Thirty years ago was a high-water mark for Arizona State University athletics.
ASU symbolically completed its ambitious push into the world of big-time sports with the opening of Packard Stadium for baseball in April 1974 and the completion of the University Activity Center, which hosted its first basketball game in December of that year.
Led by energetic and ambitious athletic director Fred Miller, the athletic department had a can-do spirit and built perhaps the finest facilities in the country.
But now the ASU athletic department is burdened with a debt that it can't pay off because the football and men's basketball teams continue to underperform financially.
Fund-raising efforts to supplement the low cash flow have also been slow, leaving athletic director Gene Smith and the business office to make more budget cuts for next year.
ASU has had three fund-raising directors during Smith's tenure. The latest, Rick Harrigan, was dismissed two months ago.
The financial woes have forced ASU to, among other things:
- Delay construction of the planned Hall of Fame on the ground floor of the Carson Center.
- Significantly modify plans for what at the time was a $10 million annex to Wells Fargo Arena.
- Delay by more than a year the first phase of renovations at Packard Stadium.
The building problems are in stark contrast to the ASU of the 1970s, when facilities opened for baseball (1974), basketball (1974) and track and field (1975).
"Fred was a big builder," said Rudy Campbell, former member of the Arizona Board of Regents. "He had dreams and ideas to get things done."
"As far as Fred was concerned, nothing was impossible," said Mesa attorney Doug Gerlach, a former ASU sports publicist. "If anybody tried to throw an obstacle in his way, he either worked over it, or got around it. And he was great in the community."
Of course in the 1970s, the only other team of note in the Valley was the Phoenix Suns, who played their first season in the NBA in 1968.
The ASU athletics administration now competes with the NFL's Arizona Cardinals, major league baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks, and the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes among others for media attention, for ticket buyers, and for corporate support.
Coach Frank Kush's highly successful football teams at ASU and baseball's national dominance gave the Valley a sense that it was investing in a successful operation that was bringing national attention to the area. The Fiesta Bowl was born because of Kush's football teams.
But with recent football and basketball teams mediocre at best, attendance has declined precipitously and revenue has decreased. The unusual decision to lower ticket prices generated good public relations, but did little financially. No matter the price, Valley sports fans weren't interested in a losing product.
So both football and basketball failed to meet conservative budget projections for the academic term, which ends June 30.
Men's basketball, coming off an NCAA tournament appearance, was $200,000 under projections in ticket sales, according to athletics business manager Amy Schramm, after its unexpected last-place finish in the Pac-10. ASU had to dip into Sun Angel Foundation coffers to cover the shortfall, Schramm said.
Further budget trimming has been necessary. Among the cuts:
- Operating budgets for every sport are being reduced 3 to 5 percent.
- Most hourly workers are being phased out as of June 30.
- Meals in the press box during football games have been eliminated, a savings of about $18,000.
- Unless a sponsor is found, there will be no fireworks after touchdowns.
The current debt, which was supposed to be retired June 30, is at $1.2 million, Schramm said.
Smith inherited a $4 million debt from his predecessor, Kevin White, and has spent much of his tenure addressing that.
His firing of football coach Bruce Snyder in 2001 and hiring of Dirk Koetter has not paid off on the field, and more significantly on the balance sheet.
"He's got to get the debt paid off," Campbell said.
Smaller projects — such as new lockers for men's and women's basketball — have been completed because of individual donors.
But ASU can't raise funds for major projects. And looming at the end of the decade is perhaps the biggest project of them all, a renovation of Sun Devil Stadium. The price tag for limited upgrade starts at $12 million, Smith has said. But an examination of the facility several years ago put the cost at a minimum $35 million to keep the stadium BCS worthy.
Any chance ASU has of generating outside funds hinges on the football and basketball teams.
"They won't do it unless they get winning teams," Campbell said. "If we're at the bottom, then we're not getting people financially. We've got to get out of the cellar."
Tempe accountant John Brooking, founder of the now defunct Sun Devil Club, wonders if his old organization might have been able to help the school. The Sun Devil Club, which had 10,000 to 12,000 members, was folded into the Sun Angel Foundation during White's administration — effectively ending their participation, save for financial contributions.
"You had a lot of community involvement," Brooking said. "That involvement with that many people is important. They underestimated that when they dissolved the Sun Devil Club."
Brooking said $300,000 his old organization raised was earmarked for the Hall of Fame, which, according to senior associate athletic director Tom Collins, still is in need of $225,000 to $500,000.
"What happened to it?" Brooking said.
Brooking said ASU isn't tapping into the enthusiasm in the community that's still there.
"We need to get the spark back," he said. "We need to get some ASU people involved. We need people who lived through it, believed it. Not that it can't happen again, but that's how major universities make it happen. Get people involved in the program. That's when success comes."
Campbell said the current state of ASU athletics would preclude one of the school's major success stories, Karsten Golf Course, which opened in 1984. The cost for the 18-hole course and clubhouse came to about $11 million.
"It was all outside money," he noted. "We couldn't do that now. We couldn't give to a program like that."