New regime at Temple betting football will pay off

Temple president Neil Theobald and AD Kevin Clark (left) hope to close the enthusiasm gap. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff
Temple president Neil Theobald and AD Kevin Clark (left) hope to close the enthusiasm gap. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff
Posted: August 26, 2013

Neil Theobald, Temple University's president, got off a flight last December from Indiana, about to interview one of the finalists to be the new Owls football coach.

Theobald looked at his phone and saw he had a text message from his personal physician back in Bloomington, Ind.

Naturally, he was going to read a text from his doctor.

The text: "MATT RHULE WILL MAKE A GREAT FOOTBALL COACH."

It turned out Rhule knew somebody who knew Theobald's doctor. So he engaged in a little long-distance politicking. The new president enjoyed it.

"He certainly got my attention," said Theobald, who wasn't worried about his doctor's recommendation, but quickly became sold on Rhule, and gave his thumbs-up on the hire.

An interesting aspect of that episode is that even though it was still several weeks before Theobald officially took office on North Broad Street, Theobald was sure to interview this prospective football coach.

Probably more than any Temple president since Peter Liacouras, Theobald, a former senior vice president and chief financial officer at Indiana University, believes intercollegiate athletics matters. And although he came from a school with a great basketball tradition, he says football is the key to the success of any athletic department.

Call this another crossroads for Temple athletics. The school has a new president, new interim athletic director, new football coach, and is in a new league. But one thing hasn't changed: Sports still hemorrhages money at Temple - losing over $7 million a year.

Theobald doesn't blink at such a figure.

"The average NCAA athletic program loses almost $8 million a year," Theobald said. "That would be right in line."

At Temple, football has lost more money than any other sport, starting with a $1.6 million annual payment to the Eagles to use Lincoln Financial Field for six Saturdays a year. So marketing efforts will be intensified. You may even see Owls reps outside your supermarket. Football players already were working the crowd this summer at Reading Terminal Market. The school also unveiled an ad campaign in Sunday's Inquirer.

Basically, Temple is continuing to put money down on the university's big bet, that with more Temple students now living on or around campus, enough of them will become alumni who support football.

There is another future hope in play - that one of the big-time football leagues, such as the Atlantic Coast Conference, will someday decide that having a school in the No. 4 television market is worthwhile, that maybe a network covering the league will want to add local homes to its cable market.

The new men running things sound realistic that their job won't be a quick one. Temple has moved to the American Athletic Conference, the remnants of the old Big East football league. Theobald talked about how the new conference brings in significantly more revenue than the school's old alignments with the Mid-American Conference and Atlantic Ten - "it moves us in the right direction. . . . It is immensely more money compared to where we were."

But the American is outside the biggest revenue-producers in college sports, the leagues being called the Power 5 or - more blasphemously - the Big 5.

Temple's president started his career as a high school teacher and baseball coach before moving on to higher education. Theobald has enthusiasm for college sports. He was a season-ticket holder at Indiana. He was on the charter when Temple's basketball team flew out to play Kansas last season. He has been spotted out of his seat expressing displeasure at a referee's call during an NCAA tournament game.

Maybe more important, Theobald's academic concentration was in education finance, even before he became CFO at Indiana University. There are obvious parallels between his old workplace and Temple. Basketball has the tradition at IU. Football struggles to keep up against better-financed rivals.

"You can't get caught up in this arms race," Theobald said, talking in his office about the exponential increases in expenditures at the highest levels of college sports. "That would be the biggest mistake, in my view, that Temple University could make."

Theobald was involved in the start of the Big Ten Network, he said. (People scoffed at the idea initially, he said.) But he saw how it changed Indiana and every other school in the conference as the big money began to flow in. He will stay involved in sports decisions at Temple.

"I have worked for presidents who have outsourced running athletics to a vice president and didn't get involved," Theobald said. "That's a horrible model, because if something goes wrong, it comes back to you. You've got to be involved."

He also saw firsthand how much realignment has changed the landscape.

"I remember at my interview - I was hired [last] August," Theobald said. "At that point, there were 18 members in the Big East. One of the questions at the interview - what do we do with this unwieldy, large conference? Boy did that disappear really fast."

As the new men at Temple look at revenues and expenses, there are rumblings about whether the school will continue to field 24 sports teams.

"We have to figure that out," Theobald said, adding that of the schools in the new league, "Connecticut and Temple have 24. Everyone else has fewer. That's certainly something we're going to have to look at. We support 565 student-athletes, I think that's right. We need to provide academic support to them. We have a lot of services we are providing, so that's another thing that's clearly going to have to be looked at."

Opportunities to improve

Interim athletic director Kevin Clark came to Temple with Theobald from Indiana, where Clark had been senior associate athletic director, working on finances. After replacing the recently retired Bill Bradshaw as athletic director, Clark is working on a five-year strategic plan with Temple's senior athletic staff.

In some ways, the plan is the same one previous regimes have attempted.

"At the end of the day, we've got to get people in the stadium," said Pat Kraft, another former IU administrator, now Temple's deputy athletic director.

Clark suggested he is now doing what he did at Indiana. IU's athletic department had a $3.5 million yearly deficit, he said, before the Big Ten Network changed the finances for all the Big Ten schools, and Indiana could start bond initiatives to upgrade facilities. IU has roughly twice Temple's operating budget.

Clark talked about how back in the deficit days he studied all line items in IU's budget.

"Just having money in the budget for postseason, for instance, but when the team doesn't make the postseason, they take the money and spend it on something else," Clark gave as an example of something he changed at IU. "I established a postseason account and moved funds from there to each of the sports. That way it truly became what you need vs. what you have available and you spend it because it's there."

Another area that may offer a parallel with Temple: "We also had to look at all our contracts," Clark said. "We had some contracts that weren't generating enough income for us. Apparel contracts, for one."

Clark added, "We've got some challenges here, and they're not bad. I use 'challenge' very freely. It really is opportunities to get better. That's really how I look at it. We've got some opportunities to get better, to really improve our revenue. We're going to be good stewards with our money. We've got to invest in football and basketball, because at the end of the day, football and basketball drive the bus. They generate the revenue, so we have to invest in those programs."

It would be difficult to shave much money from operating budgets for other sports, since the argument can be made that many sports already are underfunded compared to league rivals. An analysis earlier this year by the Temple News pointed out that Temple's operating budget per sport was less than all the other incoming full members in the American Athletic Conference other than Tulsa and Tulane. The News said Temple was last in the conference when looking solely at nonrevenue sports.

"Temple spent $62,510 combined on its men's and women's tennis programs during the 2011-12 year, which ranks last by far among the American schools with a men's and women's team," the News reported. "Most schools spent more on just one of their tennis teams than Temple did on both of its combined."

For such figures to change, Kraft suggested, you still have to look at football.

"The other part that we have to help explain: You want to support Temple lacrosse or Temple field hockey?" Kraft said. "Going to football games helps that, because that money goes into the operating fund and allows us to spend money."

Kraft talked of new marketing approaches, how "going door-to-door" helped increase football attendance at Indiana. But Temple's historic attendance problems aren't really a marketing failure. People in this market know Temple plays football on Saturdays. The trick has long been to create interest.

Attendance improved somewhat in recent years when the Owls won more games and stopped being a national laughingstock. But attendance isn't covering the $1 million a year Temple pays the Eagles in rent and the additional $600,000 a year the school spends on costs related to playing at Lincoln Financial Field.

However, the almost $2 million a year the school will receive from an American Athletic Conference television deal with ESPN is mostly due to football. Theobald talked of the great exposure the league will offer in football and men's basketball.

"Part of why you have athletics is marketing," Theobald said. "It brings attention. The fact that we go to six straight NCAA [men's basketball] tournaments has made people in Indiana, who otherwise would not know a lot about Temple, know all about it. . . . We've got the great tradition in basketball, which really helps. You've got the great anchor there."

Theobald talks about the importance of student-athletes representing the school in the right way. But he also talked of hiring the right football coach, one who could represent Temple on campus and also coach a team worth seeing.

Rhule's "going to have a much more open offense than we've had in the past," Theobald said.

The new coach, who was an assistant with the New York Giants, and previously an Owls assistant, had a couple of requests of his new bosses. An indoor training center just off North Broad Street was repurposed. For the first time, the football team will eat dinner at its own training table.

"This isn't about bells and whistles," Rhule said recently, sitting in Temple's football complex. "A lot of college football right now is about, 'Hey, we're going to put a waterfall in our weight room.' This wasn't bells and whistles. We need this to compete."

Alumni support

The new folks understand certain realities.

The most obvious:

"It's an Eagles town," Kraft said.

He talks of providing the "pageantry of college football." That's important, but the issue remains, will Temple alumni come to the stadium to root for Temple, no matter the opponent? It's doubtful that any American Athletic Conference rival will draw big crowds to the Linc. Supporting Temple comes down to, well, supporting Temple.

"One out of seven [college graduates] in Philadelphia are Temple grads," Kraft said. "We've got to let them know how important they are to build this."

There will be viewing parties on Saturday, he said, as Temple opens up at Notre Dame, as large a stage as the Owls could find.

"We want to be the best in the conference we're in right now," Clark said. "In the American Athletic Conference, we have a chance to be very competitive in that conference."

His goal with alumni: "Before you can ask somebody for money - I want to make sure they feel good about what we're doing. We're going to be good stewards with the money, and have a plan. Once you sell them on a plan, and they feel good about certain areas, you've got a chance."

The new man in charge on North Broad Street believes there is one path toward a more successful and more solvent athletic future.

"It's really going to depend on football," Theobald said. "Football runs the show in athletics, financially."


Contact Mike Jensen at mjensen@phillynews.com. Follow @jensenoffcampus on Twitter.

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