Thursday, October 5News That Matters

Michael guides EIU athletics through murky waters

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series of four stories looking into the state of the Eastern Illinois University Athletic Department.

CHARLESTON — Tom Michael was excited to accept the Eastern Illinois University athletic director position on July 22, 2014. He’s still excited to be the AD today.

However, there was no way to foresee all that would happen with Illinois’ budget shortfall and how it would affect EIU athletics. After three years of dealing with all of the curveballs that have been thrown at Michael and the EIU athletic department, Michael and Panther athletics are still standing despite many rumors to the contrary.

While there are still rumblings that EIU could cut up to five sports, Michael only had to cut one program during the tumultuous period and it wasn’t because of budget issues. The EIU women’s rugby program dealt with low numbers and injuries and was cut before the 2015 season.

EIU could still cut up to five programs and there have been layoffs in the athletic department, but it weathered the storm, which started on the third day Michael was in his office. He was told the athletic department was $980,000 over budget and he had to balance it.

For Michael, having to cut that much from the budget went back to one of the key points he talked about in his interview for the job.

“Certainly that causes some alarm. What I talked about in the interview is something I believe, that as a department you have to be fiscally responsible,” Michael said. “You can’t be out here spending money and not be responsible for it. I wanted to try and get a handle on where that was and make sure the president knew I was going to fix this deficit.”

EIU was already a month into the fiscal year when Michael was told to reduce the budget, and he got the deficit down to $250,000.

After Michael’s second year, the budget was balanced, even after it was reduced even more because the whole university had cutbacks.

As of June, it was estimated that the EIU athletic department was $50,000 short for the previous school year — all while keeping EIU”s academic profile the same.

“The first year I walked in the door, we had an almost $1 million deficit and we got it pared down to balance the budget and came close with revenues down,” Michael said. “What’s important to understand, the athletic profile hasn’t changed with 450 student athletes and all of these sports. Making the cuts has been necessary. It’s not like our sports have gone down, but our revenue has gone down significantly.”

The biggest challenge Michael faced was changing the spending habits of the athletic department, especially with every coach and team, he said. There was a precedent already set under former AD Barbara Burke, but since the budget needed to be balanced, Michael had to go in and tell each program that they had to tweak how they did things.

Every program had to cut back and every program has, according to Michael.

“We did a lot more than I thought we could in that first year because we had to, but it created some interesting times as we moved forward because the difficulty is there’s precedent that has been set on how to spend,” Michael said. “Now you come in a month into the year and now you have to change habits. We’ve done a pretty good job of that, but that was the challenge at that point in time.”

Then Michael’s second challenge on balancing the budget happened. The state government of Illinois failed to pass a budget, which meant state universities, such as EIU, had to significantly cut from their budgets because they didn’t receive the necessary money they needed to run the schools at full capacity.

That’s the same time when President David Glassman took over and he cut the EIU athletic budget by 20 percent, which was a couple of million dollars.

“Our focus has been to place dollars into the instructional area of the university,” Glassman said in August. “Our philosophy here has been that every unit on campus has a budget with an expectation and accountability to balance that budget at the end of the year.

“It is true that some universities allow their intercollegiate athletics to go into a deficit, but that is not the philosophy we have at EIU.”

Michael had to make tough decisions, as did many department heads at EIU. Michael estimated that he cut 15 to 18 jobs in the athletic department that varied from administrative help to strength and conditioning.

“We really streamlined operationally and there were positions that we didn’t fill,” Michael said. “Then it just got into operating budgets and see where there was an excess. Can we peel back here and there and scratch and claw? We continued to really emphasize our fundraising efforts.

“It’s not just cutting; you have to raise money and we’ve worked hard on that piece and we have a great donor base locally that has supported our student athletes and has gotten us to the point where we have been fiscally responsible to the institution.”

Even though Michael knew Illinois’ government had its issues, he never foresaw something like this happening.

“I had no idea that it would be this volatile from having no budget and no stopgap — I don’t think anybody could’ve anticipated that,” Michael said. “We know the politics in Illinois have always been interesting, if you will. … It’s very much there, the budget piece, but we really focus on the things we can control and stay within those limits. President Glassman goes to Springfield and he will let us know when we need to start to worry. Until then, we have to focus on our student athletes and our program.”

This past summer, the Illinois legislators approved a budget, but it doesn’t fix all of the problems. Glassman said university leaders, including himself, hope to have a long-term resolution soon and plan to review the issue every few years or so.

“We have been talking about it now for about two years,” Glassman said. “It is time to come to a final decision on this.”

While EIU avoided having to cut programs because of the budget crisis, Southern Illinois University cut men’s and women’s tennis and reduced scholarships in men’s swimming and diving, and the school had its own budget woes. Western Illinois University had to make serious cuts as a school and four majors were eliminated. SIU Edwardsville cut men’s tennis and women’s golf to save $200,000, and the school had to cut its budget by 20 percent.

“There’s no question that those of us in the state of Illinois are feeling it in one way or another,” Michael said. “Even (AD) Larry Lyons at Illinois State, as solid as their enrollment is, they are feeling the impact in athletics. When I talk to the colleges in the (Ohio Valley Conference), there’s other states that are having a financial impact.

“Higher education is going through and will continue to go through some interesting changes in the next five to 10 years.”

Even with all Michael had to go through with EIU’s athletic department, he didn’t classify the situation as dire. He said he worked with Glassman to get EIU’s budget where it needed to be. He also gave credit to the coaches and teams for cutting where they needed to over the past couple of seasons.

“When President Glassman came in two years ago, he has done a great job of anticipating and, in some ways, being aggressive with some of his moves in terms of trying to cut costs and save money and be very responsible fiscally and it trickles down to everything we have to do,” Michael said. “My preference would be to be in a much different situation, but we are not.

“I give a ton of credit to the coaches and athletes over the past two years to continue to move forward, not complain, work hard and understand we still have a job to do and we haven’t let all of the other things be distractions. It would be easy to complain and they haven’t done that and I am proud of them for taking that approach to that.”

After all of the budget cuts, EIU still has the most sports, 21, and the most athletes of any OVC program. So Michael is focusing on what EIU has compared to those conference schools at the moment.

“There’s certainly some schools that are funded better than we are, but there’s always some that aren’t funded in a variety of ways,” Michael said. “If we continue to concentrate on what we don’t have, we are just going to get run over and that’s what we continually talk about — control what you can control and keep making the most and best of all of this.”

The EIU budget was a bit short this past academic year, though, by about $50,000. Many factors played into it. One of the biggest factors may have been that the EIU women’s basketball team had to cancel a guaranteed money game with New Mexico State because of a snow storm, so the team couldn’t fly out.

“There’s a lot of factors to calculate it. It gets very, very close and that’s where I am proud of the group. They’ve understood the situation we are in and have worked hard,” Michael said. “We provide the direction and keep people on track, but they have to follow through and do that. We have a good group that understands that.

“I have kept President Glassman in the loop and I’ve been very transparent with him with what we are going to try and do and to be fiscally responsible with these tough times.”

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