2002: College - Endowments best way to ensure future

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2Robby SheltonAlabama  68.62 
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Not many college golf coaches are as fortunate as Pat Goss. In April 1998, the Northwestern men’s coach received an infusion of cash that provided his program a firm foundation for the foreseeable future.

Four years later, the $6.1 million gift from Northwestern alumnus Eric Gleacher – a former Wildcats golfer turned successful investment banker and U.S. Golf Association executive committee member – remains the most talked-about single donation in the history of college golf.

It’s a tantalizing carrot – albeit most likely an unreachable one – dangling in the minds of college coaches everywhere. It’s the perfect model for the private funding and endowment of a golf program. And it stands in stark contrast to the situation at fellow Big Ten member Minnesota, where the Golden Gophers are fighting to raise funds to keep their men’s and women’s golf programs alive after university officials announced plans to cut both teams.

Gleacher’s gift came for a couple of simple reasons: “I had a golf scholarship to a fine institution, and that was something that had an extremely positive effect on the rest of my life,” said Gleacher, a 1962 Northwestern graduate. “What I wanted to do was make sure that other young people have the same opportunity as I did.”

Many programs are discovering that in an era of gender equity and economic uncertainty, securing private endowments is perhaps the only way to assure their existence.

Thanks to Gleacher, Northwestern’s future is secure. His gift included an immediate $1.1 million donation for the construction of a top-notch indoor practice facility, named the Gleacher Golf Center, and another $5 million for a permanent endowment for the men’s and women’s programs. “He’s basically made golf free for Northwestern University,” Goss said.

Even with Gleacher’s donation, however, Goss hasn’t stopped raising money. In the current climate, he said, you can never have enough. “I would say most coaches realize that fund-raising is a part of our jobs,” Goss said.

Almost every college golf coach knows of Gleacher’s gift – and the impact it made on Northwestern’s program.

“If you can endow the program, they’re never going to be able to cut it,” said John Wiler, first-year coach at Miami of Ohio, where longtime coach Rodger Cromer raised funds to keep his program alive after it was targeted to be axed in 1999. “The ideal situation for us would be to get one to two big donors to endow. If I can find a Mr. Gleacher who’s willing to give $2.5 million instead of $6 million, we could do it.”

The list of smaller schools that have dropped their men’s golf programs for either financial or gender-equity reasons – or both – grows each year. In 2002, Providence, Eastern Washington, Portland State and the University of Maryland-Baltimore County have joined the Division I exodus. (UMBC also dropped its women’s team, citing financial reasons.)

The situation at Minnesota, where school president Mark Yudof announced April 11 the university would cut men’s gymnastics and men’s and women’s golf, stunned many in college golf. The university quickly backtracked, saying eight days later it would allow the programs to compete next year and give them a chance to raise funds that would save them through at least 2005.

But the initial announcement was a shocker for several reasons, not the least of which was the success of the men’s program, a perennial top-25 team with a history of postseason success. Because of Title IX, the women’s team also being targeted was surprising, as was the fact that Minnesota is a school from one of the so-called “power conferences.”

“I think everybody looks at (Minnesota) and says that could be me possibly,” said new Arkansas women’s coach Kelly Hester, who had a $1 million endowment to work with when she started the UNLV women’s program last year. “Minnesota is a good program, a strong program. It’s very unfortunate.”

Two coaches who have been among the best at raising money are UNLV men’s coach Dwaine Knight and Georgia Tech men’s coach Bruce Heppler. Both have endowments of about $3.5 million that continue to grow.

When Knight left New Mexico in 1987 to take over the UNLV men’s team, he was told Las Vegas was the perfect place to build a program – and a bank account. But even he was surprised by how quickly both happened. His original goal on the course was to qualify for the NCAA Championship in five years. The Rebels did it in Knight’s second season.

The success on the course didn’t hurt Knight’s fund-raising efforts. Hoping to get to $800,000 in five to eight years, Knight reached the mark in three. “Then I started thinking, wow, if we could do this, maybe we could endow recruiting with maybe $2 million or so,” said Knight.

A $500,000 gift from International Game Technology, a private corporation, led to a matching $500,000 from the Lied Foundation Trust, which already had given another sizable sum to the program. Suddenly, the Rebels had $3 million in the bank and were the envy of coaches everywhere. The funds led to more success that culminated in UNLV’s 1998 national title.

“The two kind of go hand in hand,” Knight said of on-course success and off-course riches.

It’s a concept Heppler understands. An Oklahoma State assistant before taking the Georgia Tech job in 1995, he learned the fund-raising game from Cowboys coach Mike Holder, one of the first to realize the importance of endowments. Heppler’s Yellow Jackets are No. 1 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings heading into next week’s NCAA Championship.

“Everybody knows what we’ve tried to do and what UNLV’s tried to do and what Oklahoma State’s tried to do. . . . The more money you can put in the bank, the better off you are,” Heppler said. “When you’ve got a situation like Minnesota, it gives everybody a reality check as to what could happen – and that you’d better be doing something.”

However, coaches at some schools either aren’t allowed or aren’t required to raise funds, which prevents their programs from building a security net in case of unforeseen trouble down the road. For someone like Heppler, that would be a nightmare. For Auburn women’s coach Kim Evans, however, that system works fine – and her program obviously hasn’t suffered, holding the No. 1 women’s ranking.

“I think it’s a great situation that they don’t require me to do that,” said Evans, whose program is fully funded by Tigers Unlimited, the school’s athletic fund-raising organization. “It leaves me more time to focus on the actual coaching part of it.”

At many schools, however, that’s a luxury coaches no longer have. Even Evans does some fund-raising of her own, just in case.

“You want to put it away,” she said, “so when you need it, you’ve got it.”

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