Cincinnati Director of Athletics Mike Thomas was kind enough to take time to answer some of the most talked about questions in Bearcat fans minds. Here is our unedited Q&A Mike Thomas
BCL Can you talk about why the basketball budget has decreased from $5,528,040.00 in 2007 to $3,754,077.00 in 2009?
Mike Thomas The budget wasn’t reduced. The 2007 figure is a bit misleading for a pair of reasons. The first is there was a change in accounting procedures between the 2007 and 2008 reports that moved the game operations piece – how we pay ushers, officials, event costs, etc. –out of all of the program budgets and into a separate events operations budget. Having those dollars placed there wasn’t truly reflective of what resources a coach has available to manage their program. The other piece that inflates the 2007 number is the one-time charges for the changeover of the coaching staff. Together, those two were the difference in 2007’s $5.5 million figure and the approximately $3.75 million which is more in line with what the program operates on now. And that is increased from $3.3 million in 2006.
BCL Six months after you were hired as Director of Athletics at Cincinnati you announced the Catapult plan. The gist of the plan is you wanted each sport to win a Big East championship in 5 years, improve community relations and improve the academic performance of each sport. Can you update us on the progress this plan has made since it was implemented?
Mike Thomas CATapult (Championships/Academics/Together) is our strategic plan and it has served us well through the last five years. Since January we have been undertaking a strategic review and will soon be announcing the next generation of CATapult. The goals we laid out in CATapult will be evaluated and new directives laid out for the next five years.
Championships: You always want to set the bar high when you form goals in your strategic plan, and we knew the challenge of winning Big East championships would be a stretch goal. We’ve won five Big East team championships over that time span, including two in football. Several sports are experiencing new success and the groundwork is being laid in recruiting and coaching for more Big East championships to follow. In other words, while we’re not there yet, we are on the road and making real progress. Expecting and achieving top-level performance in our conference will remain a goal for us.
We have a lot of work ahead of us as we strive to accomplish the goals we set for ourselves in CATapult and we are energized by the challenge. There is no doubt the competitive trials before us have changed dramatically as we entered the Big East, but I believe our coaches and student-athletes gratefully accept those challenges every day because we all want to compete at the very highest level. We’ll continue to provide the best resources we possibly can for our student-athletes and coaches to win their respective conference championships.
Academics: Academic performance among our programs has been a key success within CATapult. When our plan was developed, we were still in the early days of APR, thus the goal in academic performance was to meet the demands of APR. I believe we achieved that remarkably well. Average APR scores have increased since my arrival from 945 to 968. Five years ago we were lagging the student body as a whole in terms of grade point average. Since 2007, UC student-athletes have achieved GPA scores of 3.0 or higher, and graduation rates outpace UC’s general population by 10%. We consistently have UC student athletes win the individual Big East Academic Excellence Award for their respective sports, a very prestigious honor.
Together: I don’t think you’ll find a single intercollegiate program that doesn’t say community relations are important, and that is the “Together” part of CATapult. I am very proud of our student-athletes’ success in this area. Just last year, our student-athletes performed over 5,500 hours of service in the community. This is an increase from about 1,000 annual hours since 2005. Our coaches and staff make countless appearances in the Cincinnati area as well as state-wide. I know we make strides in the community with every event and we’ll continue to work toward getting even better. In addition, we have been dedicated to assimilating athletics into our own campus community and we have been successful in this area.
BCL FOLLOW UP– Talk about what the initial plan was to fund such an ambitious plan and what changes you have had to make to this funding plan during the last 5 years.
Mike Thomas The funding for the initial plan was based upon the corresponding revenue goals we predicted at the time. Any strategic plan has to be a living document - malleable and able to adjust to inevitable changes from the forecast. The athletic department also inherited an over $7 million annual deficit that we were charged with erasing. We are close to having that completely eradicated now, but there is no doubt it presented additional challenges to the funding of the department as we headed into the Big East. We continue to pay off the capital project debt from the building of Varsity Village, and that is included in our annual operating budget.
The move to the Big East Conference increases conference-generated revenues. Our sponsorship and giving numbers have jumped as well: we have raised over $65 million in the last five years between the annual fund, capital projects, and our endowment, and we increased our annual corporate sponsorship deal from $1 million annual revenue in 2006 to $2.5 million. We also raised more funds last year than any other unit on campus. We are proud to have achieved this in a tough economic environment. UCATS also operates on a 6% cost of fundraising, meaning it costs us six cents for every dollar we raise. The Big East average is 17 to 18%, with the high in the 22 to 23% range, so we are raising more money with less resources and in a highly efficient manner.
We have successfully established separate fundraising entities for many of our teams.
We also introduced several innovative means of increasing our revenues, just two of which include the creation of the Director’s Society for donors giving more than $50,000 a year, and the Bearcat Fan Advantage, a new program we are just now launching. This is a program that is successfully modeled around the country, and we feel confident it will be of great benefit for us at UC as well. You will hear more about this program in the very near future.
But let there be no doubt: hiring good coaches who win on the field in football and basketball is what makes donors and corporations get on board, and it doesn’t happen overnight. I always kind of laugh when people often say I am patient, because in many ways I am the most impatient person I know. I usually have an ongoing sense of urgency in my gut, so I understand when people want things done yesterday. But it all flows from hiring the right coaches who can win and do it the right way. And that just takes time to build.
BCL Football revenue has increased from $4,856,257.00 in 2005 to $13,325,304.00 you must be very proud of the growth of the football program both on the field and from a revenue perspective. However, Cincinnati ranks dead last in the Big East in football revenues. What is your plan to continue the path of growing the money brought in by the football program so the program can continue to compete at the top of the Big East conference?
Mike Thomas I think most people already realize that with our limited seating and lack of premium amenities at Nippert Stadium that revenue is then also restricted accordingly. As most of you know, next fall we are playing two home games at Paul Brown Stadium. Our coaches and student-athletes really loved playing Oklahoma there last year, and our fans and students almost overwhelmingly reported a great experience - from easy access and parking to concession and restroom amenities, from convenient and expansive tailgating to more leg room in the seats. We netted a significant gain from that one game at PBS. As we go through this next football season we will be looking closely at the two upcoming games at PBS, and at that point we anticipate more will be revealed in terms of successes and concerns with that venue. And after we have looked at the results, we will determine the next steps to ensure our ability to grow revenue from football.
BCL What is status of Nippert renovations and funding such a project?
Mike Thomas The study we completed on Nippert Stadium renovations delivered a daunting figure. It told us that due to the buildings situated around Nippert, we could only add about10,000 seats to the current configuration and the cost would be upwards of $100 million dollars. That’s a pretty big backdrop figure for that few additional seats, even including new income from suites. Bottom line is it doesn’t appear the return on investment would warrant a project of that magnitude. And even if it happened, it wouldn’t solve the problem of Nippert still being one of the smallest stadiums in the Big East. We’ll continue to explore options to improve Nippert Stadium, but with the data we currently have I don’t believe a major renovation is imminent.
BCL There was a study that was completed about a year ago to renovate 5th/3rd Arena. What were the results of that study? What is estimated cost of such a project? Would this project be tied into future expansion of Nippert? What is plan to fund this project?
Mike Thomas First, you can’t discuss Nippert without including Fifth Third – they have to be looked at together, because if you don’t have the capacity to do both you will have decisions to make. Second, you have to have good research and data before making those decisions and definitely before going to donors and the corporate community and asking for their investment. The university is embarking on the next phase of its master plan, and the initial studies of both of these facilities will be part of that review.
Besides the study of Nippert Stadium, we also ordered the mentioned separate study of Fifth Third Arena that revealed the upside and the challenges of its potential renovation. The study provided three different concepts, with very approximate cost estimates ranging from $15 million to $75 million. It was a broad and general study, but it did direct us to initiate a more detailed analysis.
Be assured Fifth Third Arena is being analyzed very attentively and options being explored within the context of the university’s master plan. Over the past several months I have been meeting with the appropriate university personnel to discuss the future of our basketball facilities, filling them in on our current situation and what we need for continued success in the future. Please rest assured our prospective needs are acknowledged and on the radar.
It is important to make facility decisions based on facts and not just hopes. In my 25 years of athletic administration I have been involved in the planning, fundraising, direction and completion of several major projects at four different universities. Across the country I have seen buildings done right and I have seen some where the university wishes they could take a mulligan. Well, mulligans are very expensive and I will do everything in my power to avoid that situation. I can tell you that while these things take time, we are committed to doing things the right way, with the right plan, to ensure prudent and financially sound decisions.
BCL What is the latest on the coach Cronin’s contract extension? Do you have timetable in mind to get this completed?
Mike Thomas While it is impossible to give a definite date, I think we are very likely to have this done quite soon. We’re working together with Coach Cronin’s representative and I believe the process has been open and positive. We all want the same things and are working to find ways to meet everyone’s needs.
BCL Talk about the job coach Cronin has done since taking over the program 5 years ago. Are you happy with the progress? Do you feel all the heat he has taken from the fan base during the rebuilding project was warranted?
Mike Thomas First of all, of course I am very pleased with the progress that has been made. We won more games each year and finally made it back to the NCAA tournament, which was always a goal for that program.
Regarding the heat Mick took, we all know that our fans have high expectations and neither Mick nor I would have it any other way. However, sometimes with those high expectations come passionate reactions that don’t completely reflect the reality of the situation. I think in the beginning Mick ran into a landslide. Now, he walked into it knowingly (actually, he willingly ran full steam into it) and he welcomed the challenge, but that doesn’t take away from what he actually had to go through to get us to where we are today.
The men’s basketball program prior to Mick’s arrival was highly successful, and that alone lent itself to greater impatience and wanting to get back to the familiar sooner rather than later. We have fervent fans who are knowledgeable about the sport of basketball. Our fans’ feelings at the time are completely understandable. Dry spells are tough for fans that are used to winning, and it was understandably hard for many of our fans to transition from Coach Huggins to Coach Kennedy and then to Coach Cronin. When I consider what Mick has accomplished over the past five years, realizing the incredible challenges that were before him when he took on this position, I believe he has done a tremendous job. I respect Mick greatly for his fortitude under very difficult circumstances.
BCL Many fans feel detached from what is going on at UC. They don’t see a plan of action in place and are concerned that moving to the Big East was not the right move. Talk about some of the things you have done and are planning to do to better communicate to the fan base what the plans are to move UC athletics forward?
Mike Thomas First let me address the conference issue. There is no doubt that moving to the Big East Conference was and still is an incredible challenge. But I am convinced it was the right move. The majority of comments I hear about joining the conference have been overwhelmingly favorable. Our fans have already experienced two BCS bowl games, and a return to the NCAA tournament in men’s basketball playing in the most exciting conference in the country. Fans of many other universities, including several other BCS programs, wish they had our recent success, and it’s only been made possible as members of the Big East Conference. We also initiated an all-university 20-person athletics task force to study our situation regarding how we compare in the Big East Conference in terms of benchmarking and what resources are needed to compete at a fair level.
Regarding communication, we are currently in the midst of an audit looking at how we communicate with our supporters and various constituents and what we can do better. We realize we need to provide better access to myself, my staff, and our coaches.
I always hope our fans know how much I appreciate them, and I am open to developing more avenues for better communication. Several of the issues about which I recently received emails were actually things we have already been addressing and spending time on in the past few months, so in many areas we have actually been operating on the same page.
I do strongly encourage our fans to read my regular letter from our website, www.gobearcats.com. I try to cover what’s new in our department or provide information responding to trends in the emails I receive. If there’s something someone would like me to address there, I would very much encourage them to email me at BearcatAD@uc.edu.
Also, we really have an open and accessible staff in our athletic department. If you think something pertains to their area, please email them directly (addresses are in the staff directory on the website). If it is something that should come under my purview, they’ll be sure to get it to me, as well. Or you can just send it to me and I will make sure it gets to them. Either way, please continue to send us your feedback and suggestions!
Pertaining to a plan of action, we are strongly dedicated to the goals of CATapult; great strides have already been made and the future is extremely promising for continued success in those three areas. And as I said earlier, we have been actively working on the second generation of that plan. We are excited about it. Expect to see something finalized on that prior to the next academic year.
BCL How has the Proudly Cincinnati campaign impacted your ability to go out and get the funds necessary to get private donations for the athletic department as a whole.
Mike Thomas Proudly Cincinnati has many exciting and worthy goals. We strongly support Proudly Cincinnati and will do everything we are asked to ensure its success. We enjoy a great relationship with the UC central development office and work hand-in-hand with them to raise monies to ensure the University of Cincinnati grows and becomes a better place every day.
I want to personally thank Cincinnati Director of Athletics Mike Thomas for taking the time to answer each question in great detail.