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Cincinnati Athletic Department Needs A Plan, Does Mike Thomas Have One?


Has Mike Thomas run his course as the Athletic Director at UC?

A couple of days ago I voiced my displeasure with Mike Thomas for dragging his ass for not taking care of Mick Cronin's contract. Its just another reason why I am not entirely happy with Mike Thomas. I recognize that he stepped into what was an admittedly terrible situation. The minute Mike Thomas took the job he was greeted with a mountain of debt, a poisonous relationship between the Athletic Department and the rest of the university and all of that came on the heels of a very public feud between Bob Huggins and Nancy Zimpher. It wasn't the greatest of situations, I don't envision anyone really objecting to that suggestion.

However, he never mentioned the various problems encircling the job in complications. Instead the moment Thomas took the job he announced his CATAPULT program and brazenly declared

"It is critically important for our student-athletes, past, present and future, along with our coaches, staff, alumni and fans to know that we are 100 percent committed to being a championship program within the BIG EAST," said Thomas. "Setting specific goals will keep all of our stakeholders focused on where we need to go. The title of the program, CATAPULT, is truly symbolic of what our department is poised to do over the next five-years, which is to leap over the rest of the BIG EAST, all the way to the top."

It's all well and good to have big ideas, but you have to follow up on them. I don't really think that Mike Thomas has come close to living up to the expectations that he put upon himself. I will give him credit for hiring Brian Kelly and Mick Cronin. Those are two excellent, excellent hires, but there is more involved in being a good Athletic Director than hiring good coaches. It's a piece, mind you a big piece, but still a piece, part and parcel to the other demands of the position.

Hiring Kelly was a strike in the dark and it worked out extremely well, but there was friction, almost immediately. BK is and can be a bit of an egotistical prick, but he knows what he is doing. He came into a job with a concrete idea of what had to happen for this team to start producing and competing at a high level in the Big East. Most of those things UC had, Varsity Village took care of almost all of them. But for the things that were missing there was conflict from the start. For example BK didn't like the phone plans that were on offer from the Athletic Department, he tried to get other options from Thomas but couldn't budge him and ultimately Kelly wound up paying the cell bills for the entire staff out of his pocket so that he got what he wanted. Almost from the day he was hired Kelly pushed very hard to get a practice facility for Football, and he got plenty of push back from Thomas. Not so much on the idea itself, everyone knew that practicing at Nippert Stadium wasn't a long term solution. Eventually something had to be done to get the Football team a facility. Left at his own pace Thomas would have eventually gotten to raising funds for building a practice facility, but it would have taken a decade to do it if Kelly hadn't so ardently pursued the damn thing. Brian Kelly knew what it took to build a championship program for Football, he had most of what he needed, but on the few things he didn't have BK had to push and prod Thomas into action.

This same dynamic is currently playing out with the Mick Cronin contract extension right now. Mick isn't asking to become the Caligula of Cincinnati. Yeah he would like a raise for himself and for his assistants, I don't find that to be particularly troubling, raising his base salary a little bit shouldn't be an issue for a second. But he wants a little bit greater commitment to the Basketball program.

"I know we don’t have the budgets some of the other schools have in our league," Cronin said. "I know we don’t have the facilities some of the other schools have in our league. What I’m saying is I want to be at Cincinnati. I’m willing to fight the fight. We can still make our program special.

"I just want people in the fight with me. It’s not about dollars and cents for Mick Cronin. All I care about is, let’s do everything we can to fill our arena, market our program and have the best program we can have."

What exactly is the issue with that? Why is it taking so long for Cronin and Thomas to hammer out a deal? From what I have heard what Cronin really wants is a slightly larger budget for Basketball Operations. Not huge, but bigger. He wants some more money to pay opponents to get some bigger name teams to come to Fifth Third, he wants a slightly larger recruiting budget and he wants to look into improving the practice facility. What exactly is the problem with that? UC is not flush with cash at the moment, a solid decade worth of capital improvements will do that, and I understand that. But looking into the practice facility shouldn't be a terribly expensive venture. Armory Fieldhouse sits more or less empty year round. How much would it cost to turn it into an adequate practice facility?

My biggest issue with Mike Thomas has more to do with his message than anything else. He took the job talking about his desire to turn UC into an all sports power, maybe not on the same par as Louisville, but on the same general trajectory entering a new conference. That is the message, but what he has done hasn't matched the message in the slightest. What Thomas has gone about doing is try and eliminate the budget for the Athletic Department, at all costs really. Thomas has had some success in that front.

Year Total Revenue Total Expenses Total Deficit
2004-05 $21,124,176 $25,248,185 $-4,124,009
2005-06 22,099,791 28,872,741 -6,772,950
2006-07 28,395,897 34,172,295 -5,776,398
2007-08 32,281,546 36,369,715 -4,088,169
2008-09 43,925,633 44,780,811 -855,178
2009-10 40,920,893 43,478,383 -2,557,490

UC still runs a budget deficit, but the general trend for the deficit is down. It grows smaller every year, and there is an off chance that the athletic department could break even this year with the added revenue from making the NCAA tournament and without the cost of going to a bowl game. The point is that the heavy lifting of getting the athletic department on solid financial footing is more or less done. I don't know this for a fact, I have had less than no luck trying to find a definitive answer to this, but I feel pretty confident in saying that UC is turning a profit on both Basketball and Football for the first time since the early 60's. The Big East is likely to see a substantial increase to the size and profitability of its television rights when they go up for bid at the end of the 2012 season. If analysts projections are right the check UC gets for TV rights from the conference would double. That alone would be enough to put the athletic department in the black and accelerate the process of paying off the debt on the Varsity Village which eats a large chunk of all current revenues.

Basically the work that Thomas has set out to do, to get the Athletic Department back on solid fiscal ground is almost done. It is within sight and it is conceivable that it could be completed in a couple of years. The obvious question is where do we go from here? For me the most pressing need lies in the distribution of the revenues. If you look at the most successful athletic departments in the country they usually make their money off two things, ticket sales and contributions to the athletic department. In 2009-10 UC made almost 6.5 million dollars on the sale of tickets to games and a little over 5 million on contributions to the athletic department from donors. The two biggest contributions to athletic department revenues? UC itself, mostly in the form of the student life fees, and the Big East conference. Now, the financial data for this past season isn't in, probably won't be until some time in the summer, but I would expect those numbers to jump up a little bit. But still the top two contributors to UC athletic department will be the University in the form of kick backs from the student life fees and the annual check from the Big East for TV/Bowl/Tournament revenue. That is a problem that won't be abetted by any amount of unfettered cuts to spending.

What the Athletic Department needs to be on solid ground not only in the near term, but into the future as well, is to cultivate donors and to increase the revenue from ticket sales. Neither of those is particularly easy to do but lets start with the ticket sales. The biggest problem that UC has is tied in directly to the facilities. Nippert Stadium and Fifth Third Arena are essentially tapped out as revenue generators. There is a reason that the Football team is going to be playing two games at Paul Brown Stadium this fall, money. They made essentially two games worth of revenue playing Oklahoma at PBS, for a department as cash strapped as UC's is that is practically a wind fall profit. In playing West Virginia and Louisville, two regional rivals with strong traveling fan bases UC is very likely to top the 58,253 people that attended the Oklahoma game on both occasions. Moving the game to PBS basically gives UC the revenue equivalent of an 8 game season at Nippert playing just 6 home games.

Now Nippert Stadium is not a lost cause, not by a long shot. It can be renovated, and done properly it would generate a ton of revenue. The biggest problem with Nippert from a revenue perspective has nothing at all to do with the size of it. The biggest problem is the lack of secondary revenue generation, also known as luxury seating. Nippert has one area of luxury seating up in the press box and it seats maybe 100 people at the most. It is reserved for only the highest of high rollers within UCats. That's a problem. Even Fifth Third Arena has multiple luxury seating options. I personally would love to see the capacity increased to around 45,000, which is probably the practical limit given the restrictions inherent with the tight quarters, I even have a plan for how to do it. But the seating capacity isn't the issue, its the inadequate restrooms and concessions, the ear splitting sound system etc. But most of all it is the lack of additional revenues from games held at Nippert. When was the last time you heard anything definitive about renovating Nippert to make it financially viable by adding more capacity and luxury or club seating options besides sitting up in the press box? Its been a while.

Then you look at the Fifth Third Arena and it's vague multipurpose layout. It was designed to kill as many birds as it could with one shot. Rec Center, football locker room, baseball locker room, meeting place, general athletic department hub and lastly Basketball venue. That was fine at the time, and through most of the 90's, but all those other birds have long since been picked off by the Lindner Center, Marge Schott Stadium, and the Campus Recreation Center. What you get then is a multipurpose arena that only has one purpose anymore, to stage Basketball games. I don't think the Shoe needs to be torn down or anything like that, but there are changes that could be made that would make it better suited to cope with its new function in life, redesigning the seating configuration of the lower bowl into something, I don't know, a bowl like shape would go a ways to giving it a new lease on life, and would probably increase the seating capacity by a thousand or so just by filling in the empty corners with seats. It is clearly an arena that needs a rethink and some remodeling, but Thomas doesn't seem to want to address this just like he doesn't want to talk about renovating Nippert. His go to cop out is that everything will be taken care of at some point in the future, case in point.

UC has been studying options for Fifth Third Arena for some time, and athletic director Mike Thomas said Wednesday he’s confident the building will be renovated but he could not predict when that might happen.

"The facility thing was already in the pipeline," Thomas said. "But they are not inexpensive endeavors. Those are things you can’t just flip a switch and say, it’s going to be done tomorrow. We all realize the importance of doing something with Fifth Third Arena. We’ve got to do it in a measured way."

The other area that needs a work is the relationship with donors. UC is OK in this regard, it could be worse, but it should be so much better than it is. The current malaise in donations goes back to the Huggins fiasco. I mentioned before that I worked as a fund raiser for UC for a summer. A day wouldn't go by without three or four former donors telling me that they flat out wouldn't give money to UC because of what happened and that if UC wanted their money Zimpher had to go. I wasn't even calling on behalf of the Athletic Department but that's how ardent they were about it. Brian Kelly did a ton to get new people involved with the athletic department, mainly by working his ass off and going to 300 engagements a year. Butch Jones is very much in the same vain, but a lot of the old money is still out of the department.

Individual donors are one thing, and for the record UC has done very well with individual donors. From what I hear UCats is at its all time highest ebb not only in terms of dollars donated, but numbers as well, after all UC sold 20,000 Football Season tickets last year, and UCats donations are a mandatory part of the process. Jim Amann has done a great job with UCats. But there is a big opportunity that is being missed by Thomas.

Cincinnati has 6 fortune 500 companies in the, that's top 10 in the country, most of whom have pretty strong relationships with the University. But that is a resource that the athletic department by and large hasn't been able to use to it's advantage, and that is solely on the head of Mike Thomas. I have no doubt that Thomas has been in the ear of anyone who would listen about contributing to the cause, but he hasn't been overtly successful with it. The only member of the blue bloods of Cincinnati Cooperation that has a real and tangible tie to the Athletic Department is Fifth Third Bank, obviously, has the arena in its name and just became the official bank of Bearcats Football this past September, and that tie pre dates Mike Thomas by at least a decade. So far he hasn't shown that he is capable of converting the soft capital of the Bearcats recent triumphs in Football and the re entrance of the Basketball Program into the national conscience into any sort of tangible connection locally for the department, and I don't think that is good enough.

Basically the dilemma placed before us all is very simple, UC can stay on the current path with its sporadic successes, occasional failures and general all around mediocrity. The alternative is to invest in the programs, Football and Basketball, and give them a chance to succeed in the long term and bring the rest of the athletic department along with them. Those are the choices. The current path requires no vision, no strategy, no long term thinking what so ever. I think it is the path that Mike Thomas is most comfortable with, and I think that his actions in the position to date bear that out to some degree. The other option requires vision, initiative, aggression, and a third testicle probably wouldn't hurt matters. I am not sure that Mike Thomas has any vision what so ever to tackle the issues at hand and give the athletic department a chance to be a long term success. If he has a vision for the athletic department, or any sort of conception for where he is steering the Good Ship Bearcat I haven't heard it in any guise, from anyone who is remotely connected to the athletic department. I don't require some sort of master plan to be announced to the world. That is to be frank, unnecessary, all I want to know is that Mike Thomas has an idea of what he wants the Bearcats to become. Bob Goin did, he had the vision and the foresight to pursue Big East membership, yes he did it at a high cost, but it was worth it. Would you argue that it wasn't? What does Mike Thomas want, what is his goal? Right now it would appear that the Athletic Department is a rudderless ship. How long does Mike Thomas get to keep steering into nothing? When do you make a change? Do you let him lose another head coach and set another program back a few years? I don't think we can allow that. This athletic department needs a direction, and the Athletic Director isn't providing it so its on to the next one.

Official "On To The Next One" Video! Jay-Z | Swizz Beatz (via jayz)