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Griffon Athletics: A brand in need of investment

Rivalries are one of the aspects of athletic competition fans have the most passion for. For the Missouri Western faithful, victories are especially celebrated against Central Missouri, Missouri Southern and of course Northwest Missouri State University.

Losing to your rivals in premier sports, such as men’s basketball and football, can cost coaches their jobs and cost a school its fan support. Recognizing who your rivals are and putting your athletic programs in the best position to be at least competitive with these programs and give your fan base a reason to be excited for a big game creates a huge boon to the program and kickstarts fundraising efforts.

For the Griffons, competing with the the Bearcats, Lions and Mules consistently has been difficult, considering where the university stands financially in relation to its rival programs.

Kurt McGuffin, Missouri Western athletic director, had a meeting with President Dr.Robert Vartabedian and Dr. Cale Fessler, vice president for financial planning and administration, to discuss adding to the athletics budget to become more competitive with the rest of the conference.

“Basically, I went in there and requested certain things to where we’ve been over,” McGuffin said. “We’ve been over some in scholarships to certain sports because those sports are going more out of state instead of in state and we’re not budgeted all out of state.”

In terms of direct institutional support, Northwest athletics gets $5,872,954 from the university, Southern gets $4,815,878 and Central receives $6,832,764. Western, on the other hand, only receives $3,731,403 for its athletics.

“Some of those institutions have significantly higher appropriation than we do, so they have more dollars to work with,” Fessler said. “Missouri Southern is fairly close to us – they are a little higher in appropriation but they are a little more comparable than perhaps Central is and even Northwest right up the road.”

The operating budget is a main concern for McGuffin.

“The other biggest thing is general operating budget: that’s travel. You see other teams. We’re all traveling to the same places,” McGuffin said. “How do you want to travel? In some instances when we travel, we put three people to a room, four people to a room where some schools only do two.”

In 2012, the MIAA expanded to include Northeastern State, Nebraska-Kearney, Lindenwood and Central Oklahoma.

“When we expanded the conference, we expanded our travel, we expanded [to] spending the night in Lindenwood, Hays, Kearney, Edmond and Tahlequah,” McGuffin said. “We expanded how much we spend over night. In football, for instance, we have five over-night trips this year; we usually only have one, maybe. And when you spend that much time and you don’t increase budgets to match that, you’ve got to go out and raise external dollars and that is sometimes difficult.”

Additional funding provides the schools with enough money to fund all their sports and also focus on one particular area to attempt to be elite at. Northwest has a nationally-relevant football program each year and have been to eight of the past 17 national championship games, winning four over that span.

Northwest contributes more than $2 million to its football program in the form of both direct support and indirect support for facilities and administration. Western contributes less than half of what Northwest contributes.

Northwest’s fan base is much larger than Western’s is as well due to its success and tradition, which is evident in ticket sales.

“Last year we made about 95 grand on gate receipts, but this year we’re making about 55 grand,” McGuffin said. “There’s a $40,000 decrease because of the one football game, the Northwest game.”

Northwest has built a great football tradition under the leadership of former head coach and current Athletic Director Mel Tjeerdsma, but before Tjeerdsma’s arrival in 1994, Northwest was struggling to survive as a school, let along field a legitimate football program.

In Tjeerdsma’s first season, the Bearcats finished 0-11, but just two seasons later they made the Division II playoffs for the first time since 1984. Just two seasons later in 1998, Northwest celebrated its first ever National Championship.

The hiring of Tjeerdsma kickstarted not only the football program, but also gave life to the university as a whole and attracted students that may have not gone to Northwest without its football program’s national success. The football program has appeared on ESPN multiple times during their run of success.

The ongoing debate for programs like Western is if it should invest in its program to try and help it compete on a national level and receive the financial and publicity benefits that the coverage of a great athletic program provides.

Western hired head coach Jerry Partridge in 1997. In his first season, the Griffons finished 5-6. Since 1999, Partridge has only had a losing record one year, but failed to advance to the MIAA playoffs until 2006.

Partridge made the playoffs in three straight years from 2010-2012.

In 2012, Western won its first Division II playoff game, defeating both Henderson State and Minnesota-Duluth before falling to Minnesota-Mankato.

Over its strong three seasons of play, Western produced NFL-talents like Mike Hill, David Bass and Greg Zuerlein. During those players’ seasons here, they were 38-12 overall and had momentum in terms of increasing the fan base and even converting some Bearcat supporters.

The biggest opportunity for the program came in 2010, however, when the Kansas City Chiefs moved their training camp from River Falls, Wisconsin, to Western’s campus.

This move included the building of the Griffon Indoor Sports Complex and the Griffon Spring Sports Complex.

With this attention being paid to the university by hosting an NFL team and having NFL-caliber training equipment, the university has the opportunity to take the next step and try to obtain the level of sustained success that its rivals to the north have, but instead university funding still lags behind its primary competitors.

Football is not the only sport where Western falls substantially behind the elite programs. Men’s basketball is another key sport where Western lags behind.

Central Missouri, the 2014 men’s basketball National Champions, received $751,493 in direct institutional support. Western only contributes $356,074 to its program.

There are numerous places on campus that need additional financial support, but the most glaring may well be the athletic department.

“In just about every area, we are funded less than our completion,” Vartabedian said. “That is one of our recurring frustrations is that we are and have had the lowest appropriations per student among all the state universities in Missouri.”

McGuffin understands that he isn’t the only member of administration requesting additional funds.

“The hardest part for funding is probably just the general operating budget: everybody on campus needs more operating budget and that’s the truth,” McGuffin said. “We’ve been cut just like everyone else has the last few years.”

A strong athletic program can help the university in many ways, including enhancing the school’s national and regional brand, recruiting more students and helping student pride and alumni pride. More alumni pride translates into more contributions to the school and can actually make the school more money.

“Obviously [athletics] is an important part of our brand, but it’s not the most important part of our brand,” Vartabedian said. “We are first and foremost an academic institution, and we approach things as such. With that said, [athletics] is a very big part of what we do.”

The question is if Western values athletics enough to make this commitment, or if the university is just satisfied being an also-ran in the major sports and have its fiercest rival, Northwest, continue to excel while Western continues to lag behind. The choice is Western’s to make.

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