Catamount comeback: Can new athletic director turn Western football around?Written by Quintin Ellison
Western Carolina University hired a new athletic director this week who will face the daunting challenge of turning the college’s losing football team around.
The official announcement will be made on campus Wednesday morning with an appearance by the new AD.
The new AD will face the tall order of rebuilding the football program — something that his predecessor failed to do and by all accounts is the reason he isn’t there anymore.
Sports has seen a renewed emphasis under Chancellor David Belcher, who pledged to improve the athletic department when he took over this summer.
“Athletics is a front door or front porch to the institution,” Belcher said last month during a kick-off for the athletic director search. “Athletics provides visibility for the university, it grounds students in the institution, and it is a way to keep in contact with donors and alumni.”
Belcher called the hiring an “important decision.”
A 15-member search committee culled through 75 applications for the athletic director position during the month of November, a recruitment process aided by the hired consulting firm Collegiate Sports Associates.
The search committee narrowed the field to seven candidates for interviews. Their top two finalists were passed along to Belcher last week, who made the final pick. While names have not been released by the university, the Asheville Citizen-Times and WLOS have reported that Tom Kleinlein, the deputy athletic director at Kent State, and Randy Eaton, Maryland’s senior associate athletics director for new revenue, facilities and operations, were finalists.
Belcher then held a conference call meeting of the WCU Board of Trustees Monday morning to get approval for the salary, benefits and contract being offered for the new AD. While the choice of who to hire is Belcher’s, the contract terms must be approved by the trustees. The salary will be $160,000 with a five-year contract until June 2016.
After the meeting, Belcher formally extended the offer, and it was accepted.
Job No. 1 for the new athletic director will be hiring a new football coach. It might not be as easy as it sounds. Since 2001, WCU has sent three football coaches packing before their contracts ended for losing too many games.
The most recent causality was former coach Dennis Wagner, forced out just before the last game of the season. The assistant head coach met a similar fate.
In four years, Wagner won only eight of the 36 games the team played. This season was the worst, however. Wagner won just one game this year — a statistic that ultimately brought the athletic director down as well.
Former Athletic Director Chip Smith was blamed at least in part for the football coaches’ failures — or at the very least for keeping the coaches around despite their poor showings. In his seven years at WCU, Smith twice supported extending the contracts for coaches who were later fired. And in both cases it cost the university, which had to pay out settlements for terminating the coaches’ contracts.
While WCU is paying Wagner $300,000 for the two years left on his contract, the negotiated settlement is less than the full amount his contract called for — a compromise both sides felt was in their best interest.
During the athletic director search process, Belcher said he wanted someone who could “hire, retain and mentor excellent coaches.” But it will also take financial savvy and a good PR face.
WCU is running a $400,000 deficit in its athletic program this year, fueled in part by declining attendance at games, declining sponsorships and even fewer sales of programs and souvenirs.
“We need someone who can build a strategically designed budget, who can manage very carefully the limited resources we do have while also playing a major role in bringing new resources to the table,” Belcher said. “We must grow our resources, in partnership with others, through fundraising, increased ticket sales and additional sponsorships.”
A timeline of WCU sports turmoil
• Oct. 25: Athletic Director Chip Smith is fired after eight years in the position.
• Oct. 31: Assistant Head Football Coach Matt Pawlowsk is fired.
• Nov. 13: Head Football Coach Dennis Wagner is forced out, getting a $300,000 settlement for time left on his contract.
• Dec. 14 New athletic director is named.
• TBA: New head football coach named.
A press conference announcing the new WCU athletic director will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 14, in the Hospitality Room of the Ramsey Center. Check www.smokymountainnews.com starting at 11 a.m. for updates. A community meet-and-greet session will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 14, at O’Malley’s of Sylva.