Missouri athletics operated at a deficit in 2016-17, but that hasn’t stopped the cranes from tearing apart Memorial Stadium’s south end zone bleachers.
“We have had some reserves and used them for a number of things, projects and things like that, but we also had to cover a deficit last year and will probably have something smaller this year,” Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk told a small panel of reporters Thursday afternoon. “We need to look at ourselves and what we can do more efficiently and effectively but still continue to move the program forward and compete.”
Missouri went $4.56 million over budget in the 2017 fiscal year, which ended June 30. Contributing to the deficit were slow ticket sales in the final year of men’s basketball under Kim Anderson and football’s first year under Barry Odom; the loss of revenue in tickets, concessions and royalties as a result of fewer ticket sales; and a large investment into new building projects, like the $17.5 million Mizzou Softball Stadium that opened March 3, 2017.
Under Sterk, Missouri is continuing to invest. The south end zone project is set to cost $98 million — campus infrastructure funds will cover $800,000, long-term debt financing will cover a maximum of $57 million and the rest will be funded by private donations. The Tigers have already raised more than $50 million for the project.
Across Mick Deaver Drive, Sterk also has led a push to make the Hearnes Center more sustainable. Before he left his post in 2015, former athletic director Mike Alden floated the idea of demolishing the 46-year-old structure to make room for new projects. That’s not on Sterk’s agenda.
The Hearnes Center is home to the wrestling and volleyball programs, which have invested heavily in creating their own training and meeting spaces in the building. Sterk said MU has put money into new a new heating and cooling system at Hearnes and making the building more efficient.
“It’s a building that’s irreplaceable because of the functions,” Sterk said. “I would hate to try to guess that, to replace everything that’s in there right now, what it would cost.”
But there’s still an eye at cutting back whenever possible. Sterk said Thursday he’s challenged managers within athletics to evaluate what their budgets might look like with a 15 percent cut. He also said that he will be re-assigning work from Brian White’s old position of executive associate athletic director to existing staff. White was named the athletic director at Florida Atlantic University on March 3.
“Even if we stay even and grow our revenues a little bit, expenses are rising 8 or 10 percent in a lot of areas,” Sterk said. “That’s the challenge. To even do the same things (we’re doing), we’re going to have to manage our expenses better.”
A crater exists where the south end zone bleachers once stood. The area will remain an open construction site through the 2018 football season, similar to the north side of Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium through Arkansas’ 2017 season.
Memorial Stadium will hold fewer spectators as a result of the construction, as its capacity is set to drop from 71,168 in 2017 to around 60,000 in 2018 then approximately 65,000 when the project is finished.
Still, the south end zone’s new amenities — such as suites, club areas and party decks — are supplying a strong demand. Sterk said that 97 percent of the stadium’s current premium areas are already sold out.
Sterk said ticket sales for the 2018 season are also tracking ahead of where they were at this time last year, boosted by a strong finish to 2017 and the impending return of playmakers Drew Lock and Terry Beckner Jr. A better start to the season would help in 2018.“I think we need to, out of the gate, do better than we did last year,” Sterk said, alluding to the Tigers’ 1-5 start in 2017. “Everyone would agree with that. That gives us an opportunity to really engage the community and the state and nationally.”
Work on the south end zone will be less drastic for the next few months as crews clean up the old mess and establish infrastructure for utilities in the new building. Then it’s back to building upward.
“In June, there will be a construction crane,” Sterk said, “so then you will start to see some action in terms of building it up as opposed to digging down and tearing down.”
BLINDSIDED BY MPJ INJURY: Like everybody who followed the men’s basketball team, Sterk felt the buzz around the Tigers heading into the season. Mainly because he had a hand in organizing it.
The hiring of Cuonzo Martin as coach and the return of Porter family, including the No. 1 rated player in the 2017 class, Michael Porter Jr., to Missouri helped sell out tickets.
Still, Sterk was as “blindsided” as everybody else when the news of Porter’s back injury came to light.
“Nobody really knew anything like that,” Sterk said. “I think, probably the trainers knew he was doing physical therapy, but other than that I don’t think there was anything as far as all of us.”
Porter, who declared for the 2018 NBA draft Monday and signed an agent Thursday, missed all but two minutes of the regular season. After having back surgery Nov. 21, he returned to play in the Southeastern Conference Tournament and the NCAA Tournament. Both games ended in losses.
Without Porter, the crown jewel to a top-five recruiting class, Martin pulled the Tigers out of the cellar of the SEC and into relevance. Missouri made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013 and won 20 games for the first time since 2013-14 season.
Along with Porter’s injury, freshman point guards CJ Roberts and Blake Harris transferred, junior point guard Terrence Phillips was dismissed from the team amidst a Title IX investigation and Cullen VanLeer tore his ACL.
The Tigers played in the NCAA Tournament with just eight available players after Jordan Barnett was suspended for a DWI arrest.
Sterk credited Martin for his ability to succeed despite the adversity.
“It’s like nothing fazes him,” Sterk said. “He will make hard decisions and tough decisions. He seems like he doesn’t linger and tries to get the best out of every situation that he is dealt, and I think that’s great for all of us.”
WAITING ON A RESOLUTION: Sterk did not provide an update on his legal battle with South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, who filed a defamation suit Feb. 22. Staley is seeking $75,000 in damages, the maximum that can be awarded by the South Carolina Court of Common Pleas.
The suit stems from comments Sterk made on KTGR on Jan. 30.
“It wasn’t a great atmosphere,” Sterk told “The Big Show” host Matt Michaels on the air. “It was really kind of unhealthy, if you will. We had players spit on and called the n-word and things like that. It was not a good environment, and unfortunately I think Coach Staley promoted that atmosphere. It’s unfortunate that she felt she had to do that.”
Sterk was given 30 days to respond to the lawsuit but did not provide any information on the status of the suit when asked Thursday.
“I can’t really comment on that right now,” he said.
Missouri also is waiting for the NCAA to complete on its investigation into allegations of academic fraud, which began when former tutor Yolanda Kumar initially came forward in November 2016.
The Tigers suspended defensive tackle AJ Logan for the first six games of the 2017 season for his role in the scandal.
“That’s still out there,” Sterk said. “That’s to be determined.”
SOFTBALL COACHING SEARCH: Sterk noted that the decision on whether to look outside the softball program for the coaching job or promote from inside would come before the end of the season.
Former assistant coach Gina Fogue took over as interim coach when Ehren Earleywine was fired 13 days before the season began.
“That’s something the team ... as we spoke to them, kinda settling and what direction we were gonna go, before the end of the season so they knew, as well,” Sterk said.
Earleywine, who was about to enter his 12th season at Missouri, led Missouri to 11 straight NCAA Regional appearances and three runs to the Women’s College World Series.
His time at Missouri did involve some controversy, though. In 2016, then-athletic director Mack Rhoades launched an investigation into Earleywine and the softball program after receiving complaints about Earleywine from “inside and outside the program.”
In August, after Sterk had taken the helm as AD, MU announced that Earleywine would stay on as coach in 2017.
After firing Earleywine, Sterk, in a press release, said, “This decision was based upon a culmination of leadership concerns, not just one incident, which caused me to reevaluate his position within our softball program at this time.”
Fogue, who played and coached under Earleywine, has led the Tigers to a 19-17 record. The Tigers are 2-7 in SEC play with a weekend series against No. 13 LSU beginning Friday.
“She’s headed into a gantlet now, but she’s doing a good job with the team she has," Sterk said. "Last year and this year were affected by pitchers transferring, but pitchers are getting better and better and the team overall.”
As far as the culture Fogue is creating, Sterk sees it as her own.
“I think she has good communication with our team. They’re performing. They missed some here and there and some inconsistencies a little bit, but they’re working through that and competing really well,” he said.
Outside of softball, Sterk said the plan, as of now, is to retain the other coaches.
“I think we have a great group of coaches. You know you’re doing a good job when 12 out of 13 have made it to postseason play thus far,” he said. “It might be around 17 of 20 by the end, the way things are tracking. That says a lot to the job they are doing.”