Guerry Clegg: Columbus State athletic director faces unenviable situation

sports@ledger-enquirer.comJune 21, 2014 

Jay Sparks was named Columbus State’s athletic director in April 2008 after spending nine years as the top assistant to former Athletic Director Herbert Greene.

A little tip to anyone interested in becoming the Columbus State University athletics director.

Run.

Run as fast as you can and as far away from this job as you can. That is, if you want to succeed.

For years, Columbus State's athletic department has been a model of efficiency. Facilities and budgets lagged behind their competition. Yet somehow, the Cougars won their share of championships in basketball, baseball golf and tennis. They added women's soccer, and Jay Entlich built a highly competitive program almost overnight.

Sadly, all of that's about to change. Columbus State's once proud athletics program is on the verge of becoming one colossal mess.

It all started with CSU president Tim Mescon's obsession with the school keeping pace with Kennesaw State, where he worked before coming to Columbus. Specifically, Mescon wanted to bring football and Division I status to Columbus State, just like Kennesaw State has done.

Only thing is, Columbus State isn't anything like Kennesaw State. More importantly, Columbus isn't anything like metro Atlanta. What wealth there is here is tightly guarded. That matters because it takes lots of money -- LOTS and LOTS of money -- to have a Division I program with football.

But the obsession with adding football led to a mandate that Columbus State add sports. The goal was that more sports would lead to additional enrollment. Additional enrollment brings in more athletic fees. More athletic fees would help fund football, which would bring in more students and more athletic fees and more donations.

So men's and women's track and field and women's volleyball, women's golf and rifle (co-ed) were added.

A feasibility study on the prospects of going Division I and adding football was done two years ago.

This was the third such study, and the results remained the same: football at Columbus State would be a bad idea. But that hasn't stopped higher ups at CSU from still dreaming of football.

But there's another problem. Adding sports did not boost enrollment.

In fact, campus enrollment has declined. Why? Online enrollment has become so popular that many "traditional" students are opting for it.

Online students do not have to pay athletics fees. So while the athletics department expenses have shot up due to adding sports, the revenue to fund them has decreased.

So just cut back on sports, right? That would be the logical answer. But the administration doesn't want that. They want to cut scholarships to those sports.

Jay Sparks, the former athletics director, refused to do it. He refused to handcuff his coaches by pulling scholarships. But Sparks is no dummy. He knows when anyone butts heads with upper management, the bosses always win. Ask Vince Dooley about that. If Dooley could get fired from Georgia, then certainly Sparks was not imune. So when the Francis Marion women's basketball coaching job came open, Sparks jumped on it. Meanwhile, the administration has angered several prominent -- and loyal -- supporters of the program. So now, at a time when the athletics department is bleeding red ink by the gallons, the university has invested $45,000 in a search firm to hire Sparks's replacement.

That person will be under orders to balance the budget -- which will mean cutting scholarships and possibly some assistant coaches in various sports.

So the coaches will be asked to field teams with little or no scholarship money with which to recruit.

And if those programs start losing and/or coaches start leaving, whom will the administration blame, themselves or the athletic director?

Good luck fighting that battle. Ask Dooley and Sparks who wins. Better yet, don't bother. Just run.

Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at sports@ledger-enquirer.com

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