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CHAMPAIGN – Everywhere you turn, the government is stepping in to save a struggling economy. It's difficult to know who's in the worst shape: banks, homes or the auto industry.
Look around, almost no one is better off today than he/she was a year ago.
In this atmosphere, the UI athletic department is the exception to the rule. As we wade into a sleepy summer, the Illini are red-hot. Premium football seating, including all those expensive suites, is sold out at Memorial Stadium. In two years, football season ticket sales have doubled, growing from 23,000 to 46,000. And, for the third year in a row, Shawn Wax's development crew (I-Fund, capital gifts and endowments) will top $22 million, more than one-third of the $62 million budget.
It is a remarkable story under the circumstances, partly based on a belief that Ron Zook's well-stocked program will rebound from last season's disappointment, Bruce Weber's basketball forces are on the upswing, and virtually everything from volleyball to men's golf will compete for Big Ten championships.
And also – please don't snore – because the UI, even in down times, has had remarkable support from a dedicated and resilient fandom that takes pride in not only the on-field successes but the emphasis on compliance and academics as directed by Ron Guenther.
'We have added new people'
Wax is the first to admit that, in the last six months of 2008, "there were a lot of nervous people around the athletic department as the economy got worse and worse.
"But in the last six months, we've seen a surge. We'll be in better shape in terms of premium seating than we were last year. In 2008, we sold out the suites and the 77 Club, and 90 percent of the Colonnades seats. This year we are selling out all three. We lost one person in the suites and, for that person, we had four standing in line. We haven't lost anybody in the 77 Club. It is remarkable. I think it helped us that the biggest block of our I-Fund renewals and football sales fell in the spring, when we've had more positive economic news. We're only 40 shy of selling out the north Block I to the students.
"Illini alumni feel good about Zook and Weber and what we're doing. We've had to work hard. We've traveled more, and we've gotten in front of more people. We have seven fundraisers just for athletics, and we expect those people to be traveling 50 percent of the time. We're out seeing as many people as we can."
Wax keeps his own portfolio of major contributors. He can't travel quite as much because, in addition to development, he has five department heads reporting to him: Chris Hanna in marketing, Jason Heggemeyer in tickets, Kent Brown in sports information, Howard Milton in premium seating and Mike Hatfield and Chris Tuttle in Varsity I.
"The great thing about the university is that it sells itself," Wax said. "There are no credibility issues in the athletic department because of the stability that Ron Guenther has provided. We meet people, determine their interest and find the parts of our programs that excite them. The donor leads down a path, and our job is to facilitate that interest.
"There is always some attrition and this year we're finding more people who say, 'I just can't afford it right now.' But we have added new people, and some donors are upgrading to a higher amount. Our I-Fund will top $8 million again. Endowment gifts are at $4 to $5 million. Capital projects are $4 to $5 million. And premium seating will generate $5 million. So for the third year in a row, we'll raise more than $22 million for the athletic program."
'The schedule is tough'
When the day comes for Guenther to step down, Illinois will undoubtedly embark on a national search. But if they stay in-house, Wax, who'll be 41 this month, will draw consideration.
He is well known as a former Illini football star who caught eight passes in a 1990 win against Ohio State, tallied three touchdowns against Iowa and scored on a deflected pass to ignite a fourth-quarter rally to edge Southern Cal 14-13 in Los Angeles. Modestly recruited out of Rockford, he wound up with 102 career receptions for 1,614 yards and 12 TDs.
He follows UI football closely, particularly the receivers, opining: "We have an outstanding corps (ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten), but it is too early to judge how they stack up. We'll have to see how they perform this season. For my money, the group of Brandon Lloyd, Walter Young, Aaron Moorehead and Greg Lewis was the best. And then there's the group with David Williams (early '80s), our all-time greatest receiver. Arrelious Benn has shown a lot in two years, but it's still early to make that evaluation. Overall, I never make predictions, but I feel comfortable about this season. Any time you have a senior quarterback (Juice Williams) with years of starting experience, that's an advantage.
"The schedule is tough, but it's tough in the Big 12, and it's tough in the SEC. That's the nature of football."
'I have a full plate'
Wax hooked on with Guenther after three years in the insurance business. Earlier this decade, he was promoted to associate director with the responsibility of running multiple departments while remaining deeply involved in fundraising, an essential quality for any administrator with AD aspirations.
As for his future, Wax says:
"I think that is something for speculation by our fans or in some corners of the university. All I can say, that has never been a topic in our senior management meetings. There are a number of people in this department who, in my opinion, are capable of being athletic directors. And several have interviewed for positions elsewhere. I've been asked to interview five times and I've turned them down mostly because I have two young daughters in town, and I want to stay close to them until they graduate from high school."
Now married to UI softball coach Terri Sullivan, he is amused by the way others see their relationship in administration-coach meetings, noting: "I look around and see people watching the dynamics between us, and I get a kick out of it."
Commenting further on his future, Wax said: "My promise to Ron is that I would stay as long as we had work to do on our strategic plan, or until he left. That will continue to be my focus. I have a full plate."
'We still have work to do'
When Wax joined Steve Greene, Ken Zimmerman and the late Dike Eddleman in the development department in 1994, the endowment fund was about $2.5 million. They now have more than $40 million put away in endowments.
"We have started to endow chairs for our coaching positions," Wax said. "Our goal is to have every coaching position endowed."
Unknown to many of us, there is still money to be raised to complete the Memorial Stadium renovation.
"We need to come up with between $5 and $7 million from private donors," Wax said. "Of the $121 million cost, there was a portion coming from premium seating, a portion from a surcharge on tickets and a portion from private funds. We still have work to do on the latter.
"We are in the quiet phase for our Olympic sports complex, and we've been trying to soften the ground for the Assembly Hall project. Out in the public, the opinion seems to be that the Assembly Hall is on hold. That's not the case. We are in the planning stage. But that number will be much greater than the football project ($121 million) and, because of that, we'll have to come up with new and creative revenue sources. That's why we've retrenched. We have to figure out what those sources will be."
Good economy or bad, that's a lot of money ... just to provide more comfy seats and better sightlines.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.