CRAWFORD | Schnatter's comments a sign of the uneasy times at Louisville
WDRB's Eric Crawford on John Schnatter's recent comments about University of Louisville athletics, and how they reflect general uneasiness at the university as a whole.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Sometimes, you have to write something. That’s the job. But I’ve been in this business exactly long enough to know that writing about something when you don’t know the whole story is a good way to make yourself look like an idiot.
And put quite simply, I can’t imagine that we know the whole story behind University of Louisville trustee John Schnatter’s recent comments about the university’s athletic department, as reported by WDRB’s Chris Otts earlier this week.
In open session, Schnatter told the university’s trustees: “Until you fix athletics, you can’t fix this university. You have to fix athletics first. I mean, I’ve looked at this eight ways to Sunday, you’ve got to fix the athletics first, and then the university will get in line.”
Schnatter would not elaborate when asked to follow up. Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich has declined comment, though department spokesman Kenny Klein pointed out in a statement that the U of L athletic department, during Jurich’s 20-year tenure, has been “fiscally sound” and “transparent.”
Another criticism Schnatter voiced is that athletics’ leadership (Jurich) had been “invisible” to the trustees, the governing board of the university. But when cornered by Otts after the meeting, Schnatter wouldn’t elaborate on his criticism.
I have several thoughts, and will confine them to areas I know about. But first, an overall thought about the University of Louisville.
People are on edge. That’s the mood around the university’s administration, as I see it. It’s a strange time. There’s plenty of reason for apprehension.
First, an audit of the embattled U of L Foundation stands to pull back the curtain on an organization already exposed -- by the reporting of Otts and others -- to have been cutting financial corners, to put it mildly, in the areas of transparency and responsibility, spending too much and growing too little over the past several years.
We don’t know how far the foundation reached into other areas of the university. We do know, however, that the relationship of the athletic department with the foundation has been hand-in-glove on some major projects over the years. And we know that Ramsey quietly, through the foundation, executed $6 million in loyalty incentive bonuses for Jurich in 2014 -- though that money is to be paid through U of L’s athletic association. That the move seemed to come as news to several members of the athletic association board interviewed by WDRB leaves the impression that there were financial dealings that people in oversight roles did not know about, which leaves a perception of uncertainty. Bear in mind, few would have quibbled with the new bonus, but that they didn’t know about it is unsettling.
Second, U of L is facing a hearing before the NCAA committee on infractions, reportedly soon, on a men’s basketball scandal that has smeared the name of the institution and become a blemish on the career of head coach Rick Pitino -- though it should be noted that the NCAA enforcement staff did not argue in its findings that Pitino either knew about the scandal nor should have known. Maybe consultants the university has hired will be correct, and additional sanctions from the NCAA will be light. But that can’t be known until the NCAA issues its final conclusions. Regardless, it’s public hit to the university’s image.
Add to all this the absence of a new president, or even a search for a new president, or even the beginnings of a search for a new president, along with the recent turmoil concerning the board of trustees -- the old board dismissed, a new board seated, the old board brought back, the new board approved by the legislature -- and you wind up with an institution battered and bruised by events. You end up with apprehension.
Moreover, and maybe most important, the inflow of money in these kinds of situations often slows to a trickle. James Ramsey, it’s now believed, spearheaded initiatives that spent too much foundation money and may have been involved in overstating the organization’s worth while minimizing potential red flags over the past several years. A forensic audit has been underway to determine the foundation’s true position. But in the interim, fundraising is difficult. It might be refreshing, in a way, to see traditional college types gather in the president’s box for football games at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. But more than an occasion for winning or losing, every football and basketball game held is a fundraising opportunity for the university, an opportunity that isn’t always seized without someone as well-connected and savvy at that part of the job as Ramsey was.
To sum up: U of L needs to get on with it. It needs a new president, one who has a clear vision for the direction of the university and a clear message for those who support it, as well as a plan for stabilizing the university’s financial underpinnings. But it can’t really get on with anything until these negative chapters are closed, and that’s probably not going to be the case until sometime this summer.
So, with a foundation weaker than it had been portrayed to be and new fundraising initiatives flat, the cash position of the university has suffered. Which brings us to the discussion Schnatter had with the board of trustees earlier this week.
A few thoughts on the specific points Schnatter made:
1). That athletics needs to be more accountable to the board of trustees. The new board wants to do things a new way. It should have that opportunity. Had the old board wanted to do things that way, it could’ve called Jurich in for reports, as well. In the current climate, where every event at the university reflects on a university image that already is unstable, the trustees should exert oversight wherever they wish, and receive full cooperation in that effort.
2). That athletics needs to be “fixed.” I can’t talk about what we don’t know. What we know from what we can see is that the athletic department has been financially sound, while holding a consistently upward trajectory for nearly 20 years. It has progressed from Conference USA to the Big East now to the Atlantic Coast Conference, putting the school into a neighborhood few, myself included, ever dreamed it would occupy.
Think about this. The baseball program is ranked No. 2 in the nation. What other program at the university is ranked No. 2 in the nation? What school within the university? What department or course? Now, let’s be clear, the university side can counter that if you paid the chairman of the History department a million a year, like baseball coach Dan McDonnell gets, and spend the resources on it that you spend on baseball, maybe History -- or whatever department you want to pick -- would do the same thing. And you might be right. But what Jurich has done is identify those individuals with a passion for baseball and a desire to support it and match them with the opportunity to do so. In the end, Jurich controls his own resources. If a guy like Schnatter wants to donate to an academic unit instead of paying to put his name on an athletic stadium, he’s free to do so. But that’s the essence of strong leadership -- creating situations in which enterprises can succeed.
The athletic budget is in the neighborhood of $98 million. That is a record for U of L. It’s also less than eight percent of the $1.28 billion university budget.
If there are fixes that need to be made in athletics, making them would be a significant step. But there would seem to be far more significant factors than athletics on the university’s bottom line -- based on what can be seen. I have a hard time believing the notion that athletics drives everything else at the university.
Moreover, Schnatter himself has been part of the U of L athletics board, so he has had an oversight role in athletics over the past years. His comments produce more questions than answers -- but nobody, it seems, is in the answering mode.
3). Schnatter makes some valid points. Beyond his thoughts on athletics, when Schnatter got upset at the notion that the university was “losing money” by not charging enough for parking, his insistence that “we’re here for the students” was a welcome statement in such a setting. I hope he keeps making it. Frankly, the students often are the forgotten people in the big business of higher education, and an outsider like Schnatter, with some pull, is just the kind of advocate students need. And deserve.
His reputation for shooting from the hip and for being somewhat eccentric shouldn’t obscure his larger call for fiscal responsibility and putting students into a position of priority. Just because he likes to drive his sports car into the football stadium and hand out pizzas before peeling out at halftime of games doesn’t mean he’s always just spinning his wheels.
Where athletics are involved, the default position of most people is to revert to supporting the team, circling the wagons and building defenses.
In this case, like with everything else, it’s wise to let the numbers come in before drawing too many conclusions. In this tumultuous time for U of L, it’s important to go where the facts lead, while, at the same time, acknowledging the good that has taken place at the school, and within its athletics department, over the past 20 years.
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