Boosters' bucks roll in to UW despite athletic shortcomings


University's focus on sports not only way to woo donors


By AMY ROLPH AND LEVI PULKKINEN
P-I REPORTERS

Last year, a University of Washington physics professor conducted an experimental investigation into tiny particles known as terrestrial electron antineutrinos and won a national award.

Another professor received one of the top honors in his field for his life's work, research into white blood cells that changed the way scientists see the human immune system.

Both professors had a better year than another UW employee, Tyrone Willingham, whose football team won a mere two conference games. But Willingham got most of the notices -- and the notoriety. His face was plastered across newspapers, and his name was bandied about sports-talk radio.

For better or worse, Willingham and his team become the public face of the university several months every year -- a reality that university administrators and boosters say the UW has to capitalize on.

A great football team helps build a great university, they say.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"You'd like to think a school should be known for its physics department," said Doug Glant, a former UW athletics booster. "But the fact of the matter is, the most public thing is your football team."

That public face of UW athletics was the billboard that the university figuratively planted outside the state Capitol this winter, hoping that affection for the Huskies would translate into $150 million for a $300 million rebuild of the football team's stadium. It didn't, at least not this year.

The UW isn't the first college to credit gridiron or hardwood glory with raising up an entire institution: High-profile athletic teams do what an entire public relations staff could only dream of -- provide the kind of name recognition usually saved for pro sports teams and iconic athletes. That publicity, proponents argue, brings in students and boosters' bucks, the necessities of a healthy university.

But it's not necessarily a valid argument. True, some smaller schools benefit from athletics glory. But many larger ones, apparently including the UW, draw large numbers of students and sizeable donations in years of pathetic teams and glorious ones.

"There's a sports page, and they cover us daily. There's not an education section," said Scott Woodward, the UW's recently appointed interim athletic director.

But UW sports' successes or failures don't translate as readily into the classroom or fundraising.

Regardless of a recently lackluster performance by the football team, applications continue to pour in at the UW -- even as the university makes its admission standards more rigorous.

After the UW football team's 2000 season, which it capped with a Rose Bowl victory, about 800 more students than usual applied to the university -- a large increase, but not uncommon for the UW. Would-be Dawgs flooded the university with applications after a 5-7 football season in 2006.

"I'm sure that there are probably wonderful effects in all sorts of ways," UW Director of Admissions Philip Ballinger said. "But I have not seen data that is consistent at universities across the board where athletic success is always directly connected to sharp increases in applications."

But, he added, it is likely that more nonresident applicants apply to the UW after a series of banner athletics seasons. An athletic team's reputation is most powerful out of state, where universities aren't as well-known, Ballinger said.

Donations don't clearly correlate to athletics either. Washington went 11-1 on the gridiron in 2000, and the university did see a spike in donations the next year. But giving soared higher still after the 2004 season, when Husky football tanked with a 1-10 season.

Both seasons were played under the banner of the UW's "Creating Futures" campaign -- an effort to raise $2 billion for university improvements. Through the campaign the UW has raised well over $1 billion in private, nondeferred donations alone, about $106 million of which was donated to Husky athletics.

Glant, a South Seattle scrap-metal mogul who rolled back his donations after a falling out with university administrators years ago, said he doesn't believe most big time donors stop writing checks if teams don't perform. Still, he said a winning team helps, especially when it comes to large projects such as, say, the proposed $300 million renovation of Husky Stadium.

Winning, Glant said, "is an intoxicant."

"You're liable to get a little more enthusiastic and start throwing your money around," he said.

Longtime athletic proponents such as UW President Mark Emmert are onboard with that assessment, saying that a championship or two can only help the way a university is perceived.

"Where (athletics) have a significant impact is just the kind of general mood people are in about the university and how they feel toward it," Emmert said. "I've often said that winning in sports makes everything else easier."

Before coming to UW in 2004, Emmert was chancellor at Louisiana State University and played a hands-on role in the school's athletic revival. As football attendance rose and a national championship was won, LSU saw an increase in student applications -- notably from out-of-state applicants -- Emmert said.

"What was more important to me was how we were able to use the athletic success to get national attention for the university and then talk about the things that really matter," he said.

But for some, it's downright impossible to reconcile academia's scholarly side with a steady stream of ESPN sound bites and annual bowl games named for tortilla chips.

Critics point out that the Ivy League schools have de-emphasized athletics for decades without sacrificing their reputation. The University of Chicago, once a football powerhouse, now plays in a small-college league.

But Woodward, the UW athletic director, noted that schools like the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Michigan tend to be the UW's chief pacemakers, and those schools have competitive athletic programs.

Rutgers English professor William Dowling, a longtime proponent of eliminating powerhouse athletic programs at American universities, claims that athletic programs such as the one at the UW give deep-pocketed boosters the chance to throw their weight around.

"If commercialized college athletics added anything to the quality of a university, then Oxford and Cambridge and Heidelberg and the Sorbonne would go out and add a football team," Dowling said. The New Jersey professor recently authored "Confessions of a Spoilsport," a book detailing his study of collegiate athletics.

Top-tier UW donor Ron Crockett started his giving for that "incidental classroom," setting up a scholarship for business and engineering students in need of financial help. He's not keeping up with the Gateses -- the university created a whole new donor class for those "regental laureates" -- but he's put dozens of students through school.

Crockett, who made a fortune in aircraft maintenance before building Emerald Downs racetrack, said he was approached by the UW athletics department years ago when the university was gearing up to a fund drive for sports facilities. A lifelong Husky football fan, Crockett started donating to the facilities funds and quickly became the department's point man on courting major donors.

Motives differ for big donors. Crockett said his comes from being the grateful recipient of a scholarship funded by Puget Sound maritime magnate, ship and bridge builder Horace "Mac" McCurdy. The scholarship helped immensely as he worked his way through UW.

"I'm very thankful, and I'm thankful every day, that for some reason, I was able to basically start with nothing and be in a position to help other people," he said. "If I can be a McCurdy to a certain number of people, then I feel very good about that."

Copyright (c) 2008 Seattle Post-Intelligencer