There has been a major brouhaha surrounding the College of Charleston’s recent basketball coach firing/hiring/hiring. In the midst of an administrative power vacuum, coach Tom Herrion was released from his position. Gregg Marshall, Winthrop’s winning coach, accepted the position and then politely reneged before the ink was dry. Returning to the drawing board, the college next approached retired former Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins, who quickly accepted.
In the midst of the coach shuffle, interstate strife broke out between the Upstate and the Lowcountry — a certain Charleston Post and Courier journalist referred to Rock Hill sarcastically as the “paradise of the Piedmont” while poking fun at Rock Hill cultural events and eating establishments. Rock Hill’s newspaper editor responded by reminding Charlestonians of their withering bravado in the face of General Sherman’s Zippo.
The barb-slinging, while entertaining, shoots air balls at the substantive issues. Why did the Cougars need a new coach, and — more importantly — where is the money coming from for this new athletic team?
Former coach Tom Herrion was let go with a tenure that ended in an 80-38 win-loss record — not too shabby — but his lack of charisma, leniency with flunking ballers, and absence of postseason bids brought his downfall. Last season, CofC home game basketball attendance was the lowest in 12 years.
“Overall, people felt that the team needed a change in what was happening,” says Jerry Baker, the College of Charleston Athletics Director.
Boosters and alumni began reminiscing about the good old days of the 1990s, when Coach John Kresse took the small college to four NCAA Tournaments in a six-season span. “It is fair to say that people wanted to see the team back in the NCAA,” says Baker.
And it’s no wonder. George Mason, this year’s NCAA Cinderella story, found itself propelled to media stardom by their performance in the annual tournament. Eric Wright, vice-president of Joyce Julius & Associates, a company that measures the value of sports sponsorships, said at the time of George Mason’s Elite Eight qualification that the university had received $4 million in “comparable exposure value” from media coverage of their games. Wright predicted then that if George Mason made it to the Final Four they would be looking at $8-$10 million in exposure.
George Mason went on to play in the Final Four game of the NCAA tournament, ultimately losing to Florida, but their trip to the Four was, as they say, priceless.
The new, new coach Bobby Cremins — stepping in after Gregg Marshall’s very brief stay with the Cougars — has split no hairs over his ambitions to take the Cougars to the tournament. “The conference tournament is what it’s all about,” he says. “Then you have the automatic berth to the NCAA.”
Along with the free millions in advertising and exposure that comes along with a trip to the big dance, there is also what is referred to in the business as the “glow effect.” When a small school comes out of nowhere and performs incredibly well on a national stage, donations from alumni start flowing in, admissions numbers grow, increased applicants lead to a better pool of students, the school is allowed to become more selective, and ultimately the academic reputation improves.
Academic legitimacy is something that the College of Charleston has been striving for. With college ranking guides becoming the preferred way for students to choose their higher education institutions, selectivity — entering students with higher test scores — is the holy grail for college admissions offices. But is a basketball team the best way to get there? What happened to investing in quality education?
“There has been a surge in donations,” says Monica Martin-Massey of CofC’s booster organization, the Cougar Club. “The phone has been ringing off the hook. The enthusiasm is there. It has been a shot in the arm for the program.” But donations have a way of tapering off after the initial flush of excitement has passed. Cremins will have to get the Cougars to the NCAA tournament quickly or CofC’s gamble to invest in athletics rather than education won’t pay off.
In choosing to put its money where its priorities are, the College of Charleston is paying a severance package of $787,000 to Herrion, and according to Tony Ciuffo, assistant athletic director for media relations at CofC, Bobby Cremins will be making a base salary of $250,000/year, plus incentives, for at least six years. The College is also building a new Athletic Center — the cost of which is yet to be determined. By comparison, the average first-year faculty member is paid $40,000, and academic departments, like the Department of Communication — the largest department on campus — has an operating budget of $1.7 million. There was no comment from the College about where money for Herrion’s severance package will be siphoned from.