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Sunday, November 04, 2007

You've got to spend money to make it to the Final Four

You've got to spend money to make it to the Final Four

By Dan Wolken
Sunday, November 4, 2007

uring this college basketball season, few questions will receive as much attention nationally as how the University of Memphis has been able to compete among the sport's elite for a third straight year while playing in a conference outside the traditional power structure of college athletics.

Though it's true that Memphis is not a member of a Bowl Championship Series league -- a distinction invented for football but with consequences that impact all sports -- it would be difficult to tell by looking at how much the school spends on men's basketball.

Indeed, in everything from how much it pays its coach to the way its teams travel to games, Memphis operates far more like a BCS power than a mid-major.

"I think you have to dig deep and do what you have to do," athletic director R.C. Johnson said.

And these days, no school outside a BCS conference is digging deeper than Memphis.

For the 2007 fiscal year, Memphis' total tab for men's basketball is $5.728 million, meaning Memphis spends more on basketball than all but a handful of schools.

According to the most recent statistics compiled by the Office of Postsecondary Education, which were last updated from the 2006 fiscal year, Memphis ranked 26th in basketball spending at $4.439 million. Of the 25 programs that spent more, six were in the Big East, five were in the ACC, five were in the SEC, four were in the Big 12, four were in the Big 10 and one was in the Pac-10.

Of the non-BCS programs, the only ones with operating budgets at all comparable to Memphis' were Temple ($3.819 million, ranked 38th), TCU ($3.648 million, ranked 45th), Xavier ($3.369 million, ranked 56th) and Creighton ($3.129 million, ranked 59th).

Though the spending statistics don't compare apples-to-apples in every case -- for instance, Virginia's reported $22.9 million can be attributed to a one-time expense related to the opening of a new arena -- Memphis' budget compares favorably with programs like Georgetown ($4.979 million), North Carolina ($4.690 million), Indiana ($4.662 million) and Ohio State ($4.493 million).

Most of the increase from 2006 to 2007 can be attributed to raises for coach John Calipari and his coaching staff. Calipari's salary went to $1.3 million guaranteed after the first Elite Eight appearance in 2006 and was bumped up to $1.8 million this past spring.

Asked whether his program lacked any resources to compete at the national championship level, Calipari said:

"At this point, no. There are programs that spend way more than we spend. There are probably 10 or 15 coaches that make significantly more than I make. With my staff, there are 30 to 50 programs where their assistants make significantly more than my staff makes. But that's fine. Where we are right now and the commitment that has been made, I wouldn't be here if I didn't feel comfortable.

"As long as they're committed to winning national titles, I want to be the coach here. There's a thing that goes along with that; it's not just wishing. It's not the wishing well. You either commit to doing it or you don't, and this school has. But in return, what they've gotten is a lightning rod to bring good stuff to this campus and this school."

In the 2000 fiscal year -- Calipari's first at Memphis -- the school spent $2.452 million on basketball. That number has increased by 134 percent in the seven years since.

Johnson said he believes the investment in the program has been worth it, citing the plethora of national publicity the school has received this summer, including attention for the Calipari-driven exchange program with the Chinese Basketball Association. The Tigers will play on ESPN's family of networks 11 times this season, giving an under-funded urban school with a mostly local student base a two-hour national advertisement for each appearance.

But perhaps most of all, demand for basketball season tickets has driven Tiger Scholarship Fund donations to record levels of more than $6 million, Johnson said, which will pay for scholarships for all of Memphis' intercollegiate sports.

"There are a lot of things you can't put a dollar sign to," Johnson said. "We want to have the best coach around, and we think we do, and we want to have the best staff around, and we think we do, and we want to provide them with everything we can and we think we're doing it, but it's an ongoing thing."

Much of what sets Memphis apart, from a budget standpoint, is Calipari's salary. But the Tigers' staff also includes three assistant coaches, a director of operations, an assistant director of operations, an assistant to the recruiting coordinator and a video coordinator. Memphis also employs a staff of seven student managers and has an athletic trainer devoted solely to the basketball team.

Former NBA guard Rod Strickland was added to more than a year ago as a director of student-athlete development, and the Tigers are one of the few programs outside a BCS conference that can employ a full-time strength coach that works only with the basketball team.

All told, the school spent $2.733 million on salaries, wages and benefits in 2007, up from $1.729 million in 2004.

Last season, the Tigers chartered airplanes for all but two road trips -- including a Boeing 757 the school chartered to take the team to Hawaii for the EA Sports Maui Invitational. Though much of that cost was offset by selling seats to fans, the cost for team travel in 2007 was $836,883. Eighty-seven schools in Division 1 didn't spend that much on their entire programs in 2006, according to the Office of Postsecondary Education statistics.

Even in a year when the team doesn't go to Hawaii, Memphis has routinely spent upwards of $500,000 on travel, up significantly from the $276,299 in 2003.

Though Memphis is chartering more flights than it used to, associate athletic director for finance Bill Lofton said the increase can also be attributed to the geographic expansion of Conference USA since realignment and the general increases in travel costs due to fuel prices.

Memphis spent $215,649 on recruiting in 2007, up from $144,202 in 2006 and $120,638 in 2005. Lofton said that expanse can vary drastically depending on how often boosters donate their private planes for coaches to use versus buying commercial airline tickets.

The other big-ticket items would be scholarship costs -- which can vary in a given year depending on how many players are from Tennessee, due to out-of-state tuition costs -- and game guarantees. Memphis would typically spend between $300,000 and $450,000 in a typical year for "buy" games against teams like Austin Peay and Arkansas State.

And the investment in Memphis basketball continues, as the school has raised money for a $1-$1.5 million project to renovate the coaches' offices and update the Finch Center.

"To say to (another C-USA school), this is what you have to do to be as committed as we are, the president would puke in a cup," Calipari said.

Much of the reason Memphis basketball has been able to operate with so much financial support is the cultivation of private contributors, the largest being FedEx, four of whose executives are members of the Ambassadors Club, which requires a $500,000 donation to join.

What those boosters can provide -- from the use of private plans for recruiting trips to paying for Calipari's salary increases and his $2.5 million annuity that will kick in if he stays through 2010 -- has been the biggest reason Memphis has been able to keep Calipari despite several enticing offers from other programs.

And in the end, no matter how much money the program spends, no single factor has been more important than their coach to the Tigers reaching the elite status they now enjoy.

"I think that we've given Cal the tools -- most of what he's asked for that we could," said prominent booster Rick Spell. "It's funny. Every year, I've always tried to think ahead of the game, what we have to battle and what we have to do to keep Cal because I believe it's important. Right now, I feel more comfortable than ever that Cal is going to stay here. He knows what he can do here. He has a good place for him to do what Cal does. Maybe he leaves this year, but I'm as comfortable as ever."

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