Vince Tyra

Louisville athletic director Vince Tyra.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- In a non-sports piece at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, I said that you knew it was a serious situation when politicians were working together. Now, as we begin to see the full scope of the accompanying economic crisis, I’ll say this: You know it’s serious when college athletic departments have to start cutting employees.

The University of Louisville is the nation’s first big-time athletic department to announce a sweeping round of furloughs and eliminated positions, but it won’t be the last. In fact, Louisville benefits from having an athletic director with a business background at the helm. Vince Tyra saw the 2008 crisis first-hand and knows the drill.

But that doesn’t make it any easier. In this case, it’s not fun being first.

On Wednesday, Tyra announced that just over a quarter of his 325-person athletics department had been furloughed or laid off: 45 employees were placed on 60-day unpaid furloughs, and 40 more positions were eliminated entirely.

“Obviously, an emotional day and a difficult day for us,” Tyra said. “But I feel like we’re making the appropriate decisions to move us forward at this time. … When you go into these situations, and I’ve done it many times, it’s never easy. But you do have to be fearless making the right decisions and being objective about it, while also being empathetic to our staff that is affected today.”

Among that group are some longtime employees. But with his department expecting a $15 million revenue shortfall in the budget for fiscal year 2021 that it will present on Friday, Tyra said it needs to be aggressive.

No coaches were laid off or furloughed, though assistant coaches making more than $100,000 have been asked to take a 4% pay reduction, and those in the department making less than $100,000 will be asked to take a 2% reduction.

Tyra, along with the school’s 21 head coaches, agreed to 10% pay reductions on April 9, a move that is expected to help with any shortfall in the current fiscal year. Tyra also asked coaches to cut 15% from their sports’ budgets for the coming season, including reductions in travel and other areas.

Wednesday’s moves were the most sweeping yet announced by a major athletic department in response to the COVID-19 situation. Tyra has been in contact with many athletic directors around the country, seeking advice on making these kinds of moves. Rarely have major athletic departments had to undergo this level of belt-tightening.

“I’ve done an enormous amount of calls with ADs around the country on how to even do it,” Tyra said. “I think part of it is that it’s a tough thing to deal with, first and foremost. And I think athletic departments in general have been immune from this type of activity historically. And I do think there’s just a bit of process and experience of knowing where to start, how to go about it, knowing what a furlough is and how you operate within guidelines. There’s a lot that goes into it. Down to the amount of support and how we went through today one-on-one.”

These high-profile athletic director jobs are positions that everybody wants – until you get a day like Wednesday. Or are dealing with an FBI investigation. Or NCAA issues. Tyra has had all of that on his 2 ½-year watch.

But in this area, as much as he doesn’t like it, he knew he needed to take decisive action, as he saw the larger financial picture around the nation.

“More of this is geared toward the overall impact this is having on the economy,” Tyra said. “I think it’s the impact this is having on families and season-ticketholders. I’ve seen other ADs, and this is where you could be critical of my decision of being out there early and going after it, but I’ve been through this. I’ve seen these signs before. And you can’t wait. You can’t time these things perfectly. And if you’re wrong, and I was out there a little earlier, there’s some benefit to that as well economically. But the idea to think that your revenue and donor base is going to be intact on whether it’s Sept. 1 or Nov. 1, based upon the economic conditions and the hardships being felt through this virus, I think is naive. We’ve had to look at the projection of 45 million Americans collecting unemployment and we’ve dialed back our forecast on donations, on premium seats, on season-ticketholders going to single-game tickets, concessions.”

Tyra said in trying to determine the COVID-19 impact on next year’s athletic budget, the department’s leadership looked particularly at football, and basketball to some degree. But they even had to consider that the department is losing money right now every day that licensed merchandise can’t be sold.

“We know that our contracts with Learfield, CLC, all the ones around our marketing rights, nobody can get to retail and buy those things today,” Tyra said. “They’re shut down. There’s losses occurring today. When people can’t buy licensed product today, we’re already feeling it. We’re trying to take all that into context and use all the data available from prior years and where we are today and project that into our numbers, which brought us to $15 million as the benchmark.”

Like everyone else in college athletics with an eye on what will be possible this fall, Tyra is hoping the shortfall isn’t worse.

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