Under Yow, UM's money numbers grow

July 22, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

Debbie Yow can relate to the popular complaint that the amount of money coursing through college athletics is, in a word, ridiculous.

"I can kind of identify with that, in a way," said Yow, Maryland's athletic director since 1994.

Her annual departmental budget has almost tripled to $50 million since she took over, and she recently announced she is taking on the task of putting $50 million of improvements into Byrd Stadium, home of the football Terps.

"The reality is," Yow said, "we're expected to compete at a certain level. So these are the things we do."

Build a new basketball arena. Build a new stadium for field hockey and lacrosse. Upgrade locker rooms and team houses. Pay coaches. Bring your football stadium up to date by adding premium seats and luxury suites.

You don't have to do any of it if you want to back away entirely from major college sports, but that's not a realistic option at a large state school with a thriving sports tradition. So you join the arms race along with everyone else. You play the game, crazy as it might be. There's no alternative.

"Personally, I don't consider it an arms race. I don't like that term," Yow said. "That makes it sound like we're doing this just to be the biggest or something. Maybe that's true at other places. I've heard the stories about schools adding seats just to say they had the biggest stadium. But we're not doing this just for the sake of doing it. I like to think we're being extremely deliberate.

"Our first criteria when we weigh making any improvement is always, `Is there a need?' When we built the [basketball] Comcast Center, it was obvious. Cole Field House was old and outdated. Now, with Byrd, Wake Forest, Duke and Maryland are the only ACC schools whose football stadiums don't have this kind of [luxury] seating. People have been talking about [adding] it for as long as I've been here. There was a need among some of our more affluent boosters."

It would easy to complain about misplaced priorities if the money for the improvements were coming out of an academic budget, or if the athletic department were an economic mess.

But Yow's department is paying for every penny of the improvements, courtesy of a $35 million loan from the state university system (to be repaid by the revenues generated by the luxury seats and suites) and an anticipated $15 million deal for the naming rights to the stadium.

It would also be easier to complain about Yow's department going too bonkers over facilities if the school hadn't barely touched its sports infrastructure from the mid-1960s through the early 1990s, leaving things looking decidedly old and tired.

"Ideally, you should [make improvements] as you go along, so you never reach a crisis point," Yow said. "But we were at a crisis point when I got here. A severe crisis point."

Her department also had a staggering $42 million deficit when she arrived, according to Yow, but she has slowly whittled it to $9 million while breaking even or turning an operational profit every year.

"People trust us now," Yow said. "They know we balance our books."

That's how you obtain a $35 million loan that enables you to keep building, keep growing, keep taking part in the arms race.

"I'm not embarrassed about it. We're paying our bills. We're not taking money from the academic community. In fact, we're contributing $6 million a year to the school's general fund," Yow said.

Of course, it wasn't just the desires of affluent boosters that persuaded Yow to go to the trouble of investing $50 million in Byrd. In college sports today, the state of a school's facilities can affect corporate sponsorship, fan interest and, most importantly, recruiting.

"I try hard not to let the recruiting element drive me, but I know it's there," Yow said, "and I know it's going to be one of the positive outcomes when we improve."

It would be easier to take the moral high ground, complain about the lunacy of it all and do nothing. Then you wouldn't have to secure the loan, find a naming rights sponsor, obtain building estimates - do the work.

It would be easier just to let the arms race proceed without you.

But that amounts to giving up, and when the opening kickoff is in the air on autumn Saturday afternoons, no one wants that.

"I'm going to do what I have to do protect the University of Maryland," Yow said. "You can't stand around and wait in a situation like this."

Otherwise, you lose.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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