Junior college athletic programs feel the squeeze of budget proposals

Published 6:00 am Thursday, November 25, 2010

Twenty years ago, Sam Temple was a self-described “confused young man” when he first set foot on the campus of Hinds Community College.

The young baseball player did not have an easy time at the Raymond school. He flunked out once, returned the next year and focused on staying academically eligible. Eventually, his goals changed from doing whatever it took to play baseball to earning a degree.

He went on to Delta State, where he earned a master’s degree in education and became a teacher and coach. He guided Warren Central to a state baseball championship in 2001 and returned to Hinds in 2006 to lead the program he credits with setting him on the right path in life.

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“This place saved me,” said Temple, a Vicksburg native. “It truly did. It saved me and got me going in the right direction.”

As Hinds’ coach, Temple has tried to use junior college athletics as the same stepping stone for his players that it was for him. That opportunity might soon be gone, however.

Included in the 2012 budget recommendations that Gov. Haley Barbour issued to the Legislature last week was a one-paragraph note that sent a chill down the spines of coaches and administrators across the state.

“I again recommend eliminating $3 million in state funds spent on community college athletics,” the governor wrote. “Mississippi community colleges spend more than $23 million in state, local and student fees combined to fund athletics. Private foundations and campus boosters can support these activities if an institution desires.”

None of Barbour’s recommendations is binding, and months of negotiations lay ahead before any of them are put up for votes by legislators. However, if state funding is eliminated, junior college officials said it would be a crippling blow to their athletic programs.

“Our funds are 99 percent based on state funding. Probably 1 percent are through fund-raisers and other college supporters,” said Hilary Allen, the women’s basketball coach and athletic director at Meridian Community College. “It would be devastating. We don’t have the student fees to support us.”

Most of the state’s 15 community colleges have an athletic budget of about a million dollars a year. Hinds president Dr. Clyde Muse said relying on alumni and student fees to make up that amount is not a viable long-term solution.

“We have a lot of alumni. But it’s difficult when you try to get your alumni to pay for a program year after year,” Muse said. “Some larger universities might be able to do that, but we can’t. In community colleges you don’t have that kind of money coming in.”

After a round of budget cuts last year, Mississippi’s community colleges have already stretched their dollars.

The Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges agreed to reduce the football schedule from 10 to nine games for the 2010 season. Preseason practice also was started later in the summer so schools wouldn’t have to open cafeterias early for athletes.

In other sports, fall scrimmages against other teams were discontinued, practice time was reduced and playing dates were cut back.

“We have tried as an athletic department to save as much money as we can, and we took about $30,000 into this year. But $30,000 is not enough to provide for an entire athletic department,” Allen said.

Southwest Mississippi Community College went as far as suspending operations for its track, tennis and golf programs.

“We suspended more than $400,000 worth of programs last year, so we feel we did our part in contributing to solving the budget crisis,” athletic director Larry Holmes said.

Holmes, unlike some of his counterparts, felt his program could survive solely on donations and fees. Even if it did, however, it would be costly.

Of the 70 football-playing members in the National Junior College Athletic Association, 14 are in Mississippi. Bordering states have few, if any, teams, and the closest states with strong juco football leagues are Texas and Kansas.

If some Mississippi jucos are forced to eliminate football, a ripple effect would be felt as surviving teams tried to fill schedules.

“If some of the smaller schools pull the plug on football it would force us to travel to Texas to play. Then you’re talking about chartering buses,” Holmes said. “It would be tough on schools.”

Eliminating programs, especially such popular ones as football, would be a last resort, Muse said. If it came to that, he said it would be put to a vote before the MACJC’s membership.

Disbanding a single program or an entire athletic department is largely viewed as a one-way street. The costs associated with starting a program are far greater than what it takes to keep it running. Even if Mississippi’s economy improves and state funding returned in a few years, there’s no guarantee schools would or could reinstate athletics.

“In the discussion of starting football, we looked at the initial cost as a reason not to do it,” said Allen, whose school has no football program. “If you start back four or five years from now you’d have to have huge upfront money to start back, then get back up to that level you were at.”

In his recommendation, Barbour made reference to focusing the state’s thin budget on education rather than athletics.

“In a time when resources are scarce, it is difficult to justify spending tax dollars on the field of play when the classroom is in need,” Barbour wrote.

The state’s coaches, however, said the two often go hand-in-hand.

“There are some kids here that probably would not be if they didn’t have the chance to play ball,” Holmes said.

Besides the dozens of athletes who have made their way to the pro ranks from Mississippi’s junior colleges, hundreds have gone on to play — and earn degrees — at four-year schools. The potential of losing that opportunity is what’s really disappointing to junior college officials.

“I just know, being in this for 28 years, what athletics has done for so many young people in Mississippi,” said Gene Murphy, Hinds’ longtime football coach and athletic director. “It’s been a positive thing, and that’s substantiated around the country. If you were asking those people that have been through a junior college program, you would get a resounding ‘no’ that they should be cut.”