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Egos and economics
In 2008, Louisiana Tech played six home football games for the first time since 1982. The Bulldogs also played road games in Kansas, Idaho, Hawaii, New York, California and New Mexico.
As a member of the Southland Conference in 1982, the Bulldogs played in Lafayette and Monroe, in the Texas cities of Arlington and College Station, in Hattiesburg, Miss., and in Jonesboro, Ark.
You don’t need Google Maps or an MBA to understand that Louisiana Tech’s travel budgets have ballooned since the school joined the Western Athletic Conference in 2001.
The Bulldogs flew 14,760 miles in the 2007 football season. Last year, with a trip to Honolulu on the schedule, the total increased to 18,942 miles. Their closest WAC rival, New Mexico State, is 821 miles from Ruston.
Louisiana Tech is an extreme example of the high cost of college athletics and how many of the state’s universities will have to reconsider expenses because of budget cuts for 2009-10. Athletic directors are bracing for reductions as high as 20%.
Deep cuts will make it more difficult for Louisiana Tech—and the other lower-tier programs in the NCAA’s Division I Football Bowl Subdivision—to compete at an already daunting level. Other schools on leaner budget—those in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision—will have to further strip costs.
The University of New Orleans, which had suspended nine of its 15 sports in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and had an operating deficit of more than $1.3 million in 2007-08, warns it might have drop to intercollegiate athletics.
“We’re used to dealing with operating without any wasteful spending,” Nicholls State Athletic Director Rob Bernardi says, “but some of these cuts jeopardize the great strides that we’ve made in education in Louisiana. Before, we were state-funded, and there’s a big difference between that and being state-supported.”
Gov. Bobby Jindal proposed deep reductions in higher-education spending as part of wide-ranging austerity measures meant to deal with declines in state revenues caused not only by the national recession, but also because of the drop late last year in oil prices as well as tax breaks approved in recent years by state lawmakers.
Two years after finally receiving 100% of the funding formula from the state, Louisiana’s higher-education institutions are reluctantly looking at Draconian cuts at a time when expenses also are rising.
Northwestern State Athletic Director Greg Burke is not alone when he says schools will have to use a variety of measures to trim costs, including smaller squad sizes, more efficient travel, cutting game programs and media guides, reducing recruiting expenses and health insurance and not filling vacant positions, among others. Eliminating at least one sport is possible.
“This is quite a 180 from the summer of 2007,” Burke says.
But that’s the new economic reality, as state officials say projected cuts of nearly $220 million will result in layoffs of 2,350 faculty and staff workers.
“This will set a very poor state back by generations,” says Clausen, who previously served as the president of Southeastern Louisiana University and president of the University of Louisiana System.
Vic Stelly, who is legislative committee chairman of the Louisiana Board of Regents, agrees.
“Seventy percent of the higher-ed budget is personnel,” he says. “There’s not a whole lot you can cut without cutting people. It’s not as easy as some political novices that sit on the sideline would like to think.”
And Louisiana, unlike many other states, restricts the use of student-assessed fees to help fund athletics programs. Except in rare exceptions, such fees are specifically for capital outlay, gender equity or life-safety issues.
Some NCAA minimum requirements restrict how much a school could cut, and there are other self-imposed parameters the athletic directors have set.
“We also want to minimize any impact upon the student-athlete,” Southeastern Louisiana University Athletic Director Joel Erdmann says.
The Hammond school receive the highest percentage of state money among the athletic departments in the University of Louisiana System. Of the Lions’ $6.9 million budget, $4.7 million—or about 68.4%—comes from their state share.
On May 12, SLU announced it was eliminating its 10-player men’s tennis team in a move that Erdmann says came in reaction to next year’s proposed state budget.
“Obviously this is not our preference,” he says. “However, considering the magnitude of the impending cuts, there was no option. The reality of the cuts and the impact on the lives of student-athletes and athletic department personnel is definitely coming to light.”
All over the map
Conference USA, of which Tulane is a member, stretches from Orlando, Fla., to Huntington, W.Va., to El Paso, Texas. The Sun Belt Conference triangle maxes out from Miami to Bowling Green, Ky., to Denver. Louisiana Tech is closer to Notre Dame and Ohio State than to its nearest WAC rival.
“The reason these conferences are the way they are, is egos have gotten in the way,” says Jay Walker, who is the radio voice for UL-Lafayette. “It’s been about, ‘I don’t want to be associated with those people; I do want to be associated with these people.’
“If this downturn stays a downturn long enough, what may happen is you may see people realizing they have to put egos aside.”
Realigning conferences is not yet on the radar, state athletic directors say.
Louisiana Tech, for example, has consistently put literal and competitive distance between itself and Interstate 20 corridor neighbor, Louisiana-Monroe. The Bulldogs are at an impasse scheduling games against other state schools in other sports because of their wanderlust in football.
“They’re exploding one bridge after another,” Walker says, noting Sun Belt teams have turned their backs on Louisiana Tech in retaliation for the Bulldogs’ refusal to schedule them in football.
Bruce Van De Velde, CEO and deputy director for Louisiana Tech athletics and right-hand man for football coach and athletic director Derek Dooley, was unwilling to discuss the implications of state cuts upon its teams. Of the Bulldogs’ $11.4 million athletic budget, almost $4 million comes from their state share.
“Why don’t you talk to LSU instead of picking on Louisiana Tech?” Van De Velde says, adding he would pass along the request to Dooley. “If he wants to talk about it with you, he’ll get in touch with you.”
Dooley didn’t call, and a subsequent effort to contact him was unsuccessful. LSU, meanwhile, is the only state university that does not receive money from the operating budget for its athletic program.
In the early 1980s, Louisiana Tech, McNeese State and UL-Lafayette were Southland Conference rivals. Lamar, located in Beaumont, Texas, an hour west of McNeese, also was a Southland member.
Nicholls State, Northwestern State and SLU were Gulf Star Conference rivals. UL-Lafayette stayed at the highest level when the Southland became a I-AA conference in 1982, and UL-Monroe joined the Southland after Louisiana Tech became a I-A independent.
The Southland absorbed the state’s former Gulf Star schools, but SLU dropped football after the 1985 season. Lamar dropped the sport in 1989. Southeastern revived its football program in 2002 and joined the Southland. Lamar left the Southland and returned and will play football again in 2010.
In the early 1990s, when conferences fractured and some schools played football in one league and other sports in another, UL-Monroe became a I-A independent. Tech, 35 miles away, talked with several conferences before choosing the WAC.
In the 1980s and early ’90s, setting at 30 the number of conferences that receive automatic bids to the NCAA basketball tournament and other changes led to the unintended consequence of expanded conference geography. As the race for at-large berths heated up, leagues began strengthening their basketball presence.
“That’s why Conference USA is so spread out and why the ACC is so spread out,” says Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Wright Waters, who concedes his league has a wide reach, established before his hiring in 1998. “At some point in time, though, it’s still about putting people in the stands.
“You’ve always heard people would drive 60 miles for a basketball game and 150 miles to a football game. If you start drawing that kind of parameter, then maybe this is the economic issue that forces people to get focused on being in leagues where they can put people in the stands, where they can create local interest and not be spending money with the airlines.”
What about creating a Louisiana-centric conference to rein in travel costs?
“I’ve heard that talk before, and I suspect we might hear more of that,” says Randy Moffett, the former president of Southeastern Louisiana University who now is president of the University of Louisiana System, “but I don’t see that happening unless the Legislature gets involved.”
Playing up, staying down
Under the old economics of college football, UL-Monroe’s move up to I-A seemed almost foolhardy. A Southland study projected a probable net loss over the long haul. Of the Warhawks’ $7.4 million athletic budget, $4.7 million comes from their state share.
New economics took hold this decade. Adding a 12th regular-season game in I-A created a supply-and-demand windfall for mid-major and lower-tier teams in the division, enabling them to ask for and receive higher paydays for playing road games against big-time programs such as LSU and its Southeastern Conference rivals.
A team can earn $2 million or more per season in financial guarantees by scheduling three or four money games, but with few exceptions, they lose those games by large margins. Dropping to what was formerly called Division I-AA would reduce expenses, but it would vastly cut into revenues. Not only do schools in that division receive smaller guarantees, but also Division I-A teams must play a minimum of five home games against other I-A teams.
In terms of total allocations from BCS revenue sharing, TV agreements and other I-A entitlements, a conference such as the Sun Belt receives roughly twice what a I-AA league such as the Southland receives.
Big 12 Conference member Kansas State will play at UL-Lafayette this fall, and mid-major athletic directors predict more opportunities for that caliber of home game for the Ragin’ Cajuns and other programs like theirs.
Louisiana Tech, meanwhile, is 2-10 in road games played against WAC rivals Boise State, Hawaii, San Jose State and New Mexico State. The Bulldogs’ 21-0 victory at San Jose State last year broke a 0-for-10 losing streak in those WAC road series.
Playing up has its down moments. The marquee win for UL-Lafayette in I-A football remains its 29-22 upset of a mediocre Texas A&M team at Cajun Field in 1996, when this year’s incoming freshmen were in kindergarten.
The Cajuns play Sept. 19 at LSU, which has outscored UL-Lafayette 957-22 in 20 games, including 93-0 in 1936, 48-0 in 2002 and 45-3 in 2006. Realistically, the Cajuns are looking at losses in three of their first four games this season, with Nebraska and Kansas State in that mix.
UL-Monroe met the minimum requirement of five home games in 2006 by playing a “home” game against Arkansas in Little Rock, which is allowed under NCAA rules. Athletic Director Bobby Staub wants to keep the series with the Razorbacks, but aims to play at least five games in Monroe each year.
Arkansas defeated UL-Monroe 28-27 in September after trailing 24-6 late in the third quarter. That came less than a year after the Warhawks stunned Nick Saban and Alabama 21-14.
Those are the games they like to remember in Monroe, not the 70-6 loss to Georgia in 1994, the 67-0 loss to Kansas State in 2002 or the 73-7 loss to Auburn in 2003.
UL-Lafayette stopped playing McNeese State in football in 1986, citing higher aspirations. A rematch in 2007 drew 33,828 fans, the third-largest crowd in Cajun Field history and in Sun Belt Conference home-stadium history.
The Cowboys probably won’t get the Cajuns to agree to a rematch anytime soon. McNeese, with fewer scholarships and resources, won 38-17.
Stelly recalls his bill, a decade ago, which asked the Legislature to create a Louisiana conference.
“It never made it out of committee,” Stelly says, recalling Louisiana Tech, UL-Lafayette and UL-Monroe fought it the hardest.
The Sun Belt pitched invitations across the state in the 1990s. None were accepted.
“The problem breaks down where ego becomes more important than financial considerations, and I think maybe where the adjustment is,” Waters says, “is when the finances get back more important than the egos, then you start doing things that make a lot more sense or are a lot more logical.”
Not that it’s easy.
“I would offer,” Northwestern State’s Burke says, “that unless you’ve sat in the scheduling chair, especially in terms of football, you can’t know that it’s not as easy as it seems on the outside to schedule a lot of the opponents you’d like to play.”
Northwestern State would love to renew the State Fair Classic in Shreveport against Louisiana Tech. There is some sentiment for it among older Tech fans. UL-Lafayette will sign contracts to play Tech in other sports when Tech signs one to play the Ragin’ Cajuns in football. UL-Monroe is similarly eager to play its nearest rival.
“We’ll play,” Staub says, “so you need to ask Tech about that.”
Meanwhile, the state’s athletic directors continue to look for new sources of revenue.
“Our athletic directors have got to be some of the most creative financial managers in the country,” Waters says.
There’s plenty of evidence. After hiring former LSU co-defensive coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto last winter to coach Northwestern State, Burke announced what the Demons call the Peveto Promise. If, after two home games, fans don’t like the product on the field, they can get a refund for their season tickets.
Versions of the Tiger Athletic Foundation, a big success in raising money at LSU, exist at UL-Monroe, Tech and—as of last month—UL-Lafayette. Schools say donations are holding steady, largely because many are tied to privileges such as special parking and other game-day amenities.
Administrators also hope to lobby the state to change its view on student fees. Until then, everyone is buckling up for what could be a bumpy ride.
“LSU won’t, but the rest of us will be in the red,” says Southern baseball coach Roger Cador, who graduated from the school in 1975, which he notes was a different time in many ways. Those were they heydays of schools like Southern. Money was good. Oil money was good. The state was funding schools at a tremendous level.
“Now we’re in an economic tsunami.”
By Carl Dubois
Monday, May 18, 2009