Dr. Allen Meadors leaned back in a chair in what, in practicality, is the front porch of his office and discussed his front-porch philosophy of college athletes.
Meadors has been the president of the University of Central Arkansas for nearly a month. But he knows that athletics is one of the most prominent items on his plate, particularly relating to financing issues involved with the university’s transition to NCAA Division I.
"We have not planned as well as we should have," he said. "It’s always better to know how you are going to pay for the car before you buy it. But once you buy it, you’ve still got to pay for it."
He considers athletics essential to the university experience.
"If you think of a house, sports is kinda like the front porch," he said. "No one thinks of the front porch as the most important part of a house, obviously. The kitchen, the living quarters are the most important parts of a house. But when people drive by your house, they see your porch. They don’t see your kitchen; they don’t see your living room; they don’t see your library; they don’t see your bedrooms. That makes it very important that your porch has everything in order."
And he said that begins with cleanliness.
"In athletics, you have to run an extremely clean program," he said. "It must be well-organized. Sports programs have to be more well-organized because they get more visibility. If they are gonna be more visible, then just like a public figure in politics or whatever, you have to live at a higher standard. People get to see your dirty laundry in sports more than they do in other things. It’s very important that a sports program at a university crosses all its T’s and dots all its I’s."
Meadors, who participated in football, basketball and track at Van Buren, is a sports fan and has a varied background in athletics, including the experiences with his two sons, Tyson and Jarrett, both of whom were all-conference in high school in several sports. Tyson, who received all-conference and all-county honors in high school in North Carolina in football, wrestling, tennis and track, attended the U.S. Naval Academy and played football two years there. Jarett was all-county and all-region in football and was highly recruited his senior year by Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, Rice, Navy and East Carolina before some schools backed off after a groin injury. He played four years of football on scholarship at Elon University, a private, liberal-arts college near Burlington, N.C.
"I ran track one year here (under Bill Nutter at then Arkansas State Teachers College) and played football one spring (under Raymond Bright); the coaches and I didn’t agree on my athletic ability," he said with a laugh.
His career has taken him to universities at all levels of the NCAA — Divisions I, II and III, including the University of Texas and Oklahoma University. At North Carolina-Pembroke, where he retired as president in order to take the UCA position, he started a Division II football program in his seventh year. The team went 9-1 in its second year of competition. UNC-Pembroke was the first state university that was established as a Native American institution, although Meadors said it has been a regional university, similar to UCA, since 1952.
From his experiences, especially in starting a football program from scratch, he said he learned a lot about financing.
"Athletics takes a lot of planning, and that’s why we didn’t start football until my seventh year at UNC-Pembroke," he said. "Athletics can be expensive and you need to make sure you have your funding set up in advance. At all Division I schools, even the large ones, you have to make sure you have a balance in how you fund the athletic program. Anyone who thinks athletic programs are not expensive, I don’t know what they’re smoking. You have to find a way to make it work within your institution and we will here."
Meadors indicated he would take a vigorous two-pronged approach to funding athletics more efficiently through student fees and increasing private funding.
"It’s an issue we better resolve over the next couple of years so the university community is comfortable with the funding of our athletic program," he said. "I think our student body — I’ve read some things and I’ll be visiting and talking with them — has said they want Division I athletics. They want what we have now. There are indications they are willing to put a little more money into the pot so we don’t have the issues we’ve had. I’ll be talking more with them about increasing our student-athletic fee.
"A year from now, when we become full-fledged members of Division I, that will mean $300,000 or $400,000 from NCAA contracts. We also hope to get more private funding tied to athletics, and I think that will happen."
Even though the university took monies from auxiliary sources (including 5 percent from housing income over a three-year period) to help provide the funding for the transition to Division I and competition in the Southland Conference, Meadors said that athletic spending at UCA is not out of control "by any means."
"We just didn’t plan well enough to ensure that it was as smooth of transition as we would have liked," he said. "But we do need to get organized and make sure we’re not taking money from other areas that hurt those other areas and diminish their ability to support themselves. We will always be about academics. I don’t believe we’ve taken one penny from academics for athletics, and I’ve seen no evidence of that, but unfortunately, we’ve taken a disproportionate share from auxiliary areas like housing. We’ve got to get out of that mode. Taking money out of housing affects how much we can put into deferred maintenance. We want all our residence halls to be at a top level and you’ve got to have money in deferred maintenance to do that.
"We’d like for funding for athletics to be more self-contained. It will never be totally self-contained. I’ve read where there are only about nine universities in the United States in which athletics are totally self-contained.
He continued, with a slight chuckle, "And there are more than nine schools in SEC. You want to be sure you know what you’re doing and you know where your funding is coming from and you are in no way damaging other programs, be it housing, bookstore or anything."
UCA has and is negotiating for future football and basketball games with major institutions such as Tulsa, Oklahoma State, Ole Miss, Kansas, Colorado and Memphis that will bring significant additional revenue to the athletic program.
"It’s also nice that we are getting some money games in football that are bus rides," he said. "That money you get from those games is solid money to help with the program. Most FCS (formerly Division I-AA) teams are getting one of those kind of games, many are doing two.
"Two games of that type beats you up a little bit. But I think as an athlete, when I played I would love to do that at least once or twice. I would have loved to see how I stacked up against the big boys. Now I wouldn’t want to do it 11 games because we don’t have the resources to match up. But once or twice, that’s how you test yourself as athletes. Basketball? Three or four games like that would be good. If I were a college athlete here, I would have loved to say I’ve played against somebody who has played in the NBA."
He said, from his experience, success in athletics has increased revenue sources in non-athletic areas. He said after UNC-Pembroke began football, fund-raising went from $2 million to $5 million in five years and most of the money that was raised was not for athletic purposes.
"It’s like that front porch I was telling you about," he said. "It just raises awareness of the university. If your athletic teams are getting in the paper and in the news, assuming it’s positive stuff, it makes people think more of your university, and it makes it easier for your people in advancement or development to make a phone call. It gives alumni a very visible way to connect to a university ... I think people at Notre Dame and USC and almost all the SEC schools will tell you their standing is larger in the academic community because of their athletic teams.
"But when somebody screws up, it doesn’t just affect the athletic teams, it affects the whole university. You can overcome that at schools like Rice or Vanderbilt, but once you get away from those elite academic schools, the connection becomes much foggier."
He said he wants to carry over that holistic philosophy of a university experience to all aspects of UCA.
"We want to do the same thing we’re doing in athletics on the arts side," he said. "We want to have more attractive and fulfilling arts-related events at Reynolds the next two years. We want to be a university that is seen as quality in all aspects — the arts, athletics, academics. And we want to have a very attractive campus."
Through his experiences at both large and small colleges and universities, he has realized how much athletics is tied to culture.
"People forget that colleges had athletics long before there was any money to be made on athletics," Meadors said. "You pay for it because it’s part of the university experience. I can’t imagine going to a university that had no athletics. I think it’s expected.
"It’s the culture in America. Starting in middle school up, we have a culture in America that part of the educational experience is athletic programs, either participating or watching. And we have moved that model into the colleges. It’s not a university culture; it’s an American culture. Used to be, that’s what brought communities together. Before television, athletics was the only source of entertainment in a lot of small towns."
He said that because of television and its influence, most people assume everybody is and can make money through athletics. That’s why financing is an ongoing challenge.
"We have to have a plan on how we’re going to have athletics be paid for where it doesn’t take away from other aspects of the university," he said. "If people give us time, we’ll be fine. I think we could have done a little better planning on the front end. But we’re gonna get all that cleaned up and move on."
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or email@example.com)