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The Handoff

After losing its athletic director to a football school, VCU ponders the future: Is it ready for big-time college sports?

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Norwood Teague’s greatest feat was keeping VCU coach Shaka Smart in Richmond, where the Rams won this year’s Colonial Athletic Association championship at the Richmond Coliseum. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Norwood Teague’s greatest feat was keeping VCU coach Shaka Smart in Richmond, where the Rams won this year’s Colonial Athletic Association championship at the Richmond Coliseum.

Athletic director Norwood Teague took Virginia Commonwealth University to the precipice. But after losing him to the University of Minnesota last week, VCU finds itself at a crossroads.

On Teague's watch, the university shot into the stratosphere of national collegiate athletics on a relatively tiny budget. Teague took over an athletic program that brought in roughly $8 million a year in 2005 and built it into a $20 million enterprise by 2011, capped by the Rams' historic run to college basketball's Final Four. And for the last two years, Teague accomplished an even bigger feat: Convincing the basketball team's rock-star coach, Shaka Smart, to turn down more money at North Carolina State University and the University of Illinois and remain at VCU for a comparatively meager $1.2 million a year.

Replacing Teague, who earned $250,000 a year — or about 20 percent of Smart's salary — will be one of the biggest decisions of university President Michael Rao's career. Like it or not, the basketball program is one of the university's biggest marketing tools. Building on the momentum will be key, says Nathan Tomasini, executive director of the university's Center for Sport Leadership.

"He's left it in a much better position than it was," Tomasini says of Teague and his six-year tenure as athletic director. "The people that are in place understand how successful we are. It's important to bring in someone who understands that."

The men's basketball program wasn't an overnight sensation. Under former coach J.D. Barnett in the 1980s, the Rams made five trips the NCAA tournament and once cracked the Top 25. But after the hiring of coach Anthony Grant in 2006 — Teague's first big decision — the Rams entered a different dimension of national exposure. They beat Duke in the first round of the tournament in 2007; Smart took it to another level last year.

All the recent success of the basketball program has shunted talk of adding NCAA football at VCU, an expensive proposition that the university has yet to seriously consider. Teague made no secret of his passion for the pigskin. Before coming to Richmond in 2006, he worked at three football schools — Arizona State, University of North Carolina and the University of Virginia. Shortly after his introduction as athletic director at Minnesota last week, he recounted how football — the Golden Gophers have it — played a big role in his decision to leave VCU.

In an interview with ESPN's Adam Rittenberg, Teague recalled how he consulted with Jim Delany, commissioner of the Big Ten athletic conference, before coming to Richmond. "I called him, I think the day before I took the VCU job, because I was a little hesitant about going to a nonfootball job within college athletics," Teague said, adding that Delaney told him: "'Don't worry about that. I would go ahead and take the job, enjoy it, get great experience and you'll have a chance to take the next step soon.'"

Football is an expensive proposition. Last year Teague told Style Weekly that the costs for bringing football to campus could eclipse $100 million. And the university doesn't have the facilities — it's one of the reasons VCU has expressed interest in acquiring City Stadium, where the University of Richmond's football played home games until it opened its on-campus stadium in 2010 — which makes it even tougher.

But make no mistake: VCU can't break the big time in college athletics without football. As a marketing tool it could complement the university's successful basketball program, which can be somewhat economical. How much, after all, would a university spend if it had to pay for the marketing exposure that football brings on national television and the ever-churning sports cable networks such as ESPN?

"Maybe it's a lot more economic to get their fame this way than by investing in all the science and the faculty members" of rigorous academia, says Charles T. Clotfelter, professor of public policy, economics and law at Duke University and author of "Big Time Sports in American Universities."

It also might be a "diversion of money," Clotfelter says. "And you do have to ask the question, 'What's the benefit from this?'"

Jim Miller, athletic director at the University of Richmond, says the biggest issue isn't cost, especially for a school the size of VCU. "For a large state school, it's relatively easy financially," Miller says. "They have the ability to raise student fees. … If you have 30,000 students and you add $100, raising operating dollars is relatively easy."

The emphasis is on the relative.

"It's obviously the most difficult of all the sports to have," Miller adds, referring primarily to the number of players and coaches, which can surpass 100. "What people forget is when you add football you have an impact on your academic support staff, your training facilities. You're adding 100 male athletes; you're dealing with Title IX."

So by comparison, VCU's national exposure reaching the Final Four a year ago is a bargain. Including the coaches and players, a little more than 20 people are needed to field a basketball team, not including support staff.

As long as the basketball team is performing well and bringing the school national exposure, adding football is difficult to justify.

"It's certainly worth considering standing pat," Clotfelter says. "There's a world of costs associated with big-time football."

Stuart Siegel, whose name appears on the Broad Street gymnasium where the Rams sold out their home games during the 2011-'12 season, says basketball will remain king at VCU for the near future. The job for the next athletic director will be to keep it going.

"Norwood clearly did a great job. The relationships that he's built with donors as well as staff, and the university in general, have been tremendous and have been a great asset to our program," says Siegel, who also sits on the university's board of visitors.

"But everyone is replaceable." S

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