Before last season’s 9-4 record that included a Cotton Bowl win against Texas Tech, it had been five years since much had gone right for the Ole Miss football program.
Eli Manning ended his college career with a 31-28 win against Oklahoma State in 2004, but the next four autumns packed a lifetime of frustration for Rebels faithful.
The final insult came in 2007, suffering a embarrassing 17-14 loss to Mississippi State after some late-game strategy from former coach Ed Orgeron left the most casual of observers questioning him.
That was the last game Orgeron coached at Ole Miss. Forty-eight hours later, Houston Nutt – late of Arkansas – was the coach.
Nutt’s trademark persona, built around extreme animation and outrageous levels of charisma, endeared him to Ole Miss folks immediately.
His on-field results turned him into a hero.
A lot of the players who made last season a success return this year. The Rebels are expected to enter preseason a consensus top 10 team.
If two programs that have undergone similar one-year turnarounds within the last decade are any indicator, the sizable jump in wins will mean a considerable bump in athletics fundraising. Before Texas Tech hired Mike Leach in 2000, the football program operated mostly in the middle of the pack of the Big 12. Since then, Leach and his pass-happy offense have turned TTU into a perennial bowl team, and one that last season was in the national championship discussion until December.
Turning around the Big 3
Mississippi’s other Division I football programs — MSU and Southern Mississippi — are in the middle of coaching changes that have energized the fan base as well. Dan Mullen took over for the fired Sylvester Croom at State. Larry Fedora replaced longtime USM coach Jeff Bower after the 2007 season.
Each school will soon start what amounts to fundraising junkets, in which the athletic director and a number of coaches hold events in different cities where fans can meet and greet and generally get excited about the upcoming football season. MSU has already started its fan caravan. Ole Miss and USM’s each begin this summer, all with the hope of winning big on the field and in the bank account.
Connecting the dots
Steve Uryasz, senior associate athletics director for Tech, can draw a direct correlation between Leach’s arrival and the number of dollars the Red Raider Club, the school’s athletics fundraising arm, has secured.
In 2003, after three seasons under Leach, Tech expanded the football stadium, adding 54 suites and 1,100 club seats. The suites start at $30,000 a year plus the cost of tickets. Eleven of the suites carry a price tag of $250,000 a year and require a minimum gift of $2.5 million to the stadium. All of those are sold.
Another expansion is currently underway, with 26 new suites already sold and 550 more club seats going fast.
“(Winning) has made all the difference in the world,” Uryasz said. “The reality of it is, once you move to that next step, it just makes all those things much, much easier. It’s not hard to quantify. In 2003, we did not have a seat in the stadium that required a donation to the institution in order to keep it. Now, about 80 percent of our seats require a minimum donation to the Red Raider Club. We could have never done that (without on-field success). We have sold out 100 percent of our parking the last four years. The lot immediately adjacent to the stadium requires $4,000 a season.”
When the Red Raiders played Alabama in the 2006 Cotton Bowl, only people who had pledged a minimum of $600 to the Red Raider Club were eligible to buy tickets.
“Boom, we were hitting people for $1,000 left and right — $600 for the donation, $400 for the tickets,” Uryasz said. “A lot of it is what we would call ‘forced giving’ but you can do that, to a certain extent, when your program’s successful.”
Overall giving to the Red Raider Club since 2000, Uryasz said, is up 180 percent since Leach and his offense landed in Lubbock. “Those are real numbers,” he said. “That doesn’t include suite or club seat revenue. If you included those numbers, it would be astronomical.”
Tech’s total athletic budget, based on the latest figures from the NCAA, is just shy of $48 million. Football-related revenue accounts for $19.3 million of that total.
Horned Frogs know the feeling
Texas Christian University in Fort Worth won one football game during the 1997 season. Dennis Franchione, who later left for Alabama and then Texas A&M, came on board and turned the tide. His successor, Gary Patterson, has elevated the Horned Frogs into a bowl game regular and one of the premier non-Bowl Championship Series teams.
Davis Babb, associate athletic director for development at TCU, said overall giving to the Frog Club, which fundraises for the athletic department, 10 years ago was $1.8 million. In 2003-04, that number rocketed to $21 million, with a lot of that money going toward facility upgrades for a number of sports, football included.
“This year, we have a legitimate chance of raising in the $15-million to $16-million range,” Babb said. “We’ve had good growth, and its definitely tracked winning in football because that’s going to drive so much of what’s going on. Our best years, especially on the facility front, have followed especially good football seasons where we’ve tried to roll out new facilities, so the timing has been good.
“The winning has raised the bar for all of us. Our challenge is to keep raising more money. I think the donors understand that there is a price for continuing to build facilities and provide the resources for the program to continue to improve. Because if you’re static, you’re falling way behind.”
For Ole Miss, in particular, winning big this year means big money for the program.
Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at firstname.lastname@example.org .