Mark Wiedmer: UTC sees value in non-revenue sports

Mark Wiedmer: UTC sees value in non-revenue sports

July 8th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

A former athletic director at a BCS conference school once told me that the key to winning in non-revenue sports was simple.

"You just need to be willing to spend money knowing that you're not going to make most of it back," he said.

He was unwilling to do that, so his "minor" programs almost always struggled but his department always made a profit.

When universities are being forced to cut staff, freeze salaries and raise tuition and fees at an alarming rate just to stay in business, that AD's philosophy is not without merit. Beggars can't be choosers, and if your sport's guaranteed to be an economic drain, where's the gain in winning a trophy while losing to the bottom line?

Yet for anyone who's ever done so much as suit up for tee-ball, there's an equally compelling argument for playing to win -- to put your best Nike forward within reason, to let every coach, athlete and student manager know that the school thinks he or she is special, that all have worth.

Which brings us to University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletic director Rick Hart's decision last week to award men's golf coach Mark Guhne a $10,000 annual pay raise.

Because Hart was willing to recognize in a tangible way the achievements of the golf program -- six straight NCAA regional appearances including a regional title this year, for instance -- Guhne turned down a chance to become the Vanderbilt golf coach, which surely paid better.

Because UTC chancellor Dr. Roger Brown sees something important in all of the school's athletic programs -- not just football and men's basketball -- Guhne and his golfers aren't likely to be the last Mocs or Lady Mocs team to make noise nationally.

"UTC wants success and achievement in every aspect of the university," Brown said Friday. "Non-revenue sports don't usually have crowds of people, and most of the athletes aren't even recognized when they walk across campus. But when we achieve success, especially on a national level, it's a recruiting tool for our entire school, not just that sport."

It can't be ignored that the whole school will be paying $480 in annual student athletic fees (up from $360) to help the athletic department pay to keep quality coaches such as Guhne.

And Brown insists those fees are critical to the future success of UTC athletics.

"It's absolutely critical to put the athletic department on sound financial footing," he said.

Yet the success already enjoyed by UTC in non-revenue sports despite one of the league's lowest budgets is already remarkable. Both the men and women have won the league's all-sports trophies at least once over the last 10 years.

Despite an uncharacteristically poor season in basketball and failing to field teams in soccer and baseball, the men still finished sixth among 12 full-time members this past school year.

The women were ninth, but Hart expects both the volleyball and soccer teams to improve significantly in the years ahead.

"We've said all along that our goal is to establish a program that shows comprehensive excellence in every sport," said Hart. "We want all 317 of our student-athletes to enjoy success both on and off the court. That's something we believe strongly in. Sixty percent of our student-athletes had a 3.0 GPA or better the last semester. Considering their obligations beyond academics, that was very impressive."

Much like his chancellor, Hart also sees great worth in non-revenue sports, despite their limited ability to generate money.

"The [money] gap isn't typically as large as it can be with football and basketball," he noted. "With a reasonable level of investment, we can compete regionally and nationally."

Hart doesn't necessarily see these sports pulling their weight financially. After all, they're labeled non-revenue sports for a reason.

"Costs continue to escalate at a fast rate," he said.

But Brown also knows not all non-revenue sports drain the coffers equally.

"Golf is a special sport in this area, both for men and women," he noted. "Golf has a special significance here in Chattanooga. Wrestling does, too. And softball. Those sports appeal to so many young people and fans in this part of the country."

Brown also echoed a Hart theme concerning academic performance.

"These athletes set a real high bar for time management, academic success, discipline, athletic performance," he said. "They tend to be very high achievers across the board."

And though he doesn't have proof of this, UTC's chancellor believes the athletic department's total product contributed mightily to the UT board of trustees approving the athletic fee increase.

"I think the fact that we have a total sports program, not just football and basketball, was important to them," he said.

If he's right, spending a little to hold onto successful coaches such as Guhne could help UTC a lot.