A Conversation With Director Luck
West Virginia University Director of Athletics Oliver Luck recently took time out of his busy schedule to sit down with MSNsportsNET.com to offer his thoughts on some of the major issues concerning the athletic department and collegiate athletics.
The Charleston Gazette recently reported that the athletic department realized a profit of approximately $145,000 from the football team’s appearance in the Champs Sports Bowl. Now that may not seem significant to a department with a budget of roughly $55 million, but today with the vast majority of the schools losing money on bowl trips, that is a remarkable achievement.
What were some of the challenges your financial team encountered when planning a trip of this magnitude and how did West Virginia manage to realize a profit when so many others could not?
OL: We took a hard look at all of our costs associated with the bowl game and we put our accountant’s green eye shades on and we believe we made some smart decisions that ended up saving us some money in terms of how we traveled, in terms of how many people traveled and those sorts of things. I think it’s almost irresponsible to come out of any bowl game with a financial loss, particularly if it is a second-tier bowl like the Champs Bowl.
The challenge, of course, is the ticket commitment the schools are required to purchase for any of the bowls. With the Champs Sports Bowl being played on a Tuesday we knew going into it that we were going to have a difficult time selling our ticket allotment of 12,500. To me, it points out that the bowl economics were very challenging this year for a lot of schools, and perhaps Connecticut was the poster boy for that. It was great that the Huskies made a BCS bowl, but they ended up losing a lot of money, $1.6m to be accurate. In fact, we could have been faced with that type of a loss but for a field goal in the USF-UConn game ... This is a good illustration that the bowl system needs to change. There are far too many schools that lose money on a bowl game and the present system is not working.
There is a book out called Death to the BCS, which takes a highly critical view of the Bowl Championship Series and the current bowl system which, according to its authors, is much more financially beneficial to the bowls than the participating schools. Essentially, Death to the BCS is advocating a 16-team playoff that also still keeps in place the current bowl system. What are your thoughts on the present system college football is using today to anoint its national champion, and what improvements (if any) can be made to it?
OL: The BCS has done one thing well – and I give them credit for this – and that is that they have matched up one vs. two in a true title game. You can argue about how they get to one vs. two, but they have matched one vs. two and that’s an accomplishment. Most sports fans want to see a true national champion determined on the field as opposed to one that is crowned by the AP or the UPI as they did back in the old days.
I think one of the unintended consequences of the BCS structure is that the other bowl games - even other BCS games - have been devalued. There were lots of empty seats at our bowl game and this was for two programs with very good traditions that had not played each other for decades. I was sitting in the Orange Bowl for Stanford and Virginia Tech and there were lots of empty seats there as well.
A playoff system would potentially put real value in those other games, or at least some of those other games. I think what the NCAA needs to do is to look at it with some intellectual and fiscal honesty and study the issue. I get the impression that in today’s environment there is a knee-jerk reaction to defend the system without engaging in a reasonable dialogue … well that’s what we have and this is the best system we’ve got and don’t even question it, etc. … I don’t believe this is helpful nor is it the American way of improving our business of college football. I think with the NCAA there is a good opportunity with a new president coming in and there is growing discontent with the system today – not just discontent with the fans who want to see something exciting like the basketball tournament – but also from athletic departments like ours who play in bowl games where we have to struggle just to make $100,000 when a bowl game should really be a reward for the players as well as the accountants.
Given the perilous state of finances in college athletics, schools are going to begin to look at doing some pretty drastic things such as treating a bowl game like a regular-season road game, i.e. spending one or at most two nights in a hotel. I can soon see an AD saying, “sure we’ll play in the bowl game, but we’re only coming down a day before the game because we’re treating it as a regular road trip and this will save us a 6 figure sum.” There are some real issues that all the conferences, athletic directors and the NCAA need to address regarding the bowl system. There are also some crazy matchups. Let’s be honest, a 6-6 team going to a bowl game is a team that just hasn’t had a great season and in many cases the athletic director of a 6-6 or 7-5 football team will be making a coaching change. Now is that a reward for a successful season?
The one wish I would have is for the NCAA and the conference commissioners to be honest and really look at the system today, look at the many drawbacks to the system and look at the possibility of what I-AA or what Division II and Division III are (and have been) doing for years with their respective playoff system.
Because of some personal connections this past year, I followed the I-AA playoffs, in particular Delaware, Villanova and Eastern Washington. The championship tournament caught my attention because that is the way every sport in America is, with exception of course, of Division I college football.
The 2011 football schedule was released earlier this month and the first thing that jumps out is seven home games, including LSU, Pitt and Marshall. Plus, five of the seven games are before October 8 when the weather in Morgantown is still reasonably warm. The open weeks are before two important conference games against Syracuse and Pitt. There seems to be an even balance all the way around with this year’s schedule. Are you pleased with it?
OL: I like the schedule. We’ve got a great home slate and I love the fact that we’ve got Bowling Green coming down. That’s Coach (Don) Nehlen’s alma mater and we are going to recognize him over the course of the weekend (Sept. 30/Oct. 1). I don’t want to go off on a tangent here, but I don’t think that we have ever properly honored Coach Nehlen for all that he did for the football program and we are taking the opportunity to do so this year. We will have more than 40 former Mountaineer quarterbacks return to campus for the game to honor Coach Nehlen (Remember, Don was a quarterback himself at Bowling Green). In the process we are raising some significant funds in order to endow four “Don Nehlen Quarterback scholarships.” In addition to Bowling Green, we have LSU and Marshall coming in. I’m glad that we’ve got a lot of early games. We are going to have a more explosive offense this year so it probably helps not playing a lot of conference games in November when the weather can get bad.
In addition, it’s nice to have those open weeks. I think it’s a good opportunity to heal a little bit and prepare for two pretty good teams we’ll be playing after the open weekends.
Last fall the Big East Conference added a ninth football member in TCU and the possibility remains high that a 10th team could be added in the near future. Naturally that is something you must keep a close eye on because of its direct impact on football scheduling. What are some of the challenges and/or opportunities further Big East expansion pose to your long-term planning for the athletic department?
OL: Number one, football is crucial and is responsible for the bulk of our revenue. Number two, every team has a scheduling philosophy. For us, we want to have a high profile, attractive AQ non-conference opponent on our schedule. We’ve got LSU this year and we had Auburn in the past. Going forward, we have Michigan State and Florida State. In addition, we have extended our series with Maryland, which is very important for us. The proximity and the importance of the Baltimore/Washington D.C. recruiting area is crucial for us. Then we have historically played a I-AA team like Coastal Carolina or Norfolk State. We also have a tradition of playing a MAC school and of course over the past decade or so the Marshall series has been a fixture on our schedule. But with the addition of TCU and the expectation of a 10th member very soon, we have no option but to sit tight and wait and see what happens with our conference. It is highly likely that we will have nine conference games in the near future and if that is the case we will certainly have to review our non-conference scheduling priorities. Also, one development that we have noticed is that there are more and more opportunities to play the so-called “one-off” games. We will be playing BYU at FedEx Field, for example, and these matchups are becoming more common.
The real question is if the conference ends up going to 12 and having a North and South Division or an East and West Division. I could see the day when we play 10 conference games - or even 11 conference games. There is a good bit in flux right now and we need to keep our powder dry until some important decisions are made regarding the future composition of the Big East.
The Big East Conference has unquestionably the strongest basketball conference in the country right now. Some are calling it the strongest league ever assembled, yet the Big East lags behind the other five BCS conferences in the total amount it pays out to its member institutions. Are there ways the league can leverage the recent success it has had in basketball to further enhance its other sports and generate more revenue?
OL: Success in any one of the sports, particularly football and basketball, elevates a conference’s standing and makes it more attractive. Our TV deal for basketball has a few years left but there is always the opportunity for the league to revisit its deal with ESPN. Now that you have Comcast and NBC merging, there is the possibility they may want to be move involved. In addition, Fox and Turner are making some noise about raising their respective profiles in college athletics. In terms of overall attractiveness I think the conference is in a pretty good position, but having said that, these things go in cycles a little bit and I have no doubt that we are going to remain an incredibly strong basketball conference, but we won’t be necessarily the best conference year in and year out. The conference hit a home run this year with the strength of our basketball teams. It is truly amazing how competitive it is.
I think it is important to take advantage of the basketball profile and use it across the board with sponsorships and perhaps even more games on national TV. Even the lower tier teams in the conference are playing some good basketball and they are attractive to watch. Ultimately, at the end of the day, it is the conference’s responsibility as opposed to the individual schools’ responsibility, but the success we’ve had helps raise the bar a little bit for us.
Conference USA recently negotiated a new TV deal with Fox Sports - a deal that will reportedly double what the conference was making from its ESPN agreement and will also return most of its football games to the traditional Saturday kickoffs (ESPN and CBS are now contesting that agreement). The Big East and ESPN have been long-time partners, the two really growing together in the early 1980s. Do you think it’s time for the Big East to explore other television options to maximize revenue and perhaps reduce the number of mid-week football games fans are required to attend?
OL: Any conference is going to look at ESPN, Fox, Turner ... and now Comcast-NBC because Comcast has a pretty strong presence along the East Coast. There are two TV deals that are about to be consummated - the PAC-12 and the Olympics - and it will be interesting to see what networks win those rights. You can look at any potential partner that has the footprint that would allow us to have our games exposed in the manner with which we feel appropriate. I can tell you the ADs have spoken clearly to the conference to look at all of the different possibilities out there in a very aggressive manner. The Big East is at the bottom of the six AQ conferences in terms of TV revenue and that needs to change or else it will affect our ability to compete with teams in the ACC, SEC or elsewhere.
In many cases you’ve got a primary broadcast and a secondary broadcast, and then there all of these digital rights. I’m not sure everybody thinks people are going to watch basketball games on their hand-held (mobile phone), but they’re watching highlights and getting scores. The media world is changing very rapidly.
Between ESPN, Fox, Turner and Comcast we have at least four potential partners, and that’s not to say there isn’t somebody else out there who would want to get involved.
The WVU Coliseum recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. The facility has served the athletic department well over the years but it is now beginning to show its age, particularly when compared to some of the other arenas our peer institutions have constructed in recent years. In your opinion, what can be done to enhance the facility and improve the fan experience in the short term? And then, what are some of the viable long-range options for a facility that is approaching 50 years?
OL: The Coliseum is a great building. There have been a lot of tremendous sporting events and a lot of memories have been created for many Mountaineer fans over the years, so it has withstood the test of time very well. A number of things are happening over the next four or five years that I think are going to give us a great opportunity to revamp it and give it a fresh look.
Number one, CPASS (College of Physical Activity and Sports Science) will be moving into a new facility in 2013 and this will allow us to look at the building as a single-use facility (athletics). We won’t need the classroom space anymore and we won’t need a lot of the offices so what can we do with that space? We’ve just started a master-plan exercise to look at this building and what kind of improvements we need. We want people to be able to walk into the Coliseum and say, “Wow, this is a great building!” If you look around the Big East there have been some pretty impressive facilities opened recently like the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville. We need to keep pace with that.
We have plans to build 11 suites on the second level, which I think will be a great addition. I think we need to look at dressing up the concrete, if you will, and making it a little more lively, bright and colorful. Parking is always an issue for us. We just recently met with University officials regarding a master plan for the Evansdale campus and what kind of parking access may be made available there for Coliseum events, so there is a constant focus on what we need to do, not just in this building, but with the entire Coliseum complex.
We need to make sure the sports that are here, which is everything but football, are well taken care of and we have facilities that we can show off and be proud of. I’m not sure the Shell Building “wows” anybody anymore, and we clearly need to do some work there.
But, when people walk into our basketball practice facility, I believe that is going to be a “wow” moment. The jaws will drop when people see how impressive that building is. It’s going to be a great recruiting tool for Coach Huggins and Coach Carey.
There are a lot of things that we need to do, but this building is the centerpiece and it really has been for 40 years, and I think the great thing is we can modify this building and fix up what needs to get fixed up to make it truly a place that recruits want to come and play in and fans want to come and see us.
We need the concourses to be updated, the restrooms, concession areas, etc … There is a whole list of things we need and much of those are things that we are starting to look at now, knowing that we have a firm time table for the CPASS folks to have their own facility. The reality is when people come to our games now the overriding thought is how quickly they can get out of here and get on the highway to beat the traffic instead of sticking around and enjoying the total experience.
It takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of money but we’re very focused on putting in place the things that we need to make sure this building is as fresh and as vibrant as it was 40 years ago when it first opened.
There are two capital projects currently ongoing right now with the basketball practice facility and the recent groundbreaking on Dreamswork Field. Can you give us an update on both?
OL: The basketball practice facility should be substantially complete at the end of this calendar year. At some point next season you will see the men’s and women’s teams practicing over there, which is going to be nice, not just for them, but it opens up more practice time for volleyball and some of the other activities we have here in the Coliseum.
The women’s soccer locker room, which is about a $2 million project, should be up and running by the summer. It’s a one-story building with the ability to add a second level in case we need more space. It will be a nice facility and a great home for what has become a great program.
Finally, a recurring challenge we have at West Virginia University is attracting younger members to our Mountaineer Athletic Club. In your opinion, what can the MAC do to continue to cultivate those coveted younger fans?
OL: When a student leaves the University, so many of their memories involve athletics – football games, basketball games, soccer, volleyball, baseball or what have you, and I think the MAC needs to do a better job of having a contact with that student or student-athlete as they leave the University.
At a minimum, we need to make sure our varsity student-athletes remain involved with the Varsity Club to keep that connection. The hard thing is after 10, 15 or 20 years away from the University you can lose touch. We need to do a better job of making sure we keep track of where our student-athletes are. Right off the bat we need to engage our student-athletes with the MAC. And with the recent graduates who did not participate in varsity sports we need to do the same. We have some great opportunities with the MAC and our recent graduates.
We’re doing 50 years of Mountaineer soccer this fall, and we haven’t done a very good job of keeping track of our former soccer players. I just met a bunch of guys who played in the first soccer game in 1961. None of them really knew much about soccer at the time. Most of them were football, baseball and track guys but they went on and tried it and they had a great time. Those were great stories.
I have made it a priority with our department of making sure that we keep in touch with our student-athletes down the road and have reasons for them to come back. Players really enjoy that; they really enjoy keeping in touch with their teammates and seeing some of the older-and younger players. That should help us a little bit in getting more folks involved with the MAC at an earlier age.
And it’s not just about money. On the one hand it is because we have to go out and raise money to run the programs, but at the same time it’s about maintaining those relationships with teammates and coaches and having events that former players can come back to and feel welcomed. The $25 Varsity Club annual membership fee isn’t as important as the connection we want to make with those former student-athletes.
Oliver Luck, Athletic Director
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