The growing influence of college football boosters made headlines again as the largely successful tenures of LSU coach Les Miles and Georgia’s Mark Richt hung in the balance last month.
Reports indicated key boosters played a role in Richt’s firing, but a $15 million buyout – $10.7 million without his 2015 salary – may have saved Miles from a similar fate. Although certain boosters reportedly were willing to foot the bill for the second-largest buyout ever behind former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis, it turned out to be too much for LSU to pull the trigger on what would have been a controversial decision.
More than ever, the people willing to give the most support to college football programs expect to wield power, especially when it comes to coaching decisions.
Miles received plenty of support from donors to the Tiger Athletic Foundation, a nonprofit that reported more than $38 million in contributions in 2013 and $48 million in 2012. USA Today’s school finances database revealed LSU received more than $49 million worth of total contributions in 2014, the highest number in the last decade and $38 million more than in 2005.
“What happened with the Les Miles situation may seem unique but it’s really not, especially in Louisiana,” said national football analyst Tim Brando, who grew up in Shreveport and recalls reporting on a similar situation at the end of Paul Dietzel’s tenure as AD in 1982. “It’s been going on for a long time. The moment the athletic director allows (donors), any of them, to believe that they are empowered, then you’re not going to be able to keep them quiet and that’s what happened the last two weeks of the regular season to Les Miles.”
He said the group of the 12-16 most influential boosters at LSU presents a different and sometimes more difficult dynamic than at a place like the University of Oregon , where Nike co-founder Phil Knight provides the majority of money, or Oklahoma State, where business magnate T. Boone Pickens is the primary benefactor. The ever-expanding budgets continue to separate the Power 5 conferences from small schools, where Brando said athletic directors focus more time fundraising and less time managing tens of millions of dollars.
Those numbers dwarf any gifts Grambling athletics ever received under the leadership of Aaron James, who served as AD for three years until interim president Cynthia Warren’s first day in July 2014. Nonetheless, James saw first-hand what some people expected to get for their contributions.
“Sometimes your donors want to run the athletic department, and basically that’s not good because they can’t run the day-to-day operations,” James said. “They want to be in charge, and they’re not doing it for the right reasons. They’re not doing it for the benefit of the program.”
Fundraising plays a critical role to staying competitive in Conference USA for Louisiana Tech, which brought in more than $10.8 million — more than double any previous year — in the 2013-14 academic year under new athletics director Tommy McClelland, who declined to comment for this story. The university’s athletic club lists 11 donors who give at least $30,000 annually, including three from the James Davison family.
No family has given more to Bulldogs athletics over the last three generations, and the university chose to honor their contributions with the Davison Athletics Complex in September. But Steve Davison, a 1989 graduate and the son of Davison Transport Inc. president James Davison, said he doesn’t worry about influencing decisions or getting involved beyond watching the games.
“I don’t really expect anything,” Davison said in a phone interview, noting he likes to keep his giving private. “Any kind of giving that I do is just because I think it’s for a worthy cause.”
Of course, not all boosters share Davison’s feelings.
Auburn University was heavily influenced in the late 1990s and early 2000s by booster and Board of Trustees member Bobby Lowder. It was his plane that university officials flew on in 2003 to talk to then University of Louisville coach Bobby Petrino about the Auburn coaching job despite the fact Tommy Tuberville still held the job. Once news of the visit leaked, public opinion, similar to at LSU this year, fell on the side of the current coach. Petrino stayed at Louisville, Tuberville got a contract extension and Auburn suffered a black eye.
Former Auburn coach Terry Bowden said he resigned before a game in 1998 after Lowder — not an athletic department official — told Bowden he wouldn’t be retained.
Lowder, similar to other big-time boosters, has steadfastly avoided the media.
James, though, said “sometimes all money’s not good money” and it’s important to be firm in setting procedures and policies to establish rules for boosters.
Northwestern State athletic director Greg Burke agreed, noting he tries to be in contact with every booster, no matter how small the contribution. Even with an athletic budget of $8.4 million at NSU and $1.6 less when James left his position at Grambling, both said they’ve had donors threaten to stop giving money because of coaching decisions.
They’ve also experienced plenty of criticism via social media, which both Brando and James cited as a catalyst for everyone wanting to have a voice on major decisions. Brando still sees plenty of positives in the new environment of the United States’ second-most popular sport behind the NFL, but he doesn’t see any way to stop the increasing flow of money and some of its negative impacts.
“I do think that the ship has sailed,” Brando said. “I don’t think we can suddenly bring it back into the dock. I love college sports, but it’s a big business and instant gratification is the culture we have now.”