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Winning on the cheap

Over the past several days and weeks, reporters like Andy Katz and Jerry Carino have reported that budgetary concerns were a major factor in the athletic department's decision to go forward with hiring Mike Rice as the next basketball coach.

Multiple sources with knowledge of the process said Fraschilla wanted assurances about renovations to the aging Louis Brown Athletic Center and the addition of a practice facility, and that may have affected his candidacy.

Rutgers has very good reason to be concerned on that front. How else does Rice go from a candidate being knocked behind the scenes for his open campaigning and over-enthusiasm to landing the job in a manner of weeks? Like it or not, this perception is impossible to escape, so I'm going to run with it for a few paragraphs below.

Pete Thamel of the New York Times published an article last month stating that Rutgers spends one of the lowest amounts on men's basketball of any Big East conference team (full listings here). According to Federal OPE data, the exact figure was $3,793,356 for the 2008-2009 season. In fact, even in the face of miserable performance, the team made a profit in recent years as the overall athletic department was running up large deficits. I'd like to call that a feature, and not a bug. The challenge here in the near term is to be like the Florida Marlins and win efficiently, instead of freeloading off the Big East's television deal.

The easy suggestion here is saying that the relatively small expenses figure is a direct cause of the basketball team's recent struggles. I strongly disagree. While having better facilities may well be necessary to break into the top of the Big East conference, and having a better coach would have certainly led to more wins, the budget wasn't the direct cause of another miserable year on top of three straight preceding ones.

No, what hurt Rutgers basketball last year was that Fred Hill Jr. wasn't a very good coach. Even minus Greg Echenique, a starting five of Hamady N'Diaye, Jonathan Mitchell, Dane Miller, Mike Rosario, and James Beatty was by no means devoid of talent. Not ponying up for a top coach doesn't help, but considering that the likes of Fran Dunphy didn't want to interview at Rutgers, who's to say that the athletic program would ever be in the position to fork over a big paycheck?

If Rice proves to be a coaching upgrade, and is as good of a recruiter as his press clippings suggest, then paying him a paltry yearly starting salary to begin shouldn't be much of an issue to start out. Win some games, and then the athletic director Tim Pernetti will be happy to talk about an extension. Nor is now necessarily the time to move forward with upgrading the Rutgers Athletic Center.

By all means, Rice and his staff should use the facility upgrade plans to sell to prospective recruits, and Pernetti should continue feeling out boosters to make donation pledges. However, it would be fiscally imprudent, if not downright irresponsible, to move forward on the actual facilities construction until the requisite contributions are in place, or program ticket revenue increases.

Unfortunately, the project remains too much of a financial gamble at the moment. Last year's Rutgers Stadium expansion added thousands of new seats, and was financed by selling those additional seats and via a price increase for football tickets. Pre-expansion, the stadium was already selling out. Hence, expansion was needed for future program growth, and could be a boon to the athletic department's bottom line once the stadium bond is paid off. While Rutgers is on the hook for paying off the bond if ticket revenue projections aren't met, overall the project remains on fairly solid ground.

Yes, an upgraded RAC would not just benefit both basketball teams, but 19 of the 24 scholarship athletic programs at the university. It'll be a big part of the ongoing (and fairly successful to this point) efforts to elevate the wrestling program. However, the direct contrast to football expansion is that a RAC renovation does not offer the possibility of direct future revenue growth. Perhaps it would lead to more-competitive team, which would sell more tickets, but that connection is flimsy at best. The very possibility of expanding the RAC right now is ludicrous considering how what used to be one of the best home court advantages in the Big East has turned into a ghost town over the past four seasons.

The proposal is a luxury, analogous in that respect to the new football recruiting lounge, or the $12.5 million renovations to the Hale Center football team facilities (figure is from SK.com), which were completed in early 2004. The former is to be funded by private donations. I know that the latter is named for its generous namesake (the now-deceased booster Dick Hale). Floating a revenue bond ala the RU Stadium expansion won't fly on any level, so I wanted to go back and see how the former A.D. Bob Mulcahy got the Hale Center renovations off the ground in the first place.

To "do it right," Mulcahy said, he pulled in $3 million in private gifts, got $7 million out of an NJSEA bond, and persuaded the university to loan him that final $3 million (there was no running out of money this time) until he can loosen donors for the rest. -(Aditi Kinkhabwala, "Paying the price to build a winner; All Hale Rutgers: Making capital inprovements New facilities create an aura of credibility.", The Record, Aug 9, 2004.)

The NJSEA took a bath on the Meadowlands, and has assumed debt on projects like the 1993-1994 RU Stadium construction, so that's probably out. Can't imagine that any public money will be an option in this climate, and the university is in no position to lend at the moment either. Unfortunately for basketball, the timing just isn't right. Rutgers fans will just have to grit their teeth and hope that Rice is desperate (and he certainly appears that way) to work for peanuts until he shows results on the court. In the meantime, keep sending your money, and Mr. Pernetti will have to continue showing fundraising prowess.

All in all, I expect this factor to probably limit the possibility of luring a top-level assistant like say, a Brandin Knight, but odds are that he wouldn't be coming anyway. If the goal is to find a New Jersey recruiter to replace Darren Savino and/or Jim Carr, I hear Kevin Boyle is free...