CHICAGO — When the coach, Angela Jackson, phones a potential recruit, the response is surprise. Is there still a women’s basketball team at Chicago State? Is there still a Chicago State?
“The first question is, ‘I thought y’all were closed,’” Jackson said.
It is a stinging query for this university, a vital institution that is on the eve of its 150th birthday, and that has served as a lifeline to low-income, mostly African-American students on Chicago’s far South Side.
Jackson is highly regarded as a coach. Her team went 24-10 in 2010-11. Her players are resilient. They play purposefully, without bickering. But they have not won in a year. Perseverance alone has not halted Division I’s longest losing streak — defeats in all 24 games this season and seven at the end of last season, many on far-flung, budget-straining road trips in the Western Athletic Conference.
A grim financial outlook at the university, and the fear that Chicago State would shut down last fall, scared off three recruits for this season. Two other players did not return to the team, Jackson said, worried that their majors might not be available.
As the losses have mounted, Chicago State has encountered an opponent that can be as difficult to overcome as defeat: perception.
“Is it really as bad as they’re making it sound?” members of the freshman forward Alexandria Cliff’s family ask her. “No,” she said. “Not at all.”
Yet the questions persist as Chicago State seeks to recover, reform and redefine itself athletically and academically.
“You could make Geno Auriemma the head coach, and he’s going to have the same problems without funding,” said Bob Hallberg, a former men’s basketball coach at Chicago State who is now the athletic director and women’s coach at St. Xavier University in Chicago.
While Auriemma has won 11 N.C.A.A. women’s titles at Connecticut, Jackson, 48, has withstood exasperating circumstances in the most recent of her 14 seasons at Chicago State. Her dedication alone, said Doug Bruno, the longtime women’s coach at DePaul University, ought to qualify her for national coach of the year “as crazy as that sounds.”
“To not bail out, to stay the course through difficult times, is a testament to how good she is,” Bruno said. “She could easily get a six-figure job as an assistant at a big-time program and have a much better job. I really admire what she does every single day.”
Like many public universities around the country, Chicago State faces substantial cutbacks in its state financing. A budget stalemate between the Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, and the Democratic-led legislature has lasted more than a year and a half.
The standoff has left Chicago State with only emergency funding from the state, which historically provides 30 percent of its budget ($84 million for 2016-17).
That percentage is misleading, university officials argue, given that Chicago State attracts nontraditional students — transfers from junior college, military veterans, part-timers — whose average age is 31. The school has more black graduates than any other public university in Illinois, according to statistics from the state’s Board of Higher Education.
In a recent editorial, The Chicago Tribune said the school should explore a “full-blown takeover by a stronger university,” perhaps the University of Illinois-Chicago. It cited Chicago State’s frequent turnover in leadership, accusations of financial mismanagement, whistle-blower lawsuits and academic underperformance.
The persistent negative publicity has left Chicago State officials and students feeling isolated and guarded, as if they needed to support one another because it was possible no one else would.
At a women’s basketball game on Feb. 4, Cecil B. Lucy, the interim president, wore a sweatshirt that said, “Chicago State vs. Everybody.”
In mid-January, though, Chicago State received what it considered encouraging news. The governor appointed four new members to the Board of Trustees and named an advisory group. The stated intent was to keep the university open and independent of a merger.
Last spring, as 300 non-faculty employees, about a third of the work force, were laid off, Chicago State seemed to be asphyxiating, Lucy said. “That’s a hell of a feeling,” he said. “Today, I’m not worried about oxygen at all. It’s plentiful.”
Still, in athletics, as with academics, the university is trying to catch its breath. Chicago State represents an acute example of the difficulties facing N.C.A.A. schools on the margins of Division I, as universities switch conferences in an unending, often futile chase for dollars, status and success.
The athletic budget for 13 varsity teams is $5.6 million, officials said. (The Tribune reported that the working budget was cut to $2.8 million in 2015-16, which the university disputes.) In either case, Chicago State’s entire athletic funding is far short of, say, the $9 million in salary and bonus pay that Jim Harbaugh receives to coach football at the University of Michigan.
Currently, Chicago State has no full-time athletic director and only one publicist for all of its teams. Fliers posted around campus seek students interested in joining the golf and track teams.
A wish list for sports facilities includes a new floor for the basketball practice gym, which the university budget committee says needs to be replaced “for safety.”
Sarah Amalou, a guard from Denmark who returned home after the 2014-15 season, when she was a redshirt freshman, said that as budget troubles grew more severe, players seemed to get less equipment and did not receive meal money over Christmas break, forcing them to rely on what she called subpar food in the cafeteria. Motivation seemed to lag, she said.
“A lot of very competent people in the athletic department slowly quit their jobs,” she said. “This indicated something was very wrong.
Chicago State is clearly not a fit for the athletic conference, geographically or financially, said B. David Ridpath, an associate professor of sports business at Ohio University and president of the Drake Group, which urges reform in college athletics.
Ridpath urged the university to explore another Division I conference, or consider downgrading athletics to Division II or III, in which the teams could play opponents in and near Chicago, cut costs and be competitive. The dropping of sports entirely, while honoring scholarships, should also be up for discussion, he said.
“It’s a sad situation; you feel for those kids,” Ridpath said. But by jettisoning athletics, he added, “you could certainly save a few million bucks.”
“That could be maybe a step in the right direction for righting the ship there,” he continued, “but I’m not too optimistic that the university as a whole is going to survive.”
Jeff Hurd, the WAC’s commissioner, said in a statement that the conference was providing administrative guidance as Chicago State sought to remain a Division I school. But he stopped short of saying that the Cougars would remain in the league.
Chicago State officials said they had no intention of dropping sports or leaving Division I. Instead, the university is exploring the idea of adding a non-scholarship football team, along with a marching band and club sports, in an attempt to attract more students from the Chicago public schools and enhance the university’s brand.
“Sports are going to play a central role in the revitalization of Chicago State University,” said the Rev. Marshall E. Hatch Sr., the trustees’ chairman.
To drop sports would be a “travesty,” denying opportunity for underserved students who might not have another chance to attend college, said Jackson, the coach.
A native of Detroit who played basketball at Old Dominion University, she called Chicago State a “diamond in the rough” and said she had remained there through hard times because “sometimes you find your purpose in life.”
“We serve an African-American community, and I enjoy being the bridge from teenager to young adult,” Jackson said. “I think it’s important — those four to five years in those young ladies’ lives are important.”
To coach at Chicago State requires “a clear picture of what things are and are not within your control,” said Gloria Bradley, a former assistant to Jackson who left in August to become the head women’s basketball coach at Beloit College in Wisconsin.
With a limited budget, a certain creativity is also required. For nonconference play, several so-called guarantee games are sought, with payments of up to $20,000 for a willingness to travel to play a higher-profile team.
The nearest WAC rival, Missouri-Kansas City, is a 500-mile drive, so Chicago State must fly to all its conference games. Airline tickets are bought far in advance. One of Jackson’s assistants negotiates hotel rates; it doesn’t hurt if the breakfast buffet is free.
Recruits are sought within driving distance. International players can be reached for the cost of a call on Skype. Jackson’s recruiting pitch is direct: “We’re still here. We’re open, we’re operating, we’re looking to improve our basketball program. We want to make sure we get to the top echelon of the WAC conference. Come here and get a great education and graduate so when you’re a huge success and a professional you can donate money back.”
If she is wearing a shirt with the Chicago State colors and logo, Jackson said, she completes her pitch by looking at her shirt and saying, “It’s pretty difficult to close a whole university.”
Cliff, the freshman forward from Manitowoc, Wis., accepted Chicago State’s scholarship offer to play basketball and volleyball. She said the financial crisis did not enter into her decision.
“They told me they had a good program, that I would be able to get my education paid for, so that’s always a good thing,” she said.
But nothing about this season has been easy. Before practice began last fall, a dorm where a number of players lived had no hot water. Residents had to shower in the gym.
Then, in early December, the team’s best player, a 6-foot-2 center named Sh’Toya Sanders, left school.
On Nov. 22, she scored 38 points, grabbed 23 rebounds and blocked 5 shots in a defeat at Northern Illinois. She was named the WAC player of the week. Four games later, she had returned home to Fort Wayne, Ind.
The reasons were complicated, Sanders said. She could not decide if she was playing basketball for herself or her family. She “bumped heads a lot” with Jackson. The school was not the right fit for her. A sense of futility accompanied the losing.
“No matter how hard you played, you came out empty-handed,” Sanders said.
The team’s senior point guard, Konner Harris, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her knee, Jackson said. When Chicago State set out to face Grand Canyon University in Phoenix in late January, its top scorer, a swing player named Kaylee Allen, was out with a concussion. Only one substitute was available.
Nadia Miller, a guard, was hit in the eye with five minutes remaining. She kept rubbing it with her jersey but remained in the game until the final buzzer.
Once again, the Cougars played hard but ultimately came up short.
“You can imagine the heart it takes,” said Trenn Moore, a 1996 graduate of Chicago State who watched the game in Phoenix with her daughter, both wearing school sweatshirts. Given the university’s financial situation, Moore said, “I’m pleasantly surprised they’re still able to travel.”
On Feb. 4, at home, Chicago State faced New Mexico State, the WAC’s top team and undefeated in conference play.
The announced crowd at Jones Convocation Center, a first-rate arena, was 230, but the atmosphere was expectant. Players and coaches on both teams and a number of fans wore pink to promote breast cancer awareness. Allen, the Cougars’ best player, had been cleared to return after the effects of a concussion subsided.
Then a familiar deflation occurred.
The short-handed Cougars did not score for nearly four and a half minutes to open the fourth quarter. They grew tired against New Mexico State’s press. Rebounding was unreliable. Confidence seemed to ebb. Chicago State lost 65-54 — another somber walk through the handshake line.
A couple of days earlier, Jackson said she had “never been so proud” of a team. “Those young ladies,” she said, “they haven’t quit, they haven’t wavered, they have stuck together.”
Even in a winless season, there were other encouraging signs. None of the 15 allowable basketball scholarships had been slashed by school officials. Three recruits had pledged to Chicago State for next season.
Under the circumstances, Jackson said, “I don’t know if I can ask for much more.”