Tress talks cost cuts in athletics*


If you haven’t gone to the end of this column to find out what the asterisk is about, please do so now.

As you can see, the headline refers to January 1990, when then-Youngstown State University football coach James Tressel had a conversation with then-Vindicator Sports Editor Jim Nasella about the need for college athletic departments to cut costs.

Tressel, who coached from 1986 to 2000 and won four national championships in Division I-AA, had attended the NCAA convention in Dallas and the coaching convention in San Francisco where he heard the ominous warnings about what was in store for athletic departments if they didn’t curtail their spending.

“We have to become more proactive instead of reactive,” Tressel told Nasella, referring to college coaches and athletic directors.

Under pressure

Not only were they under pressure to come up with cost-cutting measures, but university presidents had given the athletic departments until June to demonstrate their commitment.

“They sent their message loud and clear. Either you make a decision or we will. The postscript to what they are saying, ‘You won’t like our decision.’”

Fast forward 25 years — with Tressel still talking about budgetary challenges at Youngstown State, but now as the president of the university.

Faced with a $10 million revenue shortfall, the former executive vice president for student success at the University of Akron and former football coach at Ohio State University, finds himself in the unenviable position of having to make cuts in programs. He has made it known that there are no sacred cows.

Indeed, Tressel is hearing a familiar refrain about spending by the athletic department. But this time it comes from members of the faculty union — Youngstown State University-Ohio Education Association — who have launched an “Academics Over Athletics” campaign.

While this us-against-them stance by faculty is common on college campuses where the athletic departments are not self-supporting, at YSU it has a particular in-your-face aspect to it — given that Tressel’s popularity on and off campus is tied to his winning record as the football coach.

The faculty union has crunched the numbers, which show that the athletic department sucks hundreds of thousands of dollars from the general fund to support football and other financially challenged athletic programs.

Here’s part of the YSU-OEA’s analysis: From fiscal year 2008 to fiscal year 2015, YSU increased spending on intercollegiate athletics by 46 percent — $9.6 million to $14 million. By contrast, in the seven years, spending on academics increased by 2 percent — $76.5 million to $78.1 million.

The faculty union also pointed out that spending on administration and finance went from $19.6 million to $22 million.

The demand for a realignment of spending so academics takes precedence over athletics and administration is at the heart of the current labor contact impasse. A tentative agreement reached by negotiators for the university and the faculty union was approved by the board of trustees, but rejected by the YSU-OEA membership.

The two sides have returned to the bargaining table, and while the talk of a strike has been muted of late, work stoppage remains a possibility given that a strike authorization vote has been taken.

Tip of the iceberg

President Tressel knows that tackling the budget deficit is only the tip of the fiscal iceberg at YSU. State funding for higher education remains a concern, and even though Gov. John Kasich has proposed in his biennium budget sent to the General Assembly a 2 percent increase in the first year and a freeze in the second, there is no guarantee that the House and Senate will go along.

Then there’s the issue of enrollment. The decrease in number of full-time students continued this spring semester, although university officials attempted to spin the loss from last spring semester by saying it wasn’t as large as they had expected.

Regardless, a decline in enrollment means a decline in revenue.

Given the challenges that keep piling up on President Tressel’s desk, he might want to recall what football coach Tressel said 25 years ago:

“We have got to get athletic programs in order. They can give you a black eye faster than anything, but they also can do the opposite.”

Hear that, Coach Bo Pelini?

* Tressel’s interview with The Vindicator in January 1990.

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