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