Jacobs: How Winston-Salem State found fiscal balance on athletics

Douglas Reaves knows numbers. That’s why, after inheriting a decision that simultaneously fed his school’s athletic spending and stretched its academic resources – a path all too common at higher levels of NCAA competition – he made a radical adjustment.

“You have to make sure that that balance between spending on athletics, and spending for the principle purpose of the institution, remains properly balanced,” says the chancellor of Winston-Salem State University. “It was an easy picture to digest – it just wasn’t going to work.”

Five Septembers later, the results of Reaves’ reconsideration are indisputable. By becoming the first NCAA program to initiate the transition to Division I status, only to reverse course and return to Division II, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Winston-Salem State secured consistent success on the playing field and fiscal sanity off it.

The athletic program’s budget was reduced by a third from $6 million in 2009, and the school avoided a debt Reaves projected to reach at least $12 million by 2012. Meanwhile, the athletic infrastructure, coaching, and recruiting that were enhanced to compete in Division I allowed the Rams to prosper immediately in the CIAA. The school won six conference championships in 2010, its first year back in the league.

Winston-Salem State reached the Division II national football semifinals in 2011 and the championship game in 2012. “I’m a terrible loser, but I’m a worse winner,” Reaves says, chuckling over the team’s dominance in a smaller pond. The Rams are 46-7 in football since returning to the CIAA, including Saturday’s 22-17 loss at Valdosta State.

The decision to spurn Division I athletics allowed the school – facing tight fiscal constraints at the state level, like other public universities – to place greater emphasis on an aggressive strategic plan for academics. The choice was initially unpopular with many players, coaches and supporters. Joining the big boys was a difficult dream to abandon; rationality and rooting don’t often coincide.

“All hell broke loose,” recalls Reaves, who began paring down the school’s commitment to sports even as fellow UNC system members N.C. Central and Charlotte went in the opposite direction.

“I think initially it was rather shocking, and probably shocking and hard to stomach until we began playing,” Tonia Walker, interim athletic director in 2009 and now permanent AD, says of the reconsideration. “It was difficult to change the mindset and to sell Division II at that point.”

Afraid of stumbling

But Walker, who played in and previously worked for the CIAA, notes that immediate competitive success “really quieted a lot of the noise.” So did the unanimous support of the school’s Board of Trustees. “My personal opinion is it worked out very well and it was a prudent decision for Dr. Reaves to make,” says Scott Bauer, then the board chair.

Reaves worried that Winston-Salem State might stumble upon returning to its roots. “That was a nightmare that I had – if we went back to the CIAA and ended up 0-11 or something like that,” he says. Not only was that fate avoided, but with sufficient resources the chancellor’s larger goal was realized as well. “The last five years demonstrate that we are not impaired by being in Division II from attracting good students,” he says. “Academic performance has increased tremendously and we are attracting better and better students.”

In fact, one quarter of the school’s athletic budget – which runs a small deficit – still goes to football. Reaves readily offers: “I always advise chancellors who ask me, ‘What do you think about adding football, I say, ‘Don’t do it! If you don’t have it, don’t do it.’”

Might as well save his breath. The vast majority of football-playing D-I programs operate at a deficit, with football the costliest sport by far. Yet a steady procession of schools continues to move to a Division I classification. Between 2008 and 2016, according to the National Football Foundation, 13 programs, Charlotte among them, will have taken that step.

The Rams secured provisional Division I membership two years before Reaves’ arrival on campus in August 2007. The move required, among other changes, funding a minimum of 16 teams (the school has since dropped to 11); bumping up football scholarships from 38 to 63; and undertaking more distant intraleague travel in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC).

Switching leagues fit the unstable tenor of times rife with expansions and reshuffling. But it also meant leaving behind longtime rivalries and traditions, including the unique CIAA basketball tournament, these days a fixture in Charlotte. Winston-Salem State had joined the CIAA, the oldest confederation of historically African-American schools, in 1945 when the league was still called the Colored (now Central) Intercollegiate Athletic Association.

Uncommon approach

Reaves came to Winston-Salem even as the Rams’ embrace of upward athletic mobility was taking full effect. He was discomfited by what he found. Cost and debt projections for fully operating a D-I program were significantly underplayed. The program “was being funded in very creative ways,” he says, among them paying a coach through an academic budget. The alumni base for fund-raising to support both athletics and academics was relatively small, threatening scholastic improvement. An attempt to raise necessary revenues with what Reaves called a “tremendous” bump in student fees, a common enough way to subsidize college sports, was rejected by the university system.

Tellingly, even if the athletic program was funded to projected levels, Reaves saw more struggles than triumphs on the competitive horizon. “We would have been at the bottom of the MEAC in terms of budget. Then the question becomes, could you really compete with a budget of that level?” he notes. “At $4 million, we have one of the largest budgets in the CIAA.”

Reaves’ uncommon approach to the athletic/academic continuum is consistent with his experience at other institutions of higher learning. Prior to taking over at Winston-Salem State, he served as chief financial officer at the University of Chicago and then at Brown University.

Each of those prestigious schools long ago chose to devote itself to other passions than big-time sports. “At Chicago, you win a Nobel Prize, that’s the excitement of the university,” says Reaves, set to retire at year’s end. He plans to teach political science at Winston-Salem State. “You win a football game, nobody knows anything about it.”

The priorities were different at Winston-Salem State, as at many schools. “I go into the barbershop, they’re not talking about our nursing program, they’re talking about our football program,” says Reaves, a baseball fan who recently attended a White House screening of the Jackie Robinson biopic “42”. “Sports has that effect on people.”

Especially when competitive prosperity is part of the equation. “We’re doing well,” says Walker, the AD. “Winning certainly helps.”