Despite a budget crunch, Kowalczyk takes a bite out of the debt Spt_dawghouse_zc_4-22

By Gus Bode

Story by Zack Creglow

As the SIU athletic programs continue department-wide facelift, Paul Kowalczyk, the athletic director, has been able to orchestrate progress to multiple sports facilities all while operating in mass of debt.

Kowalczyk learned on Wednesday that for a fourth-straight year, the department has lowered its debt as the 2003-2004 athletic sports calendar, one of the most successful in the school’s history, comes to a close. The $800,000 debt he faced when he accepted the job in 2000 has been trimmed to $440,000 in just four years.

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“Money certainly has been the biggest obstacle,” Kowalczyk said. “That is very critical to anybody’s success. But those are two really diametrically opposed concepts:to lower the debt but at the same time throw money into it to make the teams successful.”

Even Kowalczyk, one of the most recognizable and well-paid figures at SIU, has been forced to be resourceful during the University-wide budget crunch.

A backdrop of a refrigerator and gas stove partly hidden by half-shut closet door rises from behind Paul Kowalczyk’s left shoulder like the early morning sun as he leans back into his chair, hardly resembling an office fit for a top-flight administrator.

“I don’t think the stove works; I don’t know about the refrigerator,” Kowalczyk said. “God knows when this thing was put in here. It was probably in the 1950s. Honest, to God, I have no idea what this room used to be.

“It was here when I got here, and it remains. I am not one who worries about the ascetics of my workplace.”

But as he sits poised and calm, so have his calculated decisions that have kick-started a once-docile sports department in the midst of an athletic renaissance.

His history made Kowalczyk a perfect fit. He is a man of strong credentials and character who understood numbers with an extensive background as an account, who handled administrative roles at Kansas State University and Northwestern University, who had the perfect pedigree to manage the debt.

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“You have got to manage money,” Kowalczyk said. “I have spent times in budget offices and really did just about everything from an accounting standpoint. You have to understand revenues and the flows.

“If you don’t budget realistically, and we budget very conservatively, things can get out of control very quickly. Our business is very volatile.”

He didn’t know how the program dug itself thigh deep in debt, but he said he knew it was obvious something had to change.

The first step in alleviating the debt was making a thorough assessment of current staff. Then he started a grassroots approach, surveying the department on what he thought needed to change. What he found is instead of making massive cuts to programs, both personnel-wise and budgetary, the department just needed a shift in attitude.

“I just came in and went to work,” Kowalczyk said. “We had to change the attitude. We had to start acting and feeling like we are professional organization, like we can be successful.”

The head coaches of his programs had to operate like him, doing the inconceivable despite a destitute department. The facilities they had to offer weren’t on par with their competition, with an eyesore for a football stadium in the seven-decade-old McAndrew Stadium, with a ’70s-theme of earth tone seats inside SIU Arena, with very little to pitch to recruits.

The football team was in shambles, both in the talent and public relations departments, when Kowalczyk first took over. In early December 2000, Kowalczyk interviewed a little-known coach named Jerry Kill from Emporia State University who was able to rejuvenate a program there and at Saginaw Valley State University despite small budgets.

Using some daft tactics, Kowalczyk was able to convince Kill that doing the same with the Salukis was possible.

“Well, when I came on my interview, they brought me in at night to show me the facilities,” Kill said.

Kill is a microcosm of all the SIU coaches. On Tuesday, Kowalczyk hired the new women’s basketball coach Dana Eikenberg, whose resume strikes a familiar chord with Kill’s:a strong recruiter, fan favorite and proven to turn around floundering programs.

So far, Kowalczyk has been clairvoyant with his hires, somehow plucking the perfect coaches at the perfect time.

Under Kill, the football team has just completed its best season since the 1983 championship squad, two years after finishing just 1-10 in his first season. The men’s basketball team, despite hyper-speed coaching carousel that has witnessed three men calling themselves head coach in one year, has been crowned the Missouri Valley Conference champions three years in a row.

Even less-acclaimed sports have thrived. The softball squad ranks as one of the best in the Midwest, and the men’s swimming squad was crowned as the MVC champs two months ago.

Success has equaled money.

“In sponsorships, we will probably make over $200,000 this year, probably around $240,000,” said Mike Trude, the SIU marketing director. “The job hasn’t changed that much since Paul has come, but we’ve been able to do more. We are more innovative than we were before. Before he came here, I topped out in 1996 at $140,000.”

During the men’s basketball season this year, Trude said he was still receiving phone calls from people or businesses wanting to sponsor the games even after he had already sold all the allotments. He has already sold sponsorships, which cost at the least $2,000 per game, to four of the six home football games next year.

The tickets sales next football season are expected to jump another 15 percent to 20 percent, which would mark the third season in a row where attendence increased.

“Our coaches have been very critical to this success,” Kowalczyk said. “They understand and realize we don’t have the biggest paycheck or biggest budget, but they have been troopers. They make due with what little we do have.

“If you look at athletic budgets nationally compared to their university budgets, they receive in the 3-percent range. Here, we barely receive a little over 1 percent.”

As donors continue to grow, the SIU programs have begun to see improvements to various facilities. The women’s basketball team this winter had a renovated locker room and likewise for the women’s golf squad. Last season, the softball team christened Charlotte West Stadium-Rochman Field, considered one of the best softball stadiums in the Midwest.

Utilizing his charisma, Kill was able to locate donors to build lights at the McAndrew Stadium prior to the 2002 season. And this summer, construction crews will break ground on the $4.5 million Troutt-Wittman Athletic and Training Center, which will house a revolutionary weight room and an academic center upstairs.

“That will help us from a recruiting standpoint,” Kowalczyk said. “That will be a major boost. I think it is very important. This makes it all the easier to keep coaches.

“We have had some more discussions about McAndrew and SIU Arena. Realistically before we do anything, we need a feasibility study.”

Continuing the downward trend in the debt is becoming increasingly more difficult. Whereas tuition waivers when Kowalczyk first arrived were sufficient enough to cover the athletes, that is no longer the case. The department could see a shortfall of upwards of $200,000 after the out-of-state tuition increase takes effect.

“We will always need assistance, and that is not a bad thing,” Kowalczyk said. “If you want an athletic program, we need to receive money from the school as well. Students feel better about the University.

“It helps the institution. It helps the region.”

Reporter Zack Creglow can be reached at [email protected]

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