During a small-talk exchange with a University of Tulsa graduate who today is a donor and Golden Hurricane Club member, we discussed the school’s recent change in presidential leadership and the school’s painful challenge of executing up to $20 million in spending cuts.
“I just hope TU doesn’t kill football,” the guy said. “You know they’ll take a look at football.”
If anyone does take a look at TU football, they would see a program that has problems on the field (a 2017-19 record of 9-27) and with attendance, but otherwise is healthier than you might realize.
As it pertains to university finances, Golden Hurricane football is a moneymaker. Not a money-taker.
Since 2012, TU has had twice as many presidents (four) as head football coaches (Bill Blankenship and Philip Montgomery). The university has myriad issues. Football is not among them.
If TU were to drop to a lower classification in football, or drop football altogether, there might no longer be membership in the American Athletic Conference. It’s possible, if not likely, that the conference would not want TU without football.
If not for football, there would not have been the switch in 2014 from Conference USA to the American.
Over the next 10 years — primarily because of football — the TU athletic department collects about $70 million in AAC media-rights payouts.
If Tulsa still were a Conference USA member — with an annual membership payout of less than $1 million per school — then Hurricane football might be a little vulnerable. The critics might have a little more leverage if they were to say, “Wichita State doesn’t have football, and the Shockers are in the American conference now.”
True. Wichita State did join the AAC in 2017, but the Shockers were attractive because of national relevance in men’s basketball and because their presence helps with balance in basketball scheduling.
It should be noted also that Wichita State, without football, does not receive a full $7 million share of the conference money.
Combining all related expenses, it might cost Tulsa as much as $30 million just to stop playing football.
If TU suddenly were to eliminate football and move to a different league, there would be an exit fee to leave the American. A few months ago, UConn decided it wants out of the AAC. While becoming a football independent and a Big East Conference member in all other sports, UConn will pay a $17 million exit fee to the AAC.
Even if TU were to do it the right way, providing the required two-year notice before leaving the AAC, there would be a $10 million exit fee.
Beyond that, TU would be on the hook for the money remaining on coaches’ contracts. And for having canceled road-game contracts with schools like Ohio State and Ole Miss, TU would pay a hefty penalty.
With a football budget believed to be around $10 million — by the far the lowest in the AAC — Tulsa recorded 10 wins in 2016 and was an extremely competitive 4-8 last season. No one was happy with 4-8, but this was not a typical 4-8. Montgomery probably has nightmares about the SMU and Memphis games.
This was the most positive of all 2019 statistics: Largely because the Hurricane hosted Oklahoma State at H.A. Chapman Stadium, Tulsa’s ticket revenue was 70% beyond the 2018 total.
TU athletic director Derrick Gragg has arranged for the Hurricane to host six more high-profile nonconference games. Oklahoma State visits again in 2024, 2026, 2028 and 2030. Oklahoma visits in 2023.
In 2027 — for the first time since 1952 — the Arkansas Razorbacks play on the Golden Hurricane’s home turf.
The Hurricane plays money games at Ohio State in 2021 ($1.1 million for TU), at Ole Miss in 2022 ($1.45 million) and at Washington in 2023 ($1.6 million).
Football ain’t cheap. Even if $10 million is well below the AAC average on football spending, it’s still $10 million.
For that amount, Tulsa sustains the prestige of playing major-college football. For 125 years, the Hurricane has been at that level.
The money collected from the AAC and for hosting Oklahoma State and playing at Ohio State — it provides funding for basketball, tennis, golf, etc.
At the University of Tulsa, football is not a luxury item. It’s essential.
After addressing and solving other problems, university leadership should send a box of chocolates to the football office.