By Ward Gossett
Assistant Sports Editor
Chris Bono was at his desk early Monday figuring expenses incurred during his University of Tennessee at Chattanooga team's trip to the NCAA wrestling tournament.
This year's national ranking -- as high as 12th -- the team's 16-1 dual-meet record and its Southern Conference championship take a back seat, though, to budget in the university's athletic priorities. Wrestling expenses are scrutinized because of a $148,000 budget deficit Bono inherited when he replaced Joe Seay as the head coach.
"It's my opinion that Chris has done an excellent job of managing funding and helping reduce the deficit," said Matt Pope, the UTC assistant athletic director who oversees the wrestling program. "He has been able to move the program forward while chipping away at the deficit. Chris is no dope when it comes to the financial part of it. He has a good business mind."
Pope said the $148,000 deficit to start UTC's fiscal year was reduced to $69,000 by mid-March.
Seay, the successor to Terry Brands and the Mocs' coach for the 2005-06 season, was asked to resign last spring just days after then-athletic director Steve Sloan retired.
"It wasn't that Joe was a bad guy. Joe was not good with money," said Pope, who was interim athletic director before the hiring of current athletic director Rick Hart.
Seay, according to Pope, spent much larger amounts of money than his predecessors on recruiting, travel and equipment. A specific item mentioned among Seay's expenditures was a big-screen TV valued at $2,000 for the wrestling locker room. That TV was later sold as UTC officials tried to recoup losses.
"Other than being extravagant, Joe didn't mismanage funds," Pope said.
When he left Chattanooga last summer, Seay was still seething.
"I was spending what I thought I had," he said. "I had nothing to go by. Football and basketball were way over and (those coaches) didn't get fired. They didn't get their staffs reduced. It wasn't my fault the money wasn't there. I thought it was."
According to Seay, extensive help was to come from businessman Allan Jones, the Check Into Cash magnate who lives in Cleveland.
"Allan Jones said he would put a certain amount of money in. He said he would put in $250,000. The school only had about $60,000 in the wrestling program," Seay said. "He helped out with salaries, but he didn't put any money in the program until mid-April as far as the operational budget. It was right in the middle of April that Pope said we couldn't bring anybody in (for recruiting visits) because there was no money."
Two days after Sloan retired, according to Seay, Pope asked the coach to resign.
"Pope gives me my spring evaluation, and I had gone from excellent to less than average in less than a month. Pope had been made interim AD and he wanted me to sign the evaluation. I said I wouldn't sign it and that I had done nothing wrong," Seay said. "He told me I had lost the confidence of the administration and that he wanted me to look at resigning. I fully expected Allan Jones to step to the plate. He was the one who brought me down here."
Jones, contacted Friday during a trip to San Antonio to watch Tennessee play in the NCAA basketball tournament, said that to his knowledge Seay was dismissed for fiscal irresponsibility.
"Joe overspent, apparently," Jones said. "I'm not the controller, and I didn't have anything to do with that. I liked Joe. I still like Joe, although I haven't heard from him. As a donor, I'm not interested in getting too involved. I wasn't involved at all. If you talk with Bono, I don't even know who he's hiring or anything. I think Joe got everything moving in a good direction, but Bono has extraordinary organizational skills.
"If you talk with anybody over there in the university, I'm not involved at all. I go to some big matches, but I didn't even make it to the NCAAs (wrestling tournament) this year."
Hart said he didn't know how the deficit occurred.
"I can't tell you. I didn't spend a lot of time asking about it other than assuring that there are controls in place," he said. "(The deficit) is something that Coach Bono and I inherited, and we're looking to take care of it and solve it. There has been communication and better management of that particular budget by both the head coach and the administration."
Bono, who was one of Seay's three assistants, said he was aware of the deficit but didn't know how big it was. And he said Hart and the administration have done everything they have committed to "and more," including the possiblity of adding an assistant coach. Bono had only a student assistant, 2006 heavyweight Israel Silva, this year.
"The AD and the boosters told me that we would be able to run a first-class program," Bono said. "With Rick, it has been unbelievable. He's been right behind me support-wise and with everything else."
Hart credited some alumni and other members of the community for helping with that.
"There is a lot of private support, as there has been for years," he said, "and while we have not used their money to erase that deficit, their support for other things the wrestling program needed allowed us to chip away at (the deficit). We're going to be fiscally responsible. That is a priority for all of our sports, including wrestling. Coach Bono knew the importance of that and has done an excellent job in that and has worked to develop resources.
"Specifically for wrestling, I don't think we could ask for any more. We are unbelievably pleased with the support for our wrestling program," Hart added. "Was it not for a core of loyal supporters who care about our program, we wouldn't have been able to do what we did this year. Wrestling has as strong a private support as any of our programs."
Jones is one of those supporters.
"The wrestling program is moving forward," Jones said. "I will say that at UTC, this is their one sport where they have a chance to have national prominence, and I say that because of the opportunity. The university has to grab that. I can't purchase that, but I can help contribute to get to that point.
"The university is fighting with budget restraints that make it hard for them to compete with Iowa, Iowa State and Nebraska, but if you look at what you pay (at UTC) and what you get, our program would probably be No. 1 in the country. The program is moving forward. We've had a lot of attention because of Bono. I'm satisfied with where we're heading."
E-mail Ward Gossett at firstname.lastname@example.org