Wednesday, August 4, 2010
Northern Iowa: The Shot and The Effect
By Dana O'Neil
CEDAR FALLS, Iowa -- The Northern Iowa baseball jersey hangs behind the door to Troy Dannen's office, a constant reminder of the eggshell-thin landing for a portion of college athletics.
The massive photographic mural of Ali Farokhmanesh hangs on the wall outside Ben Jacobson's office, a constant reminder of the power of college athletics.
In a time of tricky economics -- when reconstructed conferences promise to fatten the already-stuffed cash cow of athletic budgets while professors and administrators are taking unpaid furloughs -- the push-pull on the merits of collegiate sports has never been touchier.
Tuitions go up and basketball teams charter flights; student fees are doubled and football teams dine at private training tables.
At big state schools, where the major sports programs bring in wheelbarrows of cash that pile up to seven figures, arguing the merits of college athletics isn't so hard.
But at smaller schools, where every dollar is stretched and the profit doesn't always top the cost of doing business, it's a much tougher sell.
Dannen stood on the precipice of defending his department just two years ago. Budget cuts forced him to do away with the school's 103-year-old baseball program and meetings with faculty about the worth of athletics turned bitterly contentious.
Then, a fearless 21-year-old took a shot that he never should have taken.
And the darned thing went in.
"One of the faculty members, who has no clue what's going on, all of a sudden is getting calls from five different colleagues congratulating her because we beat Kansas," Dannen said. "I could never have convinced people like that why we matter without this game."
This game refers to what goes down as the seminal moment from an NCAA Tournament rife with excitement from the opening tip to the very last midcourt shot. Farokhmanesh's ice-in-the-veins 3-pointer sent tourney favorite Kansas packing with a 69-67 Panthers win and put Northern Iowa on a public-relations/feel-good trajectory the likes of which the modest school had never seen.
From gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated to winning the ESPY for Best Upset, the Panthers blasted out of their obscure bubble and directly onto center stage.
"It's the most amazing thing I've ever been a part of," Jacobson said. "Nothing can prepare you for this. Nothing. This is the most fun I've ever had in this job."
|One of the defining images of the thrilling NCAA tourney was Farokhmanesh's shot against No. 1 KU.|
Ben Jacobson had no interest in leaving and even less interest in doing the "hot coach flirting with bigger jobs" tango.
He wanted to re-up his contract with Northern Iowa and he wanted to get it done quickly and quietly.
And he wasn't looking to break the bank. At the start of last season, Jacobson was the seventh highest-paid coach in the 10-team Missouri Valley. He and his administrators agreed that if he could get closer to the middle of the league, everyone would be happy.
But coming up with the cash to essentially make Jacobson the highest-paid person on the UNI campus at a cash-strapped university wasn't going to be easy.
And then Farokhmanesh made the shot and the money magically appeared.
In the 72 hours between Northern Iowa's return from the first two rounds in Oklahoma City and its departure for the regional in St. Louis, Dannan raised $1.95 million to keep his coach.
Wealthy donors and benefactors who were previously on the fence about donating the cash willingly opened their wallets, including some who had never contributed to the athletics department before.
With fans gathered for a pep rally and the bus idling, waiting to take him to St. Louis and a Sweet 16 date with Michigan State, Jacobson signed a 10-year extension.
"It was unbelievable," Jacobson said.
Athletic administrators have long contended that successful athletics serve as a window for a university and winning teams can bring positive attention and free advertising unlike anything else on a campus.
Northern Iowa has the documents to prove it.
Not long after the Panthers dispatched the Jayhawks, UNI administrators reached out to their fellow Cinderella peers to see how to best gauge the impact of the victory. They contacted Appalachian State (upset winners against Michigan football in 2007), George Mason (Final Four stunners in 2006) and Gonzaga (the original mid-major darling with its Elite Eight appearance in 1999), asking what sort of details they should see and from where.
What they came up with is a 21-page research packet on how Ali Farokhmanesh changed Northern Iowa's world.
Sounds like hyperbole?
Consider: When Dannen came to UNI, he was facing an $800,000 budget deficit. Then the state appropriations reduced its contribution from $5 million to $3.6 million, with designs on getting it to zero.
When the team left for St. Louis and the Sweet 16 against Michigan St., Dannen was told he had to put together some sort of road map to get his department out of the red.
And then, during the week of March 22, credit card transactions spiked from a typical 29 percent to 44 percent at the UNI Foundation Call Center; 46 new members joined the Panther Scholarship Club one week after UNI beat Kansas; sales to the school's online store jumped a ridiculous 1,577 percent from February to March and website traffic soared as well, with a 168 percent increase in page views and a 268 percent increase in unique visitors over the previous month.
Those numbers are eye-poppers anywhere. At a school tucked in Cedar Falls, Iowa, those numbers are mind-blowing.
But more than an influx of cash, those numbers proved the worth of athletics to skeptics who thought they were little more than a money drain.
"I think now people finally understand the importance this sort of success has for your university," Dannen said. "I couldn't explain it before, but now they can see it and they can touch it."
No one can see the effect of Northern Iowa's Sweet 16 appearance quite as clearly as Jacobson. The coach had a front-row seat for the carnival and has loved the ride.
Always popular and well-liked, he is suddenly a red-hot, in-demand speaker -- and it's not just the typical local and alumni functions. Nike invited him to speak at one of its events in Pittsburgh and then flew him out to Las Vegas to do the same.
When the PGA Champions Tour swung through Iowa in June, Jacobson served as the keynote speaker for a young businessperson's luncheon and then, for the first time, was asked to play in the event's Pro-Am.
And Jacobson's own golf outings drew record numbers, with 148 foursomes at each, up from 116 last year.
"None of this would have happened without that game," Jacobson said. "People have wanted me to be here and there. It's all been unbelievably good, but it's just amazing what this game has done. Just when I think it's ending, it keeps going."
Soon, Jacobson will have no choice but to pull the plug on the hoopla, at least internally.
In the next month, the Panthers return to campus and before long, return to the court. This won't be the same UNI team. They have lost three of their top four scorers and three of their top four rebounders.
Along with Farokhmanesh, Jordan Eglseder and league MVP Adam Koch graduated, leaving Kwadzo Ahelegbe to pick up the reins.
"It was a significant accomplishment, so I'm not going to sit here and tell them it meant nothing; of course it meant something," Jacobson said. "But as hard as it is, you have to put it away. Everyone wants to relive it, but we can't. We have to move forward."
You get the feeling that won't be terribly difficult.
The Panthers' Q rating may have changed, but the program and the people haven't. Immediately after beating Kansas, the UNI team went for its celebratory team dinner.
"Why?" Dannen said. "Because that's what we do."
|The Jacobson family is now basketball royalty in Cedar Falls.|
The fairy-tale ending here would be that the basketball team did enough to save the baseball team.
Sadly, that's not true.
By the time UNI divvies up its NCAA tournament money with its Valley brethren, even the bump in donations and purchases won't be enough to save baseball or return the athletics department entirely to the black.
That baseball jersey still hangs on Dannen's door, reminding him of his challenges.
But at least now there also is that mural of Farokhmanesh, reminding him to hope.
"I wish I could say it saved the day; it hasn't," Dannen said. "But it has helped. It's helped a lot. Can it happen again? There's no reason to think it will, but at least now you can dream."
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.