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FAMU Athletics Plan Brings Promise, Pitfalls
TALAHASEE, FLORIDAâ€”AJ.R.E. Lee III’s resignation Friday as Florida A&M’s interim athletic director ended one of the most ambitious, yet ultimately unfruitful, eras for a university that boasts a proud history in intercollegiate athletics.
During Lee’s 14-month tenure overseeing the school’s athletic department, the Rattlers dove into uncharted waters by becoming the first football program at a historically black college since Tennessee State in 1978 to attempt to move up to NCAA Division I-A status.
Tennessee State played one season as a Division I-A member before moving down to Division I-AA.
FAMU dove deeper into those waters under Lee’s leadership when President Fred Gainous signed a five-year broadcasting-rights deal last summer with the Urban Broadcast Company, a startup media company based in Harlem, N.Y. It was Lee who negotiated the deal with UBC President Peggy Dodson.
At first glance, both the jump to Division I-A and the UBC deal appeared aggressive and innovative to most FAMU supporters. Lee’s moves even had some black-college-football observers wondering whether, if successful, the Rattlers could shake up the status quo in major college football.
But now both of those ground-breaking endeavors appear to have hit rock bottom.
Gainous, in two e-mails sent to FAMU trustees a little more than a week ago, said that the UBC deal was unlikely to generate any revenue for the school and that he now thinks FAMU should reconsider its petition to the NCAA to move up a classification in football.
ainous wrote that FAMU is faced with more pressing academic and administrative issues and that a bigger investment in the school’s football program at this juncture could be risky.
Gainous has asked the trustees to reconsider their vote on the Division I-A matter at the next board meeting Tuesday.
Board of trustees chairman James Corbin declined to speculate on what the vote of the full board will be when considering Gainous’ proposal to return to NCAA Division I-AA competition in football.
“I’ll say what I have to say at the board meeting Tuesday,” Corbin said. “In my opinion, that’s where all the discussion about Division I-A should be taking place in the first place.”
Lee, who never backed off his push for I-A membership, resigned Friday as criticism of his management of the athletic department mounted. Lee could not be reached by the Democrat on Saturday.
When Lee took over Nov. 26, 2002, he was given the mandate to evaluate athletic department staff and examine the department’s financial health. He was appointed after Gainous fired Ken Riley, who had returned to the school as football head coach and athletic director after his NFL playing days with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Riley was criticized by Gainous and others for not having a long-term vision for the athletic department.
Among Lee’s early moves was to hire a director of marketing, a director of game day operations, a business manager and two strength-and-conditioning coaches. Lee also increased the athletic department’s academic advisement staff from two to six. And just last month the athletic department received new computers as part of a campuswide upgrade.
Last year, the men’s basketball team also enjoyed its largest average attendance (2,817) in more than a decade, partly because of a more aggressive marketing campaign. The football team had an announced average attendance of 21,323 for three home football games this past fall and an average of 44,000 when including the attendance of classics.
But in terms of overall financial strength of the athletic department, Lee counted on the deal with UBC to be a sure-fire way of funding necessary improvements to Bragg Stadium. The money and exposure the exclusive contract was supposed to bring only fueled his enthusiasm for the I-A move, on which he first speculated in April 2003.
As Lee’s moves were applauded by many boosters, there were those who began to question whether FAMU had done enough planning or had the infrastructure in place to succeed.
One of the first to question FAMU’s direction was former athletic director Roosevelt Wilson, publisher of the Capital Outlook, a local African-American weekly newspaper. The Tallahassee Democrat also questioned whether the move had been studied properly.
Ted Hemingway, who served as FAMU’s faculty athletic representative to the NCAA for 25 years, said he didn’t learn of the I-A application until after it had been submitted. He blames both Lee and Gainous for not bringing the motion to the school’s faculty athletic committee.
“When the application came back for approval, I did sign it as the faculty athletic representative. But I signed it because President Gainous never let me voice my concerns,” said Hemingway in an interview with the Democrat on Saturday. “I just decided, if they want to go forward with this, I’ll sign it. But at the same time I knew it was something that was not likely to be successful.
“(Lee) was hanging everything on that broadcast deal, and I told him that he better be confident the money was going to be made.”
Trustee Randy Hanna voiced similar concerns at the June 24, 2003, board meeting when Lee and Gainous sought the board of trustees’ approval – weeks after the I-A application had been submitted to the NCAA.
On Jan. 10, Lee sent a letter to FAMU alumni and supporters touting milestones that the athletic department had achieved under his leadership the past 12 months. Among the accomplishments listed in the letter was a $20 million contract for naming rights to Bragg Stadium and a $100,000 contribution toward a FAMU athletic scholarship endowment.
‘Milestones’ in question Lee also said the athletic department was on the verge of receiving an “in-kind gift of a Cessna Citation aircraft for travel and recruiting.”
When questioned, however, Love Collins III, vice president for university development and a spokesperson for Gainous, said those “milestones” were more goals, not accomplishments. Collins said neither he nor Gainous was aware a naming-rights deal had been negotiated.
Trustee Barney Bishop told the Democrat last week that the board had not been made aware of any such accomplishments and was among the first to voice disapproval of Lee’s job performance.
It wasn’t until Jan. 29 that Gainous finally conceded that there were problems with the UBC contract after getting a preliminary financial statement from company President Peggy Dodson. It prompted Gainous to tell the trustees via an e-mail that he didn’t think UBC would be able to make good on its guaranteed minimum annual payment of $1.5 million to FAMU.
In another e-mail, Gainous informed the trustees he wanted to delay the football program’s move to Division I-A.
In a polling of trustees by the Tallahassee Democrat last week, the majority said they would back Gainous’ latest position to back off the I-A move. As a result, more criticism was directed toward Lee’s management of the department.
Privately, many of FAMU’s head coaches had been questioning Lee’s leadership and the lack of planning that went into the I-A application. Coaches also weren’t happy that Lee had alienated FAMU from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. He told the coaches that the Rattlers would compete as an independent in all sports for at least a year.
The men’s and women’s basketball programs and baseball head coach Joe Durant already have encountered scheduling difficulties because most schools belong to conferences.
“Scheduling 10 non-conference games is a tough task in itself,” FAMU men’s basketball assistant coach Mike Gillespie Jr. told the Democrat last month. “Now to try and schedule a minimum of 28 games is a monumental task.”
The school has a March 15 deadline to inform the MEAC officially of its intentions. If the school goes back into the MEAC, it will guarantee all other sports a nearly full schedule.
But it may be too late to do much to solve the scheduling difficulties Lee encountered for the football program. The school has yet to release a 2004 football schedule.
Football head coach Billy Joe hasn’t been involved in scheduling matters since coming to FAMU in 1994 but said he would be open to taking on that task if asked.
“I would not have a problem taking it over,” Joe said.
With Lee’s resignation, FAMU’s athletic future is now firmly in Gainous’ control.
Hanna said last week that at the last board meeting Gainous was told to develop a long-term plan for the athletic department. “I think that is what you see him doing,” Hanna said.
The Division I-A move did create a buzz that got the Rattlers some positive national exposure. It may even partly explain why Joe signed perhaps the most highly touted recruiting class in school history. Close to half of the 20 athletes Joe signed chose FAMU after visiting major Division I-A programs.
But Hemingway said the damage resulting from the way the process has been handled can’t be overlooked. He said he resigned before the 2003 football season because he didn’t agree with the direction in which the department was headed.
“FAMU is a national school and has a fine reputation, but this has been damaging. You don’t mess up something as big as football…. It didn’t have to be this way. It should have gone through all the proper channels from the start.”