VUAD: Belt-tightening doesn't consitute a 'crisis'

Last week <i>The Tennessean</i> reported that donations to the National Commodore Club were lagging, and that as a result Vanderbilt's athletic department would be reducing its budget and staff. In response, Vanderbilt issued an E-mail to its Commodore Insider subscribers stating that while there are indeed budget concerns, the moves hardly constitute a "crisis".

The complete text of the Commodore Insider communique, issued Thursday, May 8, appears below.

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Can Vanderbilt compete in the Southeastern Conference?

Yes, we can. In fact, we compete very successfully when you take all of our varsity sports into account.

Our football program has endured 20 consecutive losing seasons, but Coach Bobby Johnson has made steady progress improving our prospects in just one year. Men's basketball has enjoyed much more success historically, but the team did not reach its goals last season.

At the same time, many other Commodore teams and individuals are at or near the top of the SEC and NCAA.

· The men's tennis team won the Southeastern Conference Tournament and is rated No. 6 nationally.

· Coach Ken Flach and women's golf coach Martha Freitag were each named SEC "Coach of the Year".

· Our baseball team, under the direction of another SEC coach of the year candidate, Tim Corbin, might be the surprise team in the league as it battles for a berth in the league tournament.

· We have two SEC "Athletes of the Year" this spring in tennis star Bobby Reynolds and golfer Brandt Snedeker, both of whom have been rated No. 1 during the course of this season.

· Basketball's Chantelle Anderson became our first two-time Kodak All-American.

· Football's Hunter Hillenmeyer was named first team academic All-American while leading the NCAA in tackles.

· Our top women's doubles team won a national tennis championship this season.

· Our women's lacrosse team won the American Lacrosse Conference championship in 2002.

· The men's golf team and women's basketball team found themselves ranked in the Top 10 during part of their seasons.

· The women's tennis team is rated fifteenth and is in the NCAA Tournament.

Does Vanderbilt Athletics have a budget crisis?

The soft economy and sluggish stock market has forced the entire University to do some belt-tightening in order to keep our focus on Vanderbilt's principle mission - academics - but that does not constitute a crisis. Like any business, we have to control costs and reduce them as much as we can. About $900,000 - approximately 3% of the Athletic Department's total budget - has been trimmed. But rest assured, student-athletes' well being and athletic competitiveness were protected as much as possible in these reductions.

Is the University administration supporting its Athletic Department?

Yes, absolutely. First, Chancellor Gordon Gee and the University Board of Trust believe athletics is important to the University; we continue to receive a very generous level of support from our University. In addition, a significant number of the major gifts our Athletic Department has received for facility enhancement have come from members of our Board of Trust and others in leadership positions.

Is Vanderbilt the only major school with budget concerns?

No. Nearly every university in the country has been adversely affected by the national economy. Other "wealthy" private institutions such as Stanford and Duke have publicly acknowledged budget woes.

Is the National Commodore Club fundraising lagging?

Yes. The National Commodore Club - our annual giving organization - has experienced gradual declines over the last three years. Last year (July 1, 2001 - June 30, 2002), the NCC collected about $2.5 million that supports our athletic scholarship program. This year's annual giving is running slightly ahead of a year ago and will likely fall very close to $2.5 million when the fiscal year concludes June 30. That total is about $750,000 less than the department was raising 10 years ago.

What are some reasons for this decline?

There are several reasons. Twenty years of losing football records and last winter's difficulties in men's basketball are near the top of the list. Sports fans love to support winning teams and improving these two programs are of vital importance to us. Nashville's changing entertainment landscape has also had an affect. The arrival of professional sport franchises has taken the spotlight away from all amateur athletics in the area. There are fewer corporate marketing dollars being spent on college sports and far less media time and space being allocated by news organizations to cover amateur and collegiate athletics. This follows a predictable trend that occurs in virtually every city that has added professional athletics to its menu. In short, area sports fans have many more entertainment options than they had just a few years ago. In order to attract fans with many options, the product has to be impressive; our focus will remain on improving our on-the-field product.

Do most SEC schools raise more than $2.5 million annually?

Yes, and so does Vanderbilt. When major gifts - often referred to as capital giving - are included into yearly totals, we have raised more than $12 million in cash and pledges in each of the last two fiscal years. Vanderbilt's athletic program - like our student-athletes and so many other aspects of our University - is unique in the SEC. We have a smaller student body, compete in fewer sports, have higher tuition and have a focus on academics that make it difficult to compare Vanderbilt to other SEC programs.

How has Vanderbilt Athletics invested these major gifts?

Major gifts - typically those over $100,000 - have been the reason for Vanderbilt's tremendous growth in athletic facilities and huge jump in its athletics endowment. Over the past four years, Memorial Gymnasium has been both renovated and gained a major addition, baseball's Hawkins Field was built, a new soccer/lacrosse stadium was erected, the John Rich Football Complex featuring new practice fields and a magnificent speed and strength center was completed, and the varsity track had a $1.5 million makeover. Every student-athlete on campus is benefiting from improved facilities. All told, over $40 million in athletics facilities improvements have already been made and more plans are in the works.

Has this investment strategy worked?

Yes! There are many facts that attest to its success; we will offer a few notable examples. A dramatic improvement in our indoor tennis facility nearly 10 years ago attracted both Geoff Macdonald and Ken Flach to our women's and men's teams. Both have been named "Coach of the Year", and both have put their programs among the nation's elite.

A major gift from alumnus Charles Hawkins fueled the completion of Hawkins Field. That facility attracted Tim Corbin to become our head baseball coach and, in just the park's second year, we are in the midst of the SEC title race.

Is it more difficult to develop a winning football team than, say, an Olympic sport program?

It is not easy to develop a top-flight program in any sport, but it is fair to say that building winning teams in football and men's basketball are difficult on any campus. Director of Athletics Todd Turner recently said that Olympic Sports programs "have fewer moving parts" than do football or basketball, and that is why our investments there have shown faster results.

Why is the endowment important?

Since the arrival of Todd Turner as Director of Athletics in 1996, the Athletic Department endowment fund has quadrupled from about $6.5 million to $28.5 million. We have been able to use the interest accumulated annually from these funds to defray expenses. One example of the endowment in action would be the endowment by Richard and Robin Patton of our head football coach's chair - the first of its kind in the Southeastern Conference.

With these huge gifts, why are small donations needed?

They are all important. You might say we've been able to "build the house", but have had trouble "buying the furniture." Major gifts are earmarked for special projects and cannot be applied to routine but important expenses required to run a successful program. More modest donations from thousands of loyal contributors are the financial bedrock of the top collegiate programs.

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