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College Sports in the Realm of Bonesville

Monday, April 25, 2005

By Danny Whitford
Publisher & Editor

Fiscal headaches can require drastic cures


It’s no secret that East Carolina’s athletics program — and dozens of others like it from I-A leagues not assured of annual Bowl Championship Series bonanzas — labors on an uphill treadmill to sustain itself.

Recent news reports indicate that not even the wealthier programs of the college sports universe are immune from budgetary migraines.

Ironically, the Pirates’ financial prospects didn’t appear so daunting as recently as two years ago to then-ECU athletic director Mike Hamrick, who bragged to a confidant that he finally had his department positioned to begin reaping million-dollar surpluses.

Of course, that projection was issued when Hamrick was near the end of what some perceive as one of the more bizarre stretches of administrative botchery in the annals of college athletics.

Considering the cascading repercussions from some of his decisions and the distraction of the pounding hoofs of the posse that was coming to get him, it is understandable why Hamrick was more focused on salvaging his career elsewhere than on courting the Big East and securing for ECU the relative sense of security that would have accompanied membership in the league.

The aftermath of Hamrick's escapades is well-documented: ECU's relations with North Carolina high schools was poisoned and its flagship bread 'n butter football program ran hard aground, making semi-regular bowl trips and frequent national TV exposures a relic of the past.

So, obviously, ECU has a valid explanation for the perilous financial state in which it finds itself.

Which brings us around to the University of Arizona.

What’s the Wildcats’ excuse?

In a sign that well-heeled programs are not exempt from the laws of economics that dictate reality at rank-and-file schools like East Carolina, the Arizona athletic department announced earlier this month a wave of layoffs to help get its expenditures in line with its revenues.

That’s a sobering development from a Pac-10 program awash in cash from the BCS cartel.

The school notified 19 employees that they will be losing their jobs as part of a cost-cutting move aimed at helping to balance the department's $30 million annual budget.

ECU's budget, by comparison, languishes in the $18 million range.

There was no immediate estimate from Arizona officials on how much the firings would reduce expenditures.

Rising healthcare costs for employees and fuel costs were cited as having the biggest impact on expenditures.

The layoffs, effective June 30, will affect 16 of the university's 19 varsity sports. Most will lose clerical or administrative assistant positions. The football and men's and women's basketball programs escaped cutbacks.

Those affected by the downsizing represent almost a fifth of the athletic department's non-coaching work force.

Eight of the laid-off employees are described as office specialists senior in the Wildcats' staff directory.

Some administrative positions in fund development, trademarks and licensing, publications, the business office and the McKale Center box office were eliminated.

The department’s plight was reported in The Arizona Daily Star and by The Associated Press.

Such draconian measures have been avoided thus far by East Carolina, which by hiring Terry Holland as athletic director has distanced itself from the public relations nightmare and ticket-selling/fundraising malaise it experienced in the landscape shaped by Hamrick.

Holland, clearly recognizing the magnitude of the challenge, has been anything but passive in his approach to blazing a path to the future for the Pirates, replacing the coaches in both revenue sports and working behind the scenes to secure more desirable football and basketball schedules.

Judging by the groundswell of fan support for new gridiron boss Skip Holtz and new hoops coach Ricky Stokes, the personnel moves by Holland are likely to produce immediate positive results at the gate. Competitive success by the two programs can multiply the payback.

Still, in light of the present economics at play in Division I-A, having one of college sports’ most respected figures running its athletic department is no guarantee that ECU can surpass or even match the accomplishments it took for granted on the field and in its ledger books for most of the last 15 years.

When a lavishly-funded program like Arizona’s falls on hard times, the lesson for ECU partisans is stark: Order those season tickets without hesitation and pony up when Holland and the Pirate Club ask for financial support to keep the dream alive.

Or tone down the aspirations — and the expectations.

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02/23/2007 01:37:48 AM

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