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Hard times dog Mississippi Valley State athletics
As bad days go for football coaches, Karl Morgan’s story ranks up there.
It was last winter - Morgan doesn’t remember the date, and it’s hard to blame him - when he was summoned to a campus-wide meeting to discuss Gov. Haley Barbour’s proposal to merge his new employer, Mississippi Valley State, with the state’s other two historically black public universities.
Morgan, on the job just a few days, also found out that Rice-Totten Stadium was declared unsafe to use this season. Oh, and he wouldn’t be able to hire all of his staff until a few months later.
“It was tough,” he said with a laugh on a recent morning in his office.
Much of the scares from those days have blown over. The Legislature has since squashed the idea of consolidation, though the state’s bleak fiscal picture at least suggests that further talks aren’t out of the question. By the time August practice starts in advance of Valley’s Sept. 4 opening game at Alabama State, Morgan expects to have his staff hired.
The stadium issue, though, remains. Valley won’t play at Itta Bena this year, instead playing three “home” games some 45 miles away at Greenville-Weston High School’s Kerg Field. That includes the Oct. 2 homecoming game against Prairie View A&M.
And the bigger question - the department’s viability - hasn’t died either.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, Valley spends the fifth-lowest amount on athletics of any of the NCAA’s 344 Division I teams.
About 70 percent of Valley’s athletic budget comes from a combination of student fees and direct funding from the university.
MVSU president Donna Oliver said there have been internal discussions about leaving Division I but nothing serious.
“That has been in our conversations,” Oliver said, “but at the same time, we want to make sure we provide for our students the very best for every arena that we can.”
JSU, Alcorn richer
The comparisons aren’t pretty. Even in the small-budget Southwestern Athletic Conference, Valley’s numbers are dwarfed within its own state. Jackson State, with a $6.8 million budget, spends twice as much as Valley does to support its 16 intercollegiate teams, seven for men and nine for women. Alcorn State, at $5.3 million, spends $2 million more.
Morgan’s $75,000 base salary is roughly half of what Jackson State’s Rick Comegy and Alcorn State’s Earnest Collins earn.
Valley’s financial state is more analogous to Delta State, a 40-mile hop through farmland to the northwest. DSU will spend $2.7 million to fund its athletic programs this year.
But Delta State plays in Division II, a level that allows teams to provide fewer scholarships and has, conceivably, lower overhead. But even of the 283 programs in that division, 128 spend more on athletics than Valley.
Valley’s 2010-11 athletic budget appeared to be down by 20 percent based on documents supplied by the state College Board, but Oliver said this was due to a comparison to last year’s end-of-fiscal year figures. Valley doesn’t include the amounts it gets from playing guarantee football games in its budget in advance, she said.
The 2010-11 plan is actually three percent more than 2009-10’s plan, she said.
The school will receive $240,000 for playing Alcorn State at Chicago’s Soldier Field on Sept. 18 and can make another $25,000 in ticket sales, interim athletic director Donald Ray Sims said.
Valley hopes to land a game with Mississippi State as early as the 2012 season.
Valley must provide 58 football scholarships in a two-year period to be able to count as a win for State’s bowl eligibility. Sims said Valley provided 58 last year (five below the maximum allowed for teams that play at the Football Championship Subdivision level) and expects to this year, too.
Not unlike many SWAC teams that play road games for the paycheck, Valley’s men’s basketball team played a brutal pre-conference schedule last season that included trips to Washington State, Gonzaga, Iowa State, Arkansas, Oregon, Oregon State and Mississippi State.
“Right now, the only lifeline we have is to go out and play those guarantee games, and that’s just to keep us afloat,” Sims said.
Morgan makes do
Morgan, a 1984 graduate of UCLA, came to Valley in January after a five-year stint as the defensive coordinator at North Alabama, a successful Division II program in Florence, Ala.
Friends told him to think twice about taking over at Valley. Even so, he still wanted to be a head coach.
“I knew the limitations when I took the job,” said Morgan, who is still trying to finalize his 2010 recruiting class. He had 14 signees as of late last month, some four months after most schools had signed the maximum number of 25 allowed by NCAA rules.
A walk with Morgan through his team’s facility illustrates some of the limitations he faces.
He flips on a light switch, illuminating a barren concrete floor with chipped paint.
“This is the training room,” he says, before adding this: “We don’t have a trainer.”
In an organized equipment room, helmets sit neatly stacked on a shelf, but there aren’t enough helmets to outfit his entire team.
The team doesn’t have a dedicated weight room, the room deemed critical by most coaches because of the strength and conditioning needed to succeed on the field. His players, instead, lift weights in the student recreation center.
Beside the locker room door, a metal door with a rectangular window has holes in it. Bullet holes, it appears. Outside, “61-0″ is spray-painted twice. Vandals did it, Morgan said, after last year’s season-opening loss of the same score at Arkansas State.
Some of the things he’s proud of would make the big-salary coaches laugh. He boasts of the two ice machines in the training room and is thrilled that the office’s copier was just fixed.
Morgan stresses his goal is to make things first-class, and he’s proud of the well-ordered equipment closet, its smell of fresh shoes and the color-coded harmony of washed uniforms resting on hangers. But it’s hard to ignore reality.
“I think resources are a problem, there’s no getting around it,” he said.
Morgan has taken over a program that won three games last season and lost eight. The Delta Devils were 31-57 in eight seasons under Willie Totten, the school’s legendary quarterback from the 1980s.
Morgan says Totten has been more than helpful in his transition. Totten, who wouldn’t comment for this story, remains employed by Valley in its advancement office.
Upon his resignation as the football coach, he seemed exasperated. “I told (Oliver) I had been preaching the same story for eight years and that it was time for someone else to give it a try,” Totten told the Greenwood Commonwealth.
New funds needed
Work is expected to begin in the fall on the stadium with hopes of it being ready for games in 2011.
The $1.7 million price tag for repairs will be paid for outside of athletic department funds, Oliver said.
But that’s a one-time fix. In order for the department to grow its budget, it’ll have to make significant inroads in private funding, Oliver said.
“We cannot survive solely on state funding,” Oliver said. “We are going to have to have the support from external donors, our alumni, our foundation.”
Audrey Tyrone, the president of the Vicksburg/Warren County chapter of the school’s alumni association, said that her group is working toward giving more than in the past.
“I think the alumni need to step up and give back to the university, that’s the main thing,” she said.
Morgan said he has called on former UCLA teammates, is trying to locate more former Valley players and is hoping to make more connections with business leaders in the Delta.
He’s still trying to get in touch with Rice, Valley’s former star wide receiver who made millions in a decorated two-decade NFL career. He’ll be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame next month.
Through his manager, Rice did not respond to The Clarion-Ledger’s interview request.
For all the question marks, though, there is optimism among Valley’s leaders.
Beyond merely football, Sean Woods, the program’s men’s basketball coach, has a respected recruiting class on the way.
Sims touts the strides his department’s budget has made just in the past half-decade and says Valley players are doing well in the classroom.
(A 1985 Valley grad who has worked at the school since graduating, Sims has been labeled the school’s interim AD since Lonza Hardy Jr. left for Hampton just over three years ago. “I don’t work for a title,” Sims said. “I try to make a difference.")
Oliver is relatively new on the job, having taken over in January 2009. She talks of turning Valley’s challenges into opportunities.
Back in the spring, Valley received a $100,000 gift for the university, one that Oliver said was the largest single gift in school history.
“I just use that as an example of how things are getting better, even though it’s quite, quite difficult,” she said.
Morgan tries to find the positives, too. If nothing else, the program is a blank canvas where any success can help the coach make his mark - and the school some money, too.
“Things have kind of jolted me a little bit,” Morgan said, “but they haven’t knocked me off my track.”