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The value of victory
On-court success spurs increase in applications for mid-major schools
It’s impossible to gauge the exact value of the national attention gained when Ohio University’s men’s basketball team advanced to the Sweet 16 last month.
Despite the spotlight that comes with athletic success, however, campus officials, professors and students remain torn about just how large a pricetag OU should dish out in pursuit of athletic success.
Critics have long questioned whether large athletics budgets are representative of the university’s educational mission. Proponents of athletic spending, meanwhile, contend that athletic teams provide OU and other universities with much-needed exposure.
“When people know who we are, that helps us with things like student recruiting, alumni relations, fundraising and with campus culture,” said Jim Schaus, OU’s athletics director. “I think our students come to OU to get an education and to get a degree, but they also want a great place to go where they can get involved and where there’s a community culture, and athletics feeds into those things.”
OU’s athletics department has already boasted one of its most successful years ever.
The football team won the first bowl game in program history, participated in six nationally televised games and won the Mid-American Conference East Division Championship for the second time in three years.
Meanwhile, the men’s basketball team played its way into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1964.
Schaus and other proponents of athletics spending argue that those teams’ successes trickle down to other aspects of the university, especially applications.
Although enrollment numbers have been down slightly in recent years, OU has received 17,165 undergraduate applications thus far, up from 12,931 at this time last year. Both out-of-state and in-state applicant numbers have increased by more than 2,000 compared to this time last year.
The trend of application numbers rising after sports successes is well-documented, said Richard Vedder, distinguished professor of economics at OU and founder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.
“There are instances in American history, higher education history … where spectacular athletic success has led to higher applications and has had a positive academic influence,” he said.
“One of the best examples is Northwestern University. In the mid-90s, they had a brief period of great success in football, and their applications did in fact go up 15 to 20 percent in a year,” Vedder, a 1962 Northwestern alumnus, added.
OU isn’t the first mid-major to see a spike in applications following successful seasons on the hardwood.
Officials at Butler University, which became the Cinderella story of the 2010 NCAA Tournament when its men’s basketball team advanced to the finals, credit a 41 percent increase in applications last year to the Bulldogs’ March Madness success.
“When we played in the national championship against Duke, we were already well past the deadline for 2010 and we didn’t generate new applications, but it did impact applications for 2011,” said Tom Weede, Butler’s vice president for enrollment management. “We figured that we would grow, but that was far beyond the seven to 10 percent we had been increasing.”
As mid-majors, OU and Butler have far less to spend on their athletic programs than major conference schools that routinely compete in the later rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
All but one of the Sweet 16 teams spent more than $2,610,000 in annual basketball expenses, according to an article in the Washington Post. That exception, OU, spent less than $2.2 million.
Despite OU’s success and lower basketball spending than other Sweet 16 teams, some faculty have long argued that the athletics budget should be sliced, not increased.
A history of budget woes
OU President Roderick McDavis said he has prioritized athletics success since moving into Cutler Hall in 2004.
“Our goal was that we would be competitive for Mid-American Conference championships on an annual basis and in as many programs as possible,” McDavis said.
But McDavis’ attempts to achieve those goals haven’t come easily.
In January 2007, McDavis and then-OU athletics director Kirby Hocutt announced the elimination of men’s indoor and outdoor track and field, men’s swimming and diving and women’s lacrosse. The move came as OU attempted to gain Title IX compliance and to stop the athletics department from running a deficit.
The decision, which prompted on-campus protests, brought OU’s number of athletic teams down to 15 — one above the minimum required by the NCAA for all Division I programs.
But those cuts did not completely solve OU’s athletics budget woes.
An independent investigation into the athletics department’s spending conducted by The Post in 2010 revealed that the department was overspending its budget by an average of $1.2 million a year while leaving routine expenses such as sick and vacation pay for employees and photocopying costs off the books.
By the time Hocutt left for the University of Miami in 2008, OU’s athletics department had accrued a $7 million deficit.
Athletics spending also came under fire in November 2009 when a Post investigation revealed that McDavis had diverted $100,000 in student fee money that had been recommended for Hudson Health Center to Intercollegiate Athletics.
Despite taking money from the student health center — which a 2007 audit had deemed “unhealthy” due to underfunding, and an additional $1.2 million in funding after OU exceeded student fee revenue expectations — OU’s athletics department still overspent it’s $18.7 million budget by nearly $1 million.
Facing large-scale cuts in state funding that some on campus feared would lead to massive faculty layoffs, members of the Faculty Senate began calling for OU to drop out of Division I athletics all together.
Yet those calls went unanswered and vocal opposition to athletic spending softened as the department closed its deficit and continued to see sustained success on the football field and basketball court during the last two years.
While acknowledging that athletics success benefits the university, Vedder maintains that pouring more funds into the department is not the answer.
“The attempt of OU to invest huge amounts of money (in athletics) for a path to success is a bad misjudgment and leads to a serious misallocation of resources,” he said.
“The probability of any Mid-American Conference school achieving in sports is rare. Our performance this year in basketball has never been duplicated in the past 25 years,” Vedder added.
Following this year’s successes, head basketball coach John Groce departed for Illinois and OU hired Texas Christian University head coach Jim Christian as his replacement — for a price of $425,000 that makes him the only basketball coach in the MAC to earn more than his or her university president.
“It’s indicative of a misplaced set of priorities,” said Joe McLaughlin, OU’s Faculty Senate chairman in an interview earlier this month.
Christian’s contract pays him roughly $175,000 more than Groce’s base salary.
“Paying $175,000 more for basketball, not including fringe benefits, to replicate what we’ve already done … is highly dubious,” Vedder said.
But even as athletics success has led to higher salaries for OU coaches, McDavis contends that investing in sports programs pays major dividends.
“It leads to an increase in contributions from alumni and friends of the university, and I hope it will bring in more national attention and national prominence,” McDavis said.
“It helps those on campus and our alumni feel more pride, he added. “When students feel pride in their university, that’s meaningful.”
— Wesley Lowery contributed to this report