Board gives, gets the money that keeps Tigers afloat
By David Williams, Memphis Commercial Appeal
January 28, 2007
We hear it all the time: College athletics is big business.
But that's not to suggest that profits just naturally flow, millions upon millions, into athletic department coffers. Take the University of Memphis, which operated at a $1.3 million deficit for the last fiscal year. It costs the athletic department some $6 million annually just to cover the cost of scholarships. (Yes, somebody has to pay for those "free" rides.)
"Every 1 percent that tuition goes up, it costs us $50,000 a year," said athletic director R.C. Johnson. "So if there's a 10 percent increase in tuition, that's a half a million dollars.
"It's a race, and I'm running, but. ... "
Johnson and the athletic department's Tiger Scholarship Fund (formerly the Tiger Clubs) aren't running alone, though. For a decade now, they've had the help of the Tiger Athletic Advisory Board of Directors, whose members provide donations and leads to potential donors, as well as advice, strategic planning, and a connection to the fan base that Johnson said is essential.
Board members past and present were honored last week with a pregame reception before the men's basketball team played Tulsa at FedExForum. It was a thank you for 10 years of fund-raising help, 10 years of bending Johnson's ear, 10 years of keeping Tiger athletics from seeming like such a big business that the average fan can't relate.
"I've never seen anyone who served who didn't understand the importance of the university, and come away more committed than when they first started," said the board's first president, Harold Byrd, who is vice chairman and president of the Bank of Bartlett.
Byrd, a supporter of the school's academic side as well, said athletics can sometimes seem to "assume a much-too-important position" at a university. But, he added, "Athletics brings attention to this university, which I think is the most underappreciated and undervalued asset of this community."
Adviser Cato Johnson, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare senior vice president for corporate affairs, called the board "an extremely talented, diverse group of supporters from across all the spectrums of the community."
Johnson is currently serving on the advisory board's strategic planning subcommittee, studying everything from seating plans to best practices at other universities to -- of course -- funding needs.
The board has 51 members, representing the full range of giving. Some donate hundreds to the scholarship fund, others tens of thousands.
Board membership rotates, although the athletic department's star donors -- the 21 "Ambassadors," who have given $500,000 over a four-year period -- are permanent members.
R.C. Johnson said there's a saying in the athletic department. He said board members are asked "to give it or get it."
He's talking about money -- the necessary fuel for an athletic department with a budget of $26.5 million.
The scholarship fund last year reached $5 million -- double the amount of a decade ago.
"We're pretty pleased with that," R.C. Johnson said, "because not only have we come a long way, but we've had so many other projects in the meantime. We've built this and we've built that, and we've had to raise money for salaries and raise money to buy out salaries. That's all been separate (from the scholarship fund)."
The $5 million was a long-standing goal, but still not enough to cover rising scholarship costs.
The goal, then, for the athletic department's fund-raising staff -- and its friends, the advisory board members -- is to raise even more.
But R.C. Johnson said the advisers' value isn't just monetary. They're the voice of other donors, and a connection to the community.
"I hear from some more than others," he said. "But I always welcome their input -- and I usually get it."
Sometimes, they may disagree. Byrd, for example, opposes building a new football stadium at the Mid-South Fairgrounds, an idea proposed by Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton and backed by R.C. Johnson.
The athletic department and its advisers, though, are a tight team on the larger matter at hand -- moving the U of M forward.
"There's not a thing that's so universal in this community," Byrd said, "as the University of Memphis."
To see a list of advisory board members, visit: http://gotigersgo.cstv.com/tsf/mem-tiger-clubs-board.html.
-- David Williams: 529-2310
Tiger Scholarship Fund
The following shows the approximate dollar amounts (in millions) raised by the Tiger Scholarship Fund (formerly the Tiger Clubs) over the last decade: