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CHAMPAIGN – Just this weekend, the University of Illinois sent golf and softball teams to Florida, the baseball team to Texas, the women's gymnastics team to Lexington, Ky., the swim team to Purdue, the women's tennis team to Milwaukee and both track teams to Big Ten meets at Penn State and Indiana University.
Imagine the expense! So the question grows, considering these economic times can the UI keep up this pace of travel, lodging and meals for so many programs that bring in little or no revenue?
Terri Sullivan's softballers, with a new pitcher from Georgia (Monica Perry), a star catcher from Texas (Lana Armstrong) and six Californians on the roster, opened the season in California and made earlier expeditions to Tampa and Houston. Mike Small's golfers visit South Carolina, West Virginia and Florida three times between Feb. 13 and April 4.
"It is a timely question," said athletic director Ron Guenther, the man who has handled UI purse strings for 15 years without a splash of red ink.
"I'm just back from a Big Ten summit," he said. "We are preparing for an economic downturn which will be met at three levels: national, conference and institutional. Not that I could have forecast this, but we set up reserves that should get us through a year or two. At the conference level, we can do some things to keep a level playing field.
"Internally, we're asking each department to reduce by 5 percent. The elimination of one trip for volleyball or tennis, as an example, might be enough to cover that 5 percent. What you're going to see is more regional play. We'll play more opponents in easy driving distance."
Big Ten Network helps
Income of more than $6 million from the Big Ten Network is helping each conference member through this difficult period.
"We have strong contracts with the major television networks, and the Big Ten Network has become a security blanket, allowing us to become a lucrative partner with Fox. "The extra money was the instrument that secured the reserves I needed to protect the debt service on Memorial Stadium. With Comcast as the final pin, we were able to hit 50 million homes as fast as we did."
There is concern around the country, with so many corporations in trouble, that many stadiums won't be able to retain their suite-holders. The University of Michigan, in the midst of a statewide recession, is particularly vulnerable with 60-plus new suites becoming available for Wolverine games in 2010.
"Our suites are in large part owned by individuals. This is the time for renewals and, at this point, we've had no fallout. The stadium financing is driven by the suite-holders, but the key was getting private money into it. We think we're going to be OK."
There'll be no increase in the basic $45 ticket for most football games, although a premium price of $65 is set for featured games like Penn State and Michigan.
"I don't plan to make any changes," Guenther said. "We'll stay with $77 for a season ticket in the south horseshoe. I saw where some institutions are meeting the economic crunch by raising ticket prices. Colorado increased by $8. That's been tried before, and I don't think that's the answer. I feel our prices are competitive and fair in this market."
As for a schedule that finds Illinois playing Cincinnati and Fresno State in late November at the conclusion of the conference race, Guenther shook his head: "I'm not happy about it, but there isn't much I can do when we're presented with an open date at the end. Somebody had to be there, and I hope the conference changes that in the future. We really got stuck with few options after electing to keep the open date in September."
Department staffers have been expecting minimal raises, if not a salary freeze that might be university-wide.
"I'm anticipating that for staff and coaches," Guenther said. "It's the sort of thing that cuts across the conference and probably across the country in areas beyond higher education. We've had economic downturns before, but this is the worst I've ever encountered."
That doesn't mean Guenther won't "compete" when his back is to the wall. When co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch was offered more money to move to South Florida, the UI coach received a "bump" for his loyalty in remaining on Ron Zook's football staff.
"We have to remain competitive at critical positions," Guenther said.
Disch is absolutely critical, particularly after the Illini lost Mike Locksley, their crack recruiter in the Washington, D.C., area. Disch was formerly a high school coach in Jacksonville, Fla., and played a major role in expanding the UI's presence in that state. With four recruits on the way, the UI will have 14 football players who prepped in Florida scheduled to play this fall.
With the marvelous Red Grange statue being installed this year, the torn-up west side of Memorial Stadium will ultimately present a fresh look. The permanent fencing around the east side will someday be expanded to patrol the west side, which will have a grand entryway and a blend of grass and gravel.
But not now. It'll take more than $2 million, and it won't happen until 2010 at the earliest.
"I won't jeopardize the financial security of the department with something I can't fund," Guenther said.
The Assembly Hall
Dana Brenner continues to work with student services as they analyze the situation. What we'll ultimately see is a phased-in refurbishing of the building that won't require the displacing of basketball games for a year.
"Our options are private money and naming rights for suites and clubs," Guenther said. "At this point, we don't know the dollar amount we can raise.
"Our first priority is to create the best basketball environment by putting another 600 students down on the floor with the 800 we have already. That means the floor must be dropped at least 5 feet. We want 1,400 students alongside the court. And we want a fan-friendly building with improved restrooms and concessions, and with elevators and escalators.
"As for a launching time, I won't come with a plan until I'm comfortable with the finances. I would hope we can get started within two years and have it completed in three or four."
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.