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Ego and denial on 11th Street

Why TU should sack football

On Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016, University of Tulsa faculty received an email from then-president Steadman Upham (now deceased) about the need to 1.) protect the quality and strength of the academic core; 2.) protect the quality and richness of student life; and 3.) achieve sustainable long-term efficiencies across the enterprise. Under a subhead entitled Immediate Expenditure Reductions, this was one suggestion on how to do that:

Benefit Change – Effective Oct. 1, 2016, the university will temporarily suspend contributions to retirement for all employees. However, employees may continue to make contributions on their own to the plan. A restructured matching contribution retirement plan will be announced at a later date.

What did this have to do with football?

The previous year, on April 20, 2015, Upham sent an email admitting its financial drain on TU.

The university is currently providing Athletics with a $9.0 million subsidy to cover the department’s operations, about $1.0 million more than in FY 2013-14.

Were the two emails connected?

In a moment.

Specific numbers aren’t known, but recent budget cuts have affected all aspects of TU’s operation. In an effort to avoid a reduction in services for student-athletes, Derrick Gragg said, Hurricane football coach Philip Montgomery, men’s basketball coach Frank Haith, and Gragg himself all have accepted pay cuts.

It won’t make a dent.

In 2011, when the school was in Conference USA, the school’s expenses on football alone were $9,420,693 against revenue of $6,340,835, or a loss of $3,079,858.

And things have only gotten worse.

How much so?

Borderline pathetic.

University of Tulsa student athletes make Tulsa a better place to live in many, many ways. Tulsa, it is now your opportunity to return the favor. I hope you are willing to show these extraordinary young people your appreciation by coming to their games in all of our sports and cheering them on to victory. Do it For Our City!

That was Gerard Clancy, TU’s president, who might as well have donned a sandwich board and walked along 11th Street outside H.A. Chapman Stadium handing out koozies.

TU athletes are doing the city a “favor” and should be rewarded for it? Please.

The university has tried everything to increase attendance at home games, short of letting a lucky fan return the opening kickoff.  TU didn’t even sell out when OU played here in 2014. Maybe the problem is more fundamental.

The city doesn’t care.

H.A. Chapman, by the way, is the smallest stadium in the AAC, seating just 30,000; still, on most Saturdays, to quote Paul Simon, one sees nothing but “ghosts and empties.”

According to the NCAA, in 2017, TU drew a total of 110,751 fans for its six-game schedule, or 18,459 per game4—second lowest in the AAC. And those figures are mostly Enron-style accounting and delusion.

But let’s say 15,000 (generous) came to each game and spent $20 per ticket (also generous)—that’s $300,000 gross. Take out 30 percent for game-day expenditures for security, staff, Jumbotron, etc., and we’re left with $210,500. TU plays six home games, so the school is netting approximately $1,260,000 per season.

That about covers Montgomery’s salary.

Add in salaries for assistant coaches and staff and you’re already in the hole before stocking the locker-room with Nutri-Grain bars.

According to the USA Today in April 2015, 11 schools with major-conference football programs budgeted around $600,000 each for the NCAA’s new [food] provision.

I met with Chris Lincoln, former sport director at KTUL and college football announcer, who reminded me TU also receives between $2-3 million as part of the AAC’s TV distribution, another $1 million for radio, and about $3 million comes from boosters (most goes toward salaries). In 2018, the school will also get approximately $1.5 million from payouts when it travels to Austin (Texas) and Fayetteville (Arkansas) to get its head handed to it.

Total: $8.5 million, which isn’t enough to cover 2011 expenses, much less today’s.

TU officials won’t talk much about this, but two university professors did discuss, albeit anonymously, the giant sucking sound coming from TU’s football stadium.

“What do we want the university to be? What is at its core? Let me just emphasize my and my colleague’s frustration over feeling like we’re less of a priority than athletics,” one professor said. “When you’re willing to cut a pound of flesh out of your faculty, which is the reason why you have a university, to keep a football program that loses money—it’s very frustrating.”

After receiving the emails from Upham, he said some in the faculty inquired about downgrading football to Division II.

“The trustees do not consider that an option,” they were told.

The school’s faculty weren’t the only ones saying it.

In a April 2018 report released by Higher Learning Commission, an organization responsible for accrediting colleges in the U.S., while lauding TU’s “sound understanding of its financial challenges,” noticed the university’s blindspot when it came to football.

The team also noted that the athletics program at TU continues to lose a significant amount of money. While rather significant cuts were being made in expenditures in other parts of the university, the coach of the football team was given a significant raise. Within the context of the mission and strategic plan, the football program appears to be less critical than funding instruction programs and/or academic support.

The university received this in April and, as mentioned, in August, asked the hoops and football coaches and athletic director to take a pay cut.

“They told us [the faculty cuts] were the least painful thing they could do, rather than firing some of us—you know, cutting things like Russian and other programs,” the professor said. “And they have a point and we understood it, but those are our core aspects of the university mission. Football is not.”

The other professor with whom I spoke said TU allows football to play by different rules than the rest of campus—and she’s just about had it.

“That just drives me nuts. When it comes to something like football, all of that business sense—where you have to be financially responsible—goes out the window. It’s a university, not a life-support system for the football team. I want to sue them for breach of fiduciary duty. People lost their jobs. Departments are understaffed. The libraries cancelled subscriptions. It is horrible.”

In 2016, when Tulsa went to the Miami Beach Bowl and won 10 games, the team drew 113,404 spectators for the season at H.A. Chapman—or about the same total as last year when it won two games; so, clearly, what’s going on has nothing to do with success or failure.

Even if TU and ORU were to win big and do it with popular coaches, is it impossible now for these small, private schools to achieve healthy attendance figures? Wichita State averages nearly 11,000 for home basketball games, but Wichita State isn’t battling OU, OSU and the Oklahoma City Thunder for market share.

Wichita State is also smarter than TU when it comes to football—it dropped it in 1986. And left it there.

I emailed Gragg about all this and never heard back.

There is another matter, too. Considering the sheer savagery of football, there will come a time, I predict, when society views the sport with the same revulsion it does boxing—something famed sportswriter Jimmy Cannon characterized as the “red light district of sports.”

The question will be asked: What were universities doing putting their imprimatur on such brutality and carnage?

A study released Tuesday found the degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in 110 out of 111 donated brains of former NFL players. In addition, 48 out of 53 brains of former college football players showed CTE as well … In the Journal of the American Medical Association report, researchers looked at 202 former players at all levels of the game. Nearly 88 percent of the brains studied showed CTE. Also announced in the study’s release, three of 14 athletes who played only in high school, 9 of 14 semi-pro and 7 of 8 Canadian Football League players had CTE.

Even if TU football made money and Chapman was filled each Saturday, this is a ghoulish business model.

Tulsa is many things these days: a place of museums, parks, a thriving downtown, funky book stores, festivals, raucous cycling events, and its own musical and cultural iconography. It is the jewel of Oklahoma, on the cusp of something heretofore unseen. But it is not a college football town—and hasn’t been for years. It’s time for the university that carries its name to stop pretending otherwise.

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