Roster of U of M's biggest supporters doubles
By David Williams, Memphis Commercial Appeal
July 22, 2007
During a recent gathering of University of Memphis athletic superdonors, talk ranged from basketball's national-championship potential to a possible new football stadium -- to R.C. Johnson's "athletic director handshake."
Hand out and palm up, of course.
It was delivered with a laugh -- not that Johnson would have been offended, anyway. He readily admits the need to solicit millions for a program that doesn't turn a profit despite record-setting fund-raising and a powerhouse basketball team. And his superdonors -- dubbed Ambassadors -- deliver for the U of M like no others.
Membership to the club comes through a $500,000 donation, payable over four years. But in reality, the majority of the club's 24 members have donated much more, typically in seven figures. Their cash helps pay for scholarships, coaches' salaries, contract buyouts, facility construction and other costs of doing business in major college athletics.
In return, yes, they get certain perks. But is there any doubt whether the likes of FedEx Corp. chairman Fred Smith and First Horizon National Corp. chairman Mike Rose could afford a road trip to see the Tigers play football in New Orleans or their very own Ambassador's Club sport coats?
"Obviously, what they give us, we can't give them in return," Johnson said, "and they know that."
Even so, Ambassador's Club membership has grown at a rather stunning rate in recent years. The club was unveiled in late 1998 with nine members and had increased to 12 by early 2001 -- but has doubled since then.
"They love the university, and they know the importance of the university to the city," said Harold Byrd, a major U of M donor and non-Ambassador, but whose brother, Bob, recently joined the club.
That's how Ambassadors tend to see themselves. In describing their motivation, they frame a big picture -- the athletic program's role in promoting the university, the university's importance to the city, the city's potential to grow and prosper.
"I really think that Memphis is on the brink of breaking through, to have something special happening here -- not just the Memphis Tiger basketball team and not just the university, but the whole city," said Dave Bronczek, FedEx Express chief executive. "Of course, I may be biased to say that because of FedEx being here."
Johnson may bleed Tiger blue, but his next-favorite colors must be purple and orange -- 16.6 percent of the Ambassadors work at FedEx: Smith and Bronczek, plus chief financial officer Alan Graf and the newest club member, Lenny Feiler, senior vice president of central support services for FedEx Express.
"I don't think I ever said, 'Hey, Lenny, why don't you become an Ambassador?'" Bronczek said. "But now that Lenny has, and I have, and Fred has and Alan has, there's more people at FedEx who I think are looking at it."
Ambassadors, though, are a varied lot. Ken Lenoir, one of the newest members, is a former Tiger football player from the 1960s and founder of First Mercantile Trust Co., who said, "I just felt the need. I felt like the university had been good to me in my education. It was time to give something back."
Lenoir shrugged off the perks, which also include the right to buy prime seats, increased access to coaches, and regular meetings with Johnson and President Shirley Raines.
"I didn't do it for that," he said. "Perks didn't interest me. It was the university. The university means a lot to the city. It's an investment."
Which isn't to say these corporate-titan types don't care so much about winning games and chasing titles. Talk football sometime with Fred Smith, or basketball with Mike Rose, and you'll learn otherwise.
The Ambassadors are fans. At the recent club gathering, basketball coach John Calipari spoke for a few minutes about the 2007-2008 Tigers, then took questions.
The first one: Can we start tomorrow?
But they're fans who know the Tigers aren't only competing on the field and court. They're in a major college athletic arms race -- to attract and retain coaches in an age of multimillion-dollar contracts, to woo national recruits easily swayed by the chance to play in higher-profile leagues than Memphis' Conference USA.
"The biggest challenge is getting our football program to the point where it pays for itself. And, in a perfect world, actually contributes overall," said Rose, who endorses Mayor Willie Herenton's plan for a new football stadium at the Mid-South Fairgrounds. "At most of the major conference universities, football carries the athletic program. In ours, basketball carries the athletic program."
That was a nod to the economics of big-time college sports, where football rules because of its far-greater revenue potential.
Consider that for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2006, Tiger football had revenue of $5 million -- against expenses of $7 million.
The University of Tennessee had revenue of $27.7 million -- about the size of last year's entire U of M athletic budget -- against expenses of $12.2 million.
Still, Johnson and his Ambassadors had much to celebrate during their recent get-together, in a cocktail party setting on court level at FedExForum. The basketball team is No. 1 or 2 in nearly every national preseason poll. A department record was set recently with $5.6 million collected for the Tiger Scholarship Fund. And the Ambassador's Club had reached two dozen members.
The cost of competing in major college athletics is ever-increasing, though. So, too, is the need for donors -- and, when you can get them, superdonors.
"Every year I have an objective to try and get at least one more," Johnson said, "and we've been able to do much more."
-- David Williams: 529-2310
Kelly and Dale Armstrong
Dave and Judy Bronczek
Ben and Martha Bryant
Bob and Debra Byrd
Hilliard and Harriett Crews
William Jr. and Tommie Dunavant
Lenny and Rhonda Feiler
Frank Jr. and Brenda Flautt
Alan and Susan Graf
Janet and Bob January
Al and Carol LaRocca
Ken and Sandy Lenoir
Bill and Ann Morris
Mike and Debbi Rose
Elkan and Laurie Scheidt
Fred and Diane Smith
Rick and Sandy Spell
John and Anne Stokes
Ron and Wynoka Terry
Tom and Robin Watson
Source: University of Memphis