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.

Griffons suffer tough loss in Maryville

Northwest Missouri State jumped out 9-0 three minutes in Saturday's contest at Bearcat Arena, and the Missouri Western men's basketball team was unable to recover, falling 72-54 to the first-place Bearcat squad. The loss drops the Griffons to 7-10 in the MIAA and 11-13 overall while the Bearcats improve to 13-4 in the conference and 20-5 overall. The Griffons stayed within four points when they faced their rivals in January in the MWSU Fieldhouse and played a back-and-forth game in which the Bearcats were narrowly able to escape with a win. This game would never be that close down the stretch as the previous meeting. “We just throw it away and move on to the next game and try to get better everyday in practice,” Western forward Kevin Thomas said. The biggest and most obvious difference in Saturday's loss was that the Bearcats had freshman point guard Justin Pitts, who was forced to miss the previous meeting in St. Joseph. Pitts leads Northwest in scoring with 16.2 points per game and is also second on the team in assists. Pitts is also shooting over 50 percent from behind the arc and is 56 percent for the field. The freshman from Blue Springs did not disappoint a packed Bearcat Arena, as he finished with 22 points on 8-of-15 shooting. “I thought [Pitts] had a very good second half,” coach Brett Weiberg said. “Obviously we didn't do a good job of keeping him out of the paint, but he's hard to keep out of the paint.” Pitts had help from Grant Cozad and Conner Crooker who each contributed 16 points of their own to the effort. “[Cozad] played well early,” Weiberg said. “We probably missed a couple box-outs and that let their inside game get going and freed up the perimeter play.” Griffon senior Cortrez Colbert did his best to keep the visitors in the game, netting 20 points of his own. Thomas added 15, while Dareon Jones got 11. The Griffons were snake-bitten by poor shooting by their supporting players. The Western players, other than Jones, Colbert, and Thomas shot 3-for-22 from the field. “Really, we can just look at the shot attempts - its going to be hard to win games,” Weiberg said. “So if you're going to take 22 shots among the other guys, you have to make more than three.” The Griffons will be back in action Saturday at home against Southwest Baptist at 3:30 p.m.

Griffons seek revenge

This Saturday, the Griffon men will have its second chance against rivalry Northwest Missouri, after an upsetting 59-58 loss the first time they met. In the last match against the two, it went all the way down to the buzzer, where guard Cortrez Colbert went for the last shot but couldn’t capitalize. Seeing that this will be the second time they meet, they definitely know what to expect from the Bearcats and hope to bring home a win. The Bearcats will be rejoined by their point guard Justin Pitts, who suffered from an injury that kept him out a few games including against Western. Pitts averages 16 points per game and plays a significant role for the Bearcats. Kevin Thomas had strong thoughts on Pitts and the Bearcats. “That’s not who were worried about,” Thomas said. “If we play well we will beat them.” Thomas managed to get a double double with 12 points and 14 rebounds against Southern Missouri. Coach Brett Weiberg said how important that would be if they got another performance like that from Thomas. “If we know we’ll get that out of Kevin every single night, that just give us a whole other dimension to our basketball team,” Weiberg said. “Kevin competed against Southern but the problem is consistency, if we know we’re going to get that out of him, we will game plan a little bit different and it makes it easier.” Thomas says we can expect another night like that from him. The Griffons have proven they can compete and win against top teams. The Griffon men will have the opportunity to knock off the No. 2 Bearcats, another top team, as they did so against No. 4 Lindenwood. The Griffon men are not as successful on the road like they are at home, but understanding how exciting and important this win against the Bearcats is, they will go in with the mindset that this is their home floor. In the 2013-14 season, the Griffons split wins, winning at home 71-58 but losing in the Bearcat arena 59-52. Hopefully, we can split again. “Little mistakes, little key mistakes, kept us from winning,” Thomas said. “Overall we played well, but one turnover affects the game, one bad offensive play affects the game too but we strive for perfection, so we just have to play better.” Currie Byrd had quite a silent game against the Bearcats, but he explains what his team needs from him to get a road win. “I just have to get buckets, I have to have lock down defense, and I try to do the same every game,” Byrd said. With three games remaining for the season, it is very important that the Griffons play their best and bring home wins. Coach Weiberg and his crew look forward to meeting rivalry Northwest Missouri once again.

Griffons defeat conference leader Lions

After a heartbreaking loss to rival Northwest Missouri, the Griffons bounced back, defeating conference leader Lindenwood University 67-58 and improving to 10-11 overall. The first half of the match was played close by both teams with neither team leading by more than seven points. The game was tied at three different moments in the first half but, thanks to two early threes and a layup by guard Wes Mitter, Western was able to head into halftime leading by seven points with a score of 29-22. Head coach Brett Weiberg understands how important Mitter's quick points were towards the outcome of the game. "The minutes Wes Mitter gave us were huge," Weiberg said. "A guy comes in and hits two threes and a two, scoring eight huge points in the first half, while Aaron Emmanuel was out in foul trouble... you just can't over emphasize how important that is and how that helps you win basketball games." The Griffons started the second half with a 9-0 run until the Lions made a free throw. Western's lead grew to 16 points while their offense continued to execute and the defense limited Lindenwood's opportunities. The Lions did not give up, slimming the lead down to seven with just under two minutes left in the game. Although Western's lead dwindled down to as low as five points, they never allowed Lindenwood to gain the lead, toppling the conference leaders 67-58. Guards Cortrez Colbert and Cole Clearman lead the Griffons' offense with 23 and 13 points respectively, and forward Dareon Jones was among the leaders with 11 points scored. On the defensive end, forward Kevin Thomas pulled down seven rebounds while guards Hans Thun and Colbert each had six. Weiberg attributes some of their success towards the team implementing the game plan well. "We defended them pretty well and the kids carried over what we wanted them to do," Weiberg said. "They also did a pretty good job taking advantage of what we could take advantage of offensively." Western is now 10-11 overall and 6-8 in the conference, improving to No. 9 in the MIAA. The next step towards making the MIAA tournament is a road game against the Missouri Southern State University Lions on Saturday, Feb. 14. Currently, the Lions are three spots above the Griffons with a 14-8 overall record and a 8-5 conference record.

MSSU Preview

Coach Brett Weiberg and his crew set course for Joplin, Missouri, this weekend to play a game that, if won, would push the Griffons to 7-8 in MIAA play and 11-11 overall on the season. That would go a long way in making up ground in the MIAA. The Griffons are coming off of an upset win against Lindenwood. Freshman Seth Bonifas said the team was feeling good about the win. “Winning the game against Lindenwood really got us pumped up, and we will carry it over to the Southern game Saturday,” Bonifas said. Lindenwood, a team that has already qualified for a spot in the MIAA tournament and tied for first in the MIAA, lead with a 10-4 record in MIAA play. They are tied with Northwest Missouri State and Central Missouri, both teams Missouri Western has to play again on the road. Besides two home games against Lincoln and Southwest Baptist, the road to postseason play is a tall task. But, if we have learned anything this year, the Griffons are capable of beating anyone. If we look back to the last time these two teams squared off, it was a Griffons home game back on Jan. 24. Missouri Western went into the half up six points, but after the half Southern went on a 17-0 run and things got away from the Griffons. In that game, we saw Cortrez Colbert of MWSU and Taevaunn Prince of MSSU match each other almost shot for shot. Colbert, hitting seven field goals, and Prince, hitting six, both lead their teams in scoring with 18 points. Look for another shootout between Colbert and Prince. Like last time these two played, who ever gets on a better run will more than likely take the win. Prince had three other teammates go in double figure points with him, while only Currie Byrd joined Colbert at the double-digit party. Also, MSSU shot 45 percent from the arc in the second half compared to MWSU’s zero percent. You have to think Southern won't be that hot again, and Western won't be that cold again. Missouri Southern is led by the duo of Prince and Cameron Cornelius in scoring who, when they get on the same page, are a lethal combo. The Griffons will have to be very cautious with the top of the Lions' offense, as that's where the majority of their points come from. That will be a big test for the Griffons' young guard pairings in slowing the Lions down. We have officially entered the stretch of the season where it's do or die for postseason spots and this very talented, but also very young, Griffon team. Going into Joplin and winning would be a big win for this team and would help get them closer to playing in Kansas City. Watch for young players like freshmen Cole Clearman, Byrd and Bonifas to start coming up big behind senior Colbert. This should be a shootout in Joplin, with two teams fighting for seeding in the MIAA. There won’t be too much love lost this Valentine's day as the teams square off this Saturday, Feb. 14, at 3 p.m in the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center in Joplin.