University of Wyoming shouldn’t use state funds to find nebulous winning formula

— October 29, 2013

Kerry Drake

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.”

Wyoming Cowboy’s player Patrick Mertens assists in a tackle against Colorado State University. (Courtesy UW Athletics media relations — click to enlarge)

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.

Dr. Robert Sternberg, University of Wyoming President. (Courtesy University of Wyoming)

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.

— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at dustin@wyofile.com.

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Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. Too bad Mr. Drake failed to contact the Wyoming Tribune Eagle before reprinting his article today, November 1. I assume Mr. Drake will follow-up his shoddy reporting with a similar acknowledgement to the WTE……….

  2. I thank UW President Robert Sternberg for using this forum to clarify several points about the contract between the university and Collegiate Sports Associates. In retrospect I should have tried to contact Sternberg prior to writing the column and learned that he did not think he was asked about who the contract was with during his first interview with a Wyoming reporter about this issue. I am glad to know that President Sternberg welcomes efforts to discuss such matters and will indeed personally contact him with any questions I have regarding the university in the future.

  3. Methinks the cigar-smoking good old boys of the Cowboy Joe Club should have quietly done underwritten this consultancy , under the table, under the radar. If the results returned were deemed satisfactory to their mindset, they could then quietly go about their usual implementation and indoctrination .

    It’s how that new winter-proof artificial turf and those posh heated Wildcatter opera box suites rimming the stadium came into being, after all.

    Maybe what is being overlooked here is that UW’s sports facilities in Laramie Wyoming are located in the lower layers of the stratosphere where the air is thin and crisp, and most college sports rightly desire to play games closer to sea level in the bona fide temperate zone where human physiology performs a tad bit better…

  4. President Sternberg wants UW to become the number 1 land-grant institution in the country. I am curious on what benchmarks he is going to use to measure UW’s performance in reaching this goal. Who is the number 1 land-grant institution in the country now? Are we going to model UW after MIT, a land-grant institution in Massachusetts? Or are we going to reach this goal when UW’s student population is able to recite the “Code of the West” which he plans to plans to post all over UW’s campus.

  5. In order to verify what I said in my comment earlier this morning, here is Mike Vorel’s follow-up email, in which he asks for the additional information. All his questions were answered shortly after he asked them. There may have been a misunderstanding between Mike Vorel and me, but there was no intention on my part (or his) to be deceptive. He did the best job he could reporting and I did the best job I could answering his questions. Thank you.

    “From: Mike Vorel
    Date: Thursday, October 24, 2013 8:41 AM
    To: “Robert J. Sternberg”
    Subject: RE: Story in Today’s Star Tribune

    Thanks, President Sternberg. If you ever have any questions or concerns, feel free to call me or email me directly.

    I believe I did ask who the consultants were, although I’m sure I was not clear enough to get my point across. That’s entirely my fault.

    I don’t want to take up any more of your time with interviews today, but could you clarify a few things? I have a few follow-up questions from yesterday’s conversation. They are:

    n Who is the consultant? Is it a member of a business or organization that specializes in these kind of evaluations?
    n How much did you spend on the consultant? And where does that money come from? Did you have to have it approved through the board of trustees?
    n Is the basketball evaluation happening simultaneously, or is that on hold until the season starts? I heard this morning that Coach Shyatt has already spoken with a consultant.
    n When was the consultant hired? I was told today that Coach Christensen has known about it since before the Texas State game on Sept. 28.

    If you’d rather talk to me directly about it, you can call me at (708) 370-8029. Thanks again for being so open.

    Mike Vorel
    Wyoming beat reporter
    Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune
    Pokes.Trib.com”

  6. I appreciate your interest in the issue of whether UW should have used state money to hire a consultant to improve some of our teams’ performance. I would like to clarify a few issues.

    First, I know you are a responsible reporter. As such, it might have made sense for you to talk to me before writing the column. As far as I know, you made no effort to reach me. It is not correct that I refused to name the consultants we hired. In the initial conversation with Mr. Vorel, I was not asked. Mr. Vorel later that day tried to reach me by phone but I was in a board of trustees’ phone meeting and unavailable. I did not check cell phone messages that night. Mr. Vorel the next day sent me a supplementary set of questions, and they were all answered within a few hours. I also wrote a clarifying press release the morning the article was released (which was the day after I was interviewed). I believe I handled the interview in a responsible way by answering all questions that were asked and, when there were confusions, issuing clarifications both to the reporter and the public the day after the interview. I hope in the future when you write about what you think I did you will talk to me first if you have questions, rather than relying on third-hand information.

    Second, I think it is clear that our football team is not performing up to its optimal capacity. Both the football coach and the AD have said as much and anyone who has watched the last two games would have seen this. But Tom Burman’s and my decision to hire CSA was not based on any two particular games but on the records of several years of performance. Our goal is to optimize the performance of all units on campus. All academic units are evaluated, as are all academic personnel. Staff personnel and units also are evaluated. It is not unusual but rather routine to seek accountability from all units on campus. We want to be the best we can be and we have many outside evaluators come in and look at performance, including for all academic units.

    Third, UW athletics is one way in which we serve the state. I want to see UW become the #1 land-grant institution in the country. In order to become that, we need to excel in the things that we do that are important to the state. Athletics is one of those things. All you have to do is ask people around the state, as I have in traveling all across the state in my first four months in office. Wyoming does not have professional teams as you would find, say, in New York or California. UW’s teams thus take on special importance. Athletics is a key way to educate students to develop their ethical leadership skills and it is also an important way to serve the citizens of our state. We therefore believe it was appropriate to use state funds for hiring consultants.

    Fourth, I believe it was a mistake for us not to issue a press release when we signed the contract with the consultants, Collegiate Sports Associates (CSA), on September 6. We were not hiding anything: Lots of people knew we had a contract, because CSA came to campus to do interviews. We just didn’t think of issuing a release. In the future, for similar events, we will issue a press release. I agree that the timing of the Star-Tribune article was unfortunate, especially as it appeared to have been connected to the Colorado State loss. It wasn’t.

    Finally, thank you for your interest in UW sports! I appreciate your taking the time to write about our teams and our commitment to excellence in athletics