University of Wyoming shouldn’t use state funds to find nebulous winning formula
— October 29, 2013
The timing of news that the University of Wyoming hired an outside consultant to study the “competitiveness” of its major sports teams couldn’t have been worse for President Robert Sternberg, since it came shortly after the football team’s shellacking at the hands of arch-rival Colorado State University.
While Sternberg confirmed the existence of the contract to Casper Star-Tribune sports reporter Mike Vorel, the president wasn’t initially forthcoming to identify the company he hired to see what can be done to help UW’s football and basketball teams rack up more wins. If the university uses public funds to pay for such a study — as it turned out it did — all aspects of the contract are open to public scrutiny.
Sternberg also made comments to Vorel about UW’s 55-22 loss to CSU that made it seem like the study was directly connected to the Cowboys’ embarrassing effort on its home field in Laramie on Oct. 19. After acknowledging that every UW fan was disappointed, he said, “I was hoping we’d be at a different place at this point in the season. We’re not, and so it makes sense to get some advice about what we can do to optimize our resources.”
UW’s damage control team (which, by the way, does have a winning record) went into action the next day and released the university’s $35,000 contract with Collegiate Sports Associates (CSA), an executive search and consulting business that specializes in athletics at Division I universities. Sternberg signed the contract on September 6.
But the real timing of the contract is actually stranger, knowing that it was signed less than a week after UW came shockingly close to defeating Nebraska, losing 37-34. What better sign of UW’s competitiveness could there be than playing at the level of a top-rated program like the Cornhuskers?
I’ll give Sternberg the benefit of the doubt and consider that he is looking for a long view of the Cowboys’ football and basketball fortunes, and not in reaction to any particular game. The question remains, is it appropriate to spend $35,000 of state money to assess whether UW’s win-loss record can be improved, and how to go about it?
I say it isn’t. And my opinion isn’t filtered through any anti-sports bias in favor of UW fulfilling its academic mission; I cheer as loudly for the Pokes to win as anyone in Wyoming.
I realize that all of UW’s operations need to be periodically reviewed, and that a university can benefit by having someone from the outside come in and take a fresh look at a department. UW Athletics Director Tom Burman told the Star-Tribune that the university has hired consultants to review many aspects of his department, including facilities, development and gender equity.
However, the AD noted this is the first time he’s aware of that a firm was hired to focus solely on the competitiveness of UW’s football and men’s basketball programs. Vorel contacted reporters, school officials and coaches at major conferences throughout the nation, and not one could cite an example of a university contracting with a company for such a study.
Sternberg has previously made a cogent argument about why athletics is important at UW. In a statement released by his office on August 26, the president noted, “Athletics helps promote positive spirit and passion toward the university, not only among the athletes, but also among all the fans. It is one of our greatest sources of ‘UW Pride.’ In the end, most citizens of Wyoming do not know exactly how strong one or another department is, but many of them do know how our teams are doing, especially in football and basketball.”
What Sternberg doesn’t say, but is also true, is that Wyoming’s policymakers are generally also fans of UW’s sports teams, and they also keep a close eye on win-loss records. A few decades of observing the state Legislature in action leads me to conclude that if money is available, it does help UW’s funding chances if its teams are doing well. Lawmakers will bail out of the Capitol early and go over the hill to Laramie to see a game if the basketball team is having a particularly good season, and their “UW Pride” creates a lot of legislative good will in the afterglow of victory. Everyone loves a winner.
But just because UW’s pursestrings may be in some part tied to fielding good athletic teams doesn’t mean that state funds should be spent to find ways to win more. In fact, because it’s so hard to determine the right mix to win consistently, I’d argue that the opposite its true. Whatever the university gets for our money will be a subjective analysis that, unlike most of the studies it commissions, may not be of any real value.
Burman said UW doesn’t have to implement any of CSA’s recommendations, even though the athletic director is “sure there’s going to be some really good thoughts and ideas. Most of them we have thought about in the past.”
In the company’s attempt to put together a competitiveness plan, I agree with Burman that it’s likely there will not be many ideas that UW officials have not already considered over the years. Just because the plan is advanced by a firm that is well-respected in intercollegiate athletic circles doesn’t mean that it’s an element that’s essential to UW fulfilling its goals, and merits the expenditure of state funds.
Because the university has already announced that the study will be made public upon its completion, everybody in Cowboys Country will get to make up their own mind about whether it was worth commissioning. It seems reasonable to conclude, though, that whatever CSA comes up with, it’s likely to have far less value than studies that examine more tangible elements of what a program or department needs to be successful.
Because of this, a study on how to improve the competitiveness of the football and men’s basketball programs needs to be paid for with private funds. A support organization like the Cowboy Joe Club or individual donors should step up and reimburse the state.
Private donors would likely be far more forgiving of the university than the state if the Pokes don’t go to and win a bowl game soon, which is the ultimate proof of a program’s success. If UW follows the CSA’s recommendations and continues to lose, Sternberg could face this question from a future Joint Appropriations Committee chairman: “So, you spent that $35,000 we gave you to find out how you can win more games — how’s that working out for you?”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This column was clarified on November 2, 2013, to address the manner in which the consultant’s name was made public.
— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is the editor-in-chief of The Casper Citizen, a nonprofit, online community newspaper. It can be viewed at www.caspercitizen.com.
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