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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Buying into U of M athletics, Big-donor Ambassador group gains momentum, members

Buying into U of M athletics
Big-donor Ambassador group gains momentum, members
By Jim Masilak
Saturday, May 3, 2008

When University of Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson launched the Ambassador's Club in 1997, he thought it "would be a really good coup" if he could get half a dozen high-dollar donors to sign up for it.

With a one-time buy-in fee of $500,000, payable over four years, it was an ambitious project. Or so it seemed at the time.

In the wake of a season in which the Tigers' football team qualified for its fourth bowl game in five years and the men's basketball team advanced to the NCAA final, the Ambassador's Club has grown to an all-time high of 31 members. Seven new members have joined since July, including three since January.

With a few more being seriously courted, Johnson now says "the sky's the limit" for what started out as an ultra-exclusive group of two: First Horizon National Corp. chairman Mike Rose and FedEx Corp. chairman Frederick W. Smith.

As recently as 2001, there were just 12 members.

"It's great to see it grow. It's a tribute to a sports program that's really improved since R.C. Johnson has been the athletic director," Rose said. "When R.C. told me he was starting this and he wanted Fred and I to be the leadoff guys, we talked about the club's long-term potential. He said, 'If we get to a dozen, that would be great.' It took a while to get to a dozen, but it's grown since then."

The Ambassadors help pay for scholarships, coaches' salaries, contracts and contract buyouts, facility construction and other costs of doing business in major college athletics.

Donors played a major part in the recently announced contract extension for basketball coach John Calipari, which made him one of the five highest-paid college coaches in the country. Not only did Calipari receive a $550,000 annual raise in base pay, from $1.8 million to $2.35 million, he also got a $5 million longevity bonus -- spread over the next five seasons -- that will be funded by donors.

"We would not be where we are today if we did not have the support of our Ambassadors," Johnson said. "It's not in our budget and wouldn't happen without their support. They know we are appreciative."

Ambassadors receive certain perks in return for their support, but Johnson said he's not aware of one member who hasn't exceeded the minimum required donation. At least a dozen have given more than $1 million, and some have contributed much more than that.

"Every Ambassador has gone above and beyond the $500,000," Johnson said. "That's a testament to our coaches and student-athletes and to how far we've come."

The success of the football and men's basketball teams in recent years has undoubtedly provided the primary impetus for the membership surge. But so has word of mouth.

"The more (members) you have," Rose said, "the more opportunities you have to attract others."

Johnson borrowed the idea for the Ambassador's Club from Southern Cal, which had endowment programs for positions. One could, for example, sponsor the quarterback position.

Johnson instituted similar programs as athletic director at Miami (Ohio) and Temple, but it was former Shelby County mayor Bill Morris who came up with the name for what Johnson envisioned as a "special" group of donors.

"At first, people weren't sure about it or what we were doing," Johnson said. "As the group has grown, people feel they want to be a part of it. That has spurred it on.

"The key to all of this is that people have really bought into what we're trying to do ... and we're reaping the benefits now."



Dave and Judy Bronczek

Ben and Martha Bryant

Bob and Debra Byrd

David and Marsha Cohn

Hilliard and Harriett Crews

William Jr. & Tommie Dunavant

Evelyn Echols

Jeff Farmer and Norma Upshur

Lenny and Rhona Feiler

Frank Jr. and Brenda Flautt

Glenna Flautt

Alan and Susan Graf

Fred and Charlotte Hodges

Ken and Karen Fields Isaacman

Janet and Bob January

Al and Carol LaRocca

Ken and Sandy Lenoir

Jackson and Betty Moore

Bill and Ann Morris

Mark and Lauren Pickens

Kyle Rice

Mike and Debbi Rose

Elkan and Laurie Scheidt

Fred and Diane Smith

Rita Sparks

Rick and Sandy Spell

Elaine Springer

John and Anne Stokes

Ron and Wynoka Terry

Tom and Robin Watson

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