody understand that it’s a state-assisted, not state-supported institution. So it’s my job along with everybody else I can garner around me to tell the story that we’ve got to go back and raise some revenue to offset the costs of athletics.
“Every year when we go to the General Assembly, that’s one of the things we continue to talk about and that’s something that I plan to bring forth again to our administration. Those are the areas that help us become champions. If you don’t have the equipment you need in order to get stronger, when you get to the fourth quarter or the second half, if you’re not in shape, you can tell. I can speak from experience having played on championship teams. If we lose, it wasn’t because we were out of shape.”
An area where S.C. State has intensified efforts to raise more revenue is season-ticket sales for football. As of Monday, the school stood 2,835 season tickets shy of its goal of selling 5,000 before the Aug. 30 season-opener. Johnson said she’s increased her profile in reaching out to former student-athletes and alumni to give what they can back to the university despite the current economic downturn.
“The more I’m out there, the more I see what people don’t understand that athletics need money to operate,” Johnson said. “We need money to travel. Even with gas prices this year, the NCAA is not saying that you have to cut down on your games because of travel. We’re in the NCAA and it cost a certain amount of money in order to do the things you have to do to maintain.
“I think people are misinformed. When you talk about athletics, the general perception is that you wake you and you go and play, but there’s a whole lot involved in running an athletics program. It’s a business.”
There’s also the balancing act S.C. State must maintain between athletic excellence and classroom performance. One area Johnson is most proud of her program is showing in the classroom. This past school year, 48 student-athletes were named to the 2008 Commissioner’s All-Academic Team, which honors sophomores, juniors and seniors with cumulative grade-point averages of 3.0 or better.
Last April, S.C. State ranked second in student athletes selected as Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports Scholars based on their fall semester GPAs, their cumulative GPAs, their athletic performances, as well as campus and community involvement.
“I tell the coaches that we’ve got to win,” she said. “We’ve got to win. They’ve got to graduate first, because if they don’t go to class, you’re not going to get them to participate.”
In a school year Johnson sees as a “turning point” for the department, her contract is set to expire at the end of it. With the new coaching hires and increased commitment from the board and new President George Cooper, Johnson is confident about the program’s future.
“I think South Carolina State athletics is in good shape,” Johnson said. “I think in any athletic department, if we can first stay healthy, I do believe we have the right people in place, very energenic, who are doing a ton of things that I am noticing and that’s a change. We’re holding our student-athletes accountable, I’m holding my coaches accountable. I’m being held accountable. And that’s the way it should be. But I’m very optimistic about this year.
“Maybe it’s a women’s intuition, I don’t know. But I get this feeling that we’ve worked hard, we’ve toiled in the fall, we’ve stayed long, we’ve dug deep, we’ve got people in place that are energenic and are doing what they’re suppose to do and we’re ready for the games to begin.”
S.C. State athletics leadership sees program ready for new glory era
By Thomas Grant Jr., The Orangeburg Times & Democrat (SC)