Beyond Jones: Move On, Improve

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - January 16, 2008
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Do all dark clouds really come with silver linings as a standard feature, along with tinted windows, plush seating and rain-activated wipers?

With the current buzz around the Manoa campus - including a tour of the athletic facilities and political photo op on Thursday by Senate Ways and Means Committee members Donna Mercado Kim, Roz Baker and Shan Tsutsui - there is more attention being paid to the mundane at the university than ever before in its history.

While the school was caught with its rain gear around its collective ankles after years of administrative ineptitude that cost the school a head football coach and an AD his job, there is a chance, if handled correctly, that the worst week in the history of University of Hawaii athletics could turn out to be the moment when change finally occurred.

For more than two decades, the athletic department has existed on a shoestring budget while increasingly being asked to be more self-supporting. The change instituted during the administration of former president Kenneth Mortimer further separated the school from the majority of its competitors by cutting off a funding source than most Division 1-A athletic programs count on to balance their budgets. In a June 18 article in Street and Smith’s Sports Business Journal, Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College, said “... 95 of the 117 IA schools lost money on their intercollegiate athletic programs when subsidies are excluded.”

UH currently provides no direct financial support to the athletic department but does spend approximately $1 million of its general fund to help maintain structures on lower campus. In order for the department to remain financially independent, the university must move away from past failures and use the shocking loss of its most popular coach to jump-start a department that has been living on life support for years. With the aforementioned tour driving home the need for improvements for both academic and athletic areas of the university that chancellor Virginia Hinshaw termed a “tarnished jewel,” the impetuous for change may have finally arrived. Upper campus will be the main focus, of course, but improving the educational environment is crucial to building a stronger athletic department.

In a Jan. 2 letter to Hinshaw and university president David McClain, state Rep. K. Mark Takai said he is working with colleagues to approve “$25 million in construction funds to renovate Cooke Field, the coaches’offices, and the locker room and training room facilities.”

That’s a heck of a start, but not one likely to become a yearly expenditure as the university faces a $400 million maintenance backlog - a number that will only climb as inflation expands the costs of the 165 projects now awaiting funding on the Manoa campus. Smaller budget items in the future can still be a reality so long as the intent remains among fans, legislators and university officials who have become virtual no-shows at the Capitol over the past several years.

If the $25 million is voted into the fiscal year 2009 budget, the money would be available to the university July 1. The legislative session begins Jan. 16, and Takai, who has reached near governmental rock star status for actually asking questions at the hearing with UH athletic administrators in May and for his out-spoken support of UH athletics, is expecting a lot of help with the budget request, as he has not been alone in fielding an inordinate number of phone calls, e-mails and street-side conversations about the conditions at the university.

While no one with any solid judgment would suggest that bigger La-Z-Boys in the athletic department lobby are more important than fixing the roofs on Hamilton and Sinclair libraries, an investment in the athletic department is necessary for it to remain financially solvent and to begin providing returns on the university’s investment.

In the January issue of Hawaii Business magazine, David K. Choo reported on how athletic success has transmitted into academic benefits at universities. Called the “Flutie Effect” after Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie, whose school saw admissions increase following the program’s outstanding seasons in 1984 and ‘85, Choo says schools such as WAC member Boise State have turned athletic success into real money for the university. After the Bronco’s victory at the Fiesta Bowl, online inquiries from prospective students increased 135 percent and the graduate school received 10 times the amount of queries from the year before. Choo also reports the school earned $1.7 million in profits from logo merchandising, and that “... the school foundation raised approximately $16 million for fiscal year ‘07, the second highest total on record.”

That the university as a whole and former athletics director Herman Frazier specifically botched the handling of Jones’ contract is old news and not worth going over in any great detail. But what is clear is that the university has to mimic its former coach and look toward the future to figure out how to turn a negative into a positive. Now is also the time for staff, fans and politicians to recognize that athletics is the most recognized face of the university, and what benefits one benefits all.

“It’s an opportunity to leverage athletic success for academic progress,” says Takai. “However you felt about UH athletics and however you continue to feel about the attention that UH athletics is getting, I’m fairly confident the discussion will expand to not only athletics but to the overall university system.”

Whether anyone will listen after the dust settles remains to be seen, but what Jones did was show everyone what is truly possible.

That, not the bungling of his departure, is where the focus should be.

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