By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Tell me, what came first, the chicken or the wins?
At the University of Illinois, something along those cracked lines of the chicken-or-egg riddle is what has to be puzzling athletic director Mike Thomas this week as he announced a new initiative to double his department’s donor base to 15,000 and its annual revenue to $15 million by 2020.
With every big-time athletic department in need of cash to compete, the mission at Illinois – which includes new donor levels, including one as high as $50,000 and one as low as $50 – appears to be a worthy one. But, nevertheless, the question remains, can Thomas really expect to make an omelet without cracking a few more wins first?
On Wednesday, Champaign News-Gazette columnist Loren Tate reported that the University of Illinois’ I-Fund – the annual revenue generated from donors to pay for the scholarships of 520 student-athletes (or student employees, if you ask Northwestern’s football team) – is lagging far behind similar funds at other major-conference schools.
According to Thomas, during the past 20 years, tuition at Illinois has tripled from $10,000 to more than $30,000 for in-state athletes, and to more than $40,000 for out-of-staters (of which there are more than 50 on the football team alone).
Tate reports that the I-Fund currently has 7,200 contributors annually giving $7.5 million, which falls more than $3 million below the $10.8 million required to cover tuition in 2014. According to an I-Fund Insider released last fall, the $7.5 million in giving places Illinois in the lower third of the Big Ten and would also have the school 10th in the Big 12, ninth in the Pac-12 and 14th in the SEC. Texas reportedly raises $36.5 million in donations each year, while seven SEC schools exceed $20 million.
So, clearly, Illinois is way behind. And, perhaps not coincidentally, it shows on both the field and court. The Illini football team, for example, has posted a paltry 44-77 record over the past 10 years and only recently snapped a 20-game Big Ten losing streak, while the basketball program just missed the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in seven seasons.
But therein lies the rub with donations.
Much more than school pride and state loyalty, it’s winning that breeds giving (as well as ticket sales, apparel sales, advertising revenue, sponsorship opportunities and so on). And, the fact is, Illinois hasn’t done nearly enough winning of late to realistically hope to see its coffers stuffed with cash. In Tate’s column, Thomas noted that Illini donor numbers started going down in 2008-09, and that trend continued until it was stabilized in 2011-12.
Certainly not coincidentally, 2008-09 was also around the time that many Illini fans confirmed in their minds that Ron Zook was not the right football coach (having followed up the 2007 Rose Bowl season with 5-7 and 3-9 clunkers) and also began to seriously doubt whether Bruce Weber was the right leader for basketball. Other donors may have stopped giving due to their distaste with the university’s handling of the Chief Illiniwek controversy — or decided not to start.
Whatever the case, Illinois hasn’t given potential donors good reason to start giving again. For one thing, Illinois’ athletic department hasn’t been particularly wise with the money that it does have. After Thomas fired Zook, Weber and women’s basketball coach Jolette Law in 2012 (all justifiable firings), the trio was still owed a combined $7.12 million to not coach at Illinois. Disappointingly, fans then saw Thomas replace Zook with the lackluster Tim Beckman, who thus far has actually appeared to be a downgrade for the department’s most financially important sport.
With precious few victories popping up on scoreboards, Illini Nation isn’t a particularly happy bunch these days. And while Thomas & Co. may indeed want to ring more donations out of more people – and may even need that money in order to compete at the highest levels– my guess is still that fans in this broke state are going to need to see more wins before they seriously think about giving it.
After all, they’ve already had enough egg on their face.