The Villain

by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 5/20/03

How unfortunate and sad, that the fate of the Big East Conference lies in the hands of someone with no appreciation for its history and no qualms about its destruction: University of Miami President Donna Shalala.

The Big East Conference has been in existence for 24 years as a basketball-playing conference, and 13 years as a football-playing conference. Its members have won multiple national championships in men's basketball, football, and women's basketball. The league was built over the years on the dreams and hard work of thousands of administrators, thousands of coaches, thousands of athletes, and millions of fans.

Over the years, the conference commissioner and its member institutions have done the best they can to change themselves from a basketball-oriented conference into an all-sports conference more suited to the times. It has been a slow, painful process that has taken too long and come at a great price, but progress has been made, nonetheless.

But some time in the next few weeks, one individual will most likely destroy the league by signing her name to a piece of paper that agrees to move her team, the Miami Hurricanes, from the Big East over to the ACC. And in the process, out of her university's own self-interest, she will lay waste to a quarter-century of blood, sweat, and tears turned in by names and faces too numerous to count.

Donna Shalala has been president of the University of Miami for a mere 18 months, and in all likelihood, she will not serve as president of the university for more than a few years. In her distinguished career, she has not held a single post or position for longer than eight years, hardly a blip on the time scale of educational institutions, athletic departments and athletic conferences.

How tragic that in her brief time as UM president, she will destroy one of the premier conferences in the country, thus imperiling the athletic programs of some proud universities that will be left with uncertain futures and no conference affiliation, and which may never recover.

At his press conference yesterday, Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese spoke of the league's commitment to Miami back in 1990, when no one else would have the Canes.

When we extended the invitation to Miami [in 1990], there was no one else there. And I made the presentation. I remember telling [former Miami] President [Tad] Foote, this will be a union. We will help you in a lot of ways, and you will help us in a lot of ways. And we've done that.

But Tad Foote isn't around any longer, Mr. Tranghese. The University of Miami is now under the control of an individual who doesn't care that the Big East once took Miami in when no other conference wanted to be associated with their program, which at the time had won national championships but had a horrible image as an outlaw program.

Loyalty means nothing to Ms. Shalala, partly because she has never felt the loyalty of the Big East, and partly because Ö well, maybe loyalty just doesnít mean anything to her.

And Foote doesn't get off free of criticism, either, because all indications are that Miami has been talking to the ACC for about five years.

Shalala is no doubt under pressure from her board of trustees. The University of Miami lost about $1.5 million in athletics during the 2001-2002 school year, a year in which they won the national championship in football. As a matter of fact, the Miami athletic department loses money almost every single year, and during years in which their football team doesn't make a BCS bowl, they lose a lot of money.

As a private school, UM covers the deficit by transferring money from its general fund over to the athletic department, which means that there's $1.5 million dollars less for research, scholarships, academic facilities, you name it. That kind of thing will make a board of trustees, which hires and fires the school president, unhappy. So no doubt Ms. Shalala feels the pressure, as former president Foote probably did.

There are many reasons why the UM athletic department runs in the red. They don't own their own stadium, and the one they rent, the Orange Bowl, doesn't sell out for every home game, even during their national championship years. Their alumni base is located in the northeast, and as such, feels no particular loyalty to the institution and doesn't contribute much to its athletic fund. Basketball, no matter how successful, is largely ignored at UM and therefore doesn't make much money.

It's not that Miami's student base is all that small -- they have 15,000 graduate and undergraduate students -- they're just not loyal in the sense of donating money to athletics. Two of the primary drivers for athletic donations are preferred seating and parking at football games, and if the alumni base is located in the northeast and doesn't attend the games regularly, then there's no incentive for the masses to donate money.

Tuition at Miami is a steep $34,608 dollars a year, which means that scholarship costs for the UM athletic department are enormous, roughly triple the amount, per athlete, of an institution like Virginia Tech.

All these factors make it hard to balance the ledger, even at a university as successful as Miami in the NCAA's premier bread-winning sport, football.

Mr. Tranghese had a relevant comment to this yesterday, as well.

Someone in our gathering said it today. This is not just an athletic issue, it's an institutional issue. This has incredible implications. I read all the financial figures in the newspapers, and someone says, this school might make a million dollars. When you start looking at operational budgets of institutions, a million dollars is important, but what percentage is it of a school's operating budget? Is that worth providing a body blow to a group of schools who were there when on one else wanted Miami?

With a student base of 15,000 students paying about $35,000 a year, that means that the University of Miami, from tuition and fees alone, has a budget of $525 million. Yes, many of those students are there on scholarship, but it can't be argued that the university budget runs into the hundreds of millions. And there's more than just tuition and fees that go into a university's budget, so UM's total budget is probably far above half a billion.

If you go with the $525 million figure, then for a lousy $1.5 million, a mere 0.3%, Shalala is willing to destroy the Big East Conference, torch its history, and put to risk the athletic futures of its member institutions, not to mention the local economies that have sprung up around them at places like Virginia Tech and West Virginia.

The livelihoods of thousands of people, both in the affected athletic departments, their universities, and their local economies, will be adversely affected. Jobs will be lost, and in some cases, lives and careers will be ruined, never to recover.

All because the president of a university with a budget in the hundreds of millions, and an athletic director -- Paul Dee -- with a budget in the tens of millions, can't balance the books.

The irony is that, according to published reports, the move to the ACC would only create an additional $1 million to $3 million in revenue for the Hurricane athletic department. Here's a not-so-wild prediction: within three to five years, the Miami athletic department will be running in the red again, and the only difference is that a bunch of other athletic programs they left behind in the Big East will be, too, thanks to the loss of TV contracts and bowl bids.

Could the Big East have moved quicker and done more to shape itself into the mold of the type of conference that will succeed in the future? A conference of 12 teams competing in all sports? Sure it could have, but it didn't, and for that, you can blame the conference leadership, and the leadership of its member schools, both at the presidential level and the athletic director level.

But before scorching the Big East landscape into a burned-out, unrecognizable wasteland, the University of Miami ought to take a look at how it does things and fix what's broken in-house, first. Improve efficiency in the athletic department and university as a whole. Step up fund-raising among the wealthy alumni in the northeast. Cut athletic programs, as West Virginia University did. Make some hard choices at home, instead of simply blasting away and ruining others who are blameless.

Or maybe, just maybe, turn to the Big East Conference and say, "We need help. Is there anything we can do?"

But that would require loyalty, a sense of history, and concern for how your actions affect others. It's pretty clear the University of Miami has none of those things. It's pretty clear who's the villain here.

          

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