On Tuesday morning, a literal dark cloud hovered above the building that houses the office of University of Tulsa athletic director Derrick Gragg.
At the same time that the TU campus was soaked with rain, and as Gragg provided a fairly startling revelation about his department, there seemed also to be a figurative dark cloud above Golden Hurricane sports.
Not true, Gragg said. TU’s current budget situation is a difficult circumstance, he acknowledged, but not a crisis.
What would qualify as a startling revelation?
Specific numbers aren’t known, but recent budget cuts have affected all aspects of TU’s operation. In an effort to avoid a reduction in services for student-athletes, Gragg said, Hurricane football coach Philip Montgomery, men’s basketball coach Frank Haith and Gragg himself all have accepted pay cuts.
At the major-college level, this could be unprecedented — that a football coach, men’s basketball coach and an AD simultaneously and willingly absorbed salary reductions for the sake of the greater good of a money-starved school’s sports programs.
“Basically, the budget reductions to me are a microcosm of what’s going on, not just at TU but across the country at a lot of different places,” Gragg said. “We’re like a lot of other athletic departments — we’ve been asked to tighten our belt.
“We approached it with a combination of things. We did have some budget reductions. We did have some head-coaching salary reductions. My salary has been reduced the past three years. That’s the way we’ve dealt with some of that. You don’t want to negatively impact the student-athletes in any way.”
When Haith was hired in 2014, he agreed to an annual compensation of $1.3 million. Montgomery is believed to be near or at that same salary. What was the amount of their pay cut? Gragg did not specify.
It was believed five months ago that a contract extension for Haith was imminent. On Tuesday, Gragg would not discuss the status of that extension.
As TU is a private school and not legally obligated to divulge payroll and budget information, Gragg’s salary is not known.
Explaining his decision to take self-inflicted multiple pay reductions, Gragg said, “I don’t want to take (funding) away from the student-athletes and I don’t want to reduce my staff.”
In a statement issued to the Tulsa World, university President Gerard Clancy addressed TU’s budget challenge.
“Like most colleges, the University of Tulsa is examining ways to trim expenses and ensure we are meeting the needs of our students,” he said. “TU athletics coaches and staff were quick to do their part by adjusting the athletics component of the overall university budget.
“I am grateful to our head coaches who volunteered pay cuts this year as part of this effort. They are among many TU employees who have tightened their belts as part of our commitment to students.”
While Gragg’s report feels grim, he seems energized by a spike in fundraising. Within the past six months, he said, “we’ve had eight or nine key donors step up.”
“They are longtime supporters,” Gragg said. “I reached out to them.”
TU’s marketing department and ticket operation have been restructured. TU’s relationship with Adidas and its media deal with Learfield “have been enhanced,” Gragg said.
Budget problems compel TU to schedule big-payout road games against Power Five opponents. The Hurricane plays at Texas and Arkansas this season. Combined, TU is expected to collect payouts in excess of $2 million.
At Michigan State in 2019, TU will get $1.2 million. At Oklahoma State in 2021, TU will get $650,000. At Ohio State in 2021, TU will get $1.1 million. At Ole Miss in 2022, TU will get $1.45 million.
“It helps with our conference (strength-of-schedule) standing, and the other piece is revenue,” Gragg said. “That’s why we’re doing that.”
TU also is hopeful that the next American Athletic Conference television deal is more lucrative. At the end of the 2016-17 college sports calendar, the Orlando Sentinel reported, South Florida received the most significant share at $8.9 million. TU’s share was $4.9 million.
The AAC’s current television deal expires in two years. Conference officials are preparing for the next negotiation of a contract that would take effect with the start of the 2020 football season.
“We’re just not getting anywhere near what we deserve in TV,” AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco told the Sentinel in June. “It’s a throwback to that five-year-ago period when we were very unstable and the whole situation was unstable, and that’s just not remotely true now.
“I think at the time, I don’t think anyone realized how powerful our schools could become. We’ve established ourselves as a nationally relevant and respected conference, and now it’s a question of (making) sure that results in a TV deal that we need to keep this going.”
If its fundraising continues to trend in a positive direction, TU obviously would benefit tremendously. It’s a critical component in restoring the athletic department budget. If or when that happens, it is expected that the Montgomery, Haith and Gragg salaries would be restored to previous levels.
In advance of the 2018 football season, a university spokesman said, ticket sales are ahead of the 2017 pace. Every little bit helps.
If any one of Gragg’s Tuesday comments qualified as a summary statement, it would be this: “We’re not going to panic. We’re just going to adjust and keep going.”