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
Jeff Farmer and Norma Upshur
Lenny and Rhona Feiler
Frank Jr. and Brenda 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
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