For big time college athletic programs, boosters are an invaluable and unavoidable resource. When looking at the financial breakdown of top athletic departments, booster donations comprise a substantial chunk of their income. For example, Texas A&M, which topped the 2016 USA Today revenue chart with $194 million for the 2015-2016 year, received over $92 million in contributions.
This giving, while helping to float some of the biggest programs in the nation, can also create conflicts of interest for athletic department officials and coaches. These conflicts, which were discussed recently by former Georgia Tech and current Purdue AD Mike Bobinski, (pictured above, center)are hardly unique on college campuses.
Bobinski, who tapped embattled Memphis MBB head coach Josh Pastner for the same position at Tech, departed for Purdue prior to Pastner’s surprising success with the Yellow Jackets this season. Several fellow coaches in the ACC have been outspoken in their support of Pastner as ACC coach of the year after the Yellow Jackets, projected to be 14th in the conference, have jumped to a 16-12 overall record and are 7-8 in conference play.
However, in line with the low preseason expectations for Georgia Tech, Bobinski received substantial push-back for his hiring of Pastner. Seemingly proven correct in his initial assessment, Bobinski said recently, “It’s always nice to be right, but I don’t sit here and think about it or dwell on it.”
Bobinski, who has a proven track record of hiring quality basketball leadership during his time at Xavier, had to fight through the common thought of boosters that his selection of Pastner was an unwise one. This conflict is not specific to Georgia Tech or any other university, and because of its ubiquity, it should be considered by athletic department staffs.
While boosters can provide the financial lifeblood for an athletic department, ultimately, their position in major decision-making must be regulated carefully. Kid gloves are required when maintaining the boundaries between financial supporter and meddling outsider, a line that is quickly blurred as entitlement increases with the size of checks given.
Examples of boosters wielding substantial power over a program’s direction populate sports news cycles and give proof to the notion that the proper chain of command in an athletic department can be sabotaged quickly when big money is involved. It is for this reason that incoming athletic directors and programs looking to grow their financial support base must create a clear policy regarding boosters and their roles with the department. Without printed, approved measures regarding booster/university relationships, athletic department officials are left without recourse when pressure is applied by unhappy supporters.
It can be easy to give too much power to those willing to assist the university, and generous financial backing by boosters can be both a blessing and a curse for an athletic department. While enabling rapid growth and success, it can also lead to massive conflicts of interest between the university, athletic staff, and supporters. While occasionally correct in their assessments, boosters are not professional athletic department staff, and thus should not wield the power of such. It is up to the strong leadership of an athletic department (and university at large) to ensure that boundary remains intact.
Francis Giknis joins College AD as a contributor after seven years of teaching and coaching throughout the east coast. Prior to writing for College AD, Francis earned an English degree from the College of William and Mary and his masters at Columbia University. Raised in a cable television-free household, he remembers binge-watching ESPN while on vacations away from home, much to the chagrin of his parents.