Football Writers Association of America 2001 BEST WRITING CONTEST

Bowling for dollars
Erik Brady & Steve Wieberg, USA Today

MOBILE, Ala. Bowl games often generate more boola, boola than moola. But Southern Miss is a bird of a different color. The Golden Eagles always finish in the black.

Part I: Bowl games can be costly win or lose
Part II: Bowling for dollars
Part III: Wisconsin cuts costs for rosier financial line

The University of Southern Mississippi upset 16th-ranked Texas Christian University 28-21 last week on a dramatic touchdown in the final seconds of the Mobile Alabama Bowl. And the balance sheet is likely to match the scoreboard for good news: Southern Miss officials expect to clear about $150,000 after expenses.

Southern Miss has played in bowl games each of the last four seasons and managed to pull a profit in each of them. That's not bad considering a USA TODAY review of last season's bowls shows that about half of the colleges lost money on the games.

"I think at some schools, if you're going to a bowl game, it becomes a giant free-for-all," says Rick Villareal, USM associate athletic director for external affairs. "We think there's another way. You can run things first class, not shortchange anybody and still put a little money in the bank."

How much that will be for this season's bowl won't be clear for a few weeks. Southern Miss gets a guaranteed payout of $750,000 for the Mobile Alabama Bowl. (The final number probably will be somewhat more; last year's payout grew to about $810,000 after all the receipts were counted, bowl director Jerry Silverstein says.)

USM cleared $113,115 last season at the Liberty Bowl, where its share was $850,000. Its biggest expense then was $268,135 in unsold tickets. That won't be a problem this time. The Eagles had fewer tickets to sell and sold them all.

"Last year, the game was on New Year's Eve and some fans didn't want to travel because of the Y2K thing," says David Hansen, associate athletic director for internal affairs. "But this one was more like a home game" as Mobile is about 90 miles from the campus in Hattiesburg, Miss. Profits in the $100,000 range might not sound like much for an athletic department with a $10 million operating budget. But that 100 grand represents the cost of about 10 out-of-state scholarships, athletic director Richard Giannini points out.

Bowl profits are not earmarked for a specific purpose because you can't budget for a bowl game that you don't know you'll be in.

"The money goes straight to the bottom line," Giannini says. "It gives us a cushion so we're able to finish the year with a balanced budget."

This time, part of the profits will go to fill an unbudgeted expense that fell between the cracks $47,000 to lease 3,600 square feet of trailer space for temporary athletic offices while a new building goes up.

A game of ball and money

TCU leads 7-0 as Horned Frogs quarterback Casey Printers drops back to pass, throws and interception! Leo Barnes runs it back 50 yards for the tying score. Allen Nobles cheers the touchdown and immediately turns to his tuba. The freshman band member joins 250 or so of his compatriots as they break into a spirited version of the school fight song, Southern Miss to the Top. "It's my first bowl game," Nobles says. "You can just feel the energy in the stadium." Colleges usually cover the expenses for three distinct groups at bowl games: Team and staff, band and cheerleaders, and "official party," meaning selected members of the athletic department, faculty and administration.

The team-staff and cheerleader-band numbers are more or less fixed. The trick to saving money, Hansen says, is holding down the numbers for the official party.

"That hurts a lot politically on campus," Hansen says. "But we can't go far beyond our core football people or we're just not going to finish in the black."

The transportation cost for USM's official party at last season's Liberty Bowl was $4,100. By contrast, Oregon State spent $140,000 sending its official party to last season's Oahu Bowl in Hawaii.

Which points up a built-in advantage for Southern Miss: Three of its last four bowls have been close to home. USM twice took buses for five hours to the Liberty Bowl in Memphis. (By contrast, Villareal says, when Memphis University's football team comes to Hattiesburg, the Tigers take a plane.) The trip to Mobile was 90 minutes by bus. Only when Southern Miss went to the Humanitarian Bowl in Boise did it pay for air travel.

"We made only a very small profit on that one," Giannini says. "Low travel costs is probably the difference in us making some money and some other schools not."

But so is creative cost cutting. The team bused home after the game last week to save an extra night's hotel bill.

A bowl's ripple effects

Eagles trail 21-14 in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Jeff Kelly fakes a handoff and looks long for wide receiver LeRoy Handy, who gathers in a 56-yard strike for the tying score. Time remaining: 7:24. Horace Fleming claps his gloved hands as Handy scores. Fleming is wearing a Southern Miss jacket and black gloves with gold footballs on them. He would look like any other fan were he not standing on the sideline and were he not president of the school.

"I like to think we get more bang for our buck," Fleming says. "That's a tribute to wise management by our people."

But bowls are never about dollars and cents alone. Fleming was on the faculty at Clemson when the Tigers won a national championship in 1981.

"Applications went up by 20,000," he says. "A bowl game is a window on the academic side of a university."

It also serves as something like a collegiate family reunion, albeit with tubas and touchdowns. "The game itself is the high point," Fleming says. "But there are parties and functions for five days when we all get a chance to reacquaint ourselves. We get to 'hang out,' as the young people say."

Seniors Nathaniel Anderson and Amande Younger hang out in the hotel lobby in the hours before the game. Anderson, a management systems major, is president of the student body. Younger, an interior design major, is one of three students who rotate in the role of Seymour, the Golden Eagle mascot.

"The whole school gets pumped up and enthused for a bowl game," Anderson says. "This is the third one I've been to."

"Me, too," Younger says. "I guess you could say we've been real lucky at Southern Miss."

Lucky? Hah! Brant Hanna has missed three field goals already. The ball, sailing low, is tipped every time. He lines up for what could be the game-winner. Game tied 21-21, a little over two minutes to play. This one from 32 yards. The snap, the kick blocked! Fleming grimaces. "No," he says, "not again!" And tromps away.

Tim Hallman, Class of 1987, exhales his disappointment. He was a guard on Southern Miss teams in the mid-'80s, protecting quarterback Brett Favre.

"We never got to any bowls when I was playing," Hallman says. "I love going to them now. You know it's the last game of the season and an eight-month wait for the next one."

For the team, other road games are mostly in one night and out the next. But the Golden Eagles' five days in Mobile are chock full of activity: Lunch on the USS Alabama, a Fellowship of Christian Athletes breakfast hosted by Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., a Mobile Mysticks minor league hockey game.

"Most of our guys had never seen hockey," Kelly says. "They just mostly wanted to see the fights."

The players got a package of gifts: footballs, jackets and watches from bowl officials and sweatsuits, sneakers and sports bags from their school. "The NCAA allows a maximum of $300 in gifts, and we want to make sure our players get every bit of that," Villareal says. "A bowl game is a reward for a good season, and we want our kids to be rewarded."

But these packages don't go far beyond players and staff, as they often do at other schools. "Some people view that as being cheap," Villareal says. "We don't think that's cutting corners. We want to take care of the people who are with you all year and really putting in the hours."

The bottom line

Fourteen seconds left, 21-21. Eagles' ball at the TCU 29. The game could come down to a fifth field goal try. Kelly fades back, spots Handy in the clear at the goal line. Touchdown! Eight seconds left, 28-21.Fleming raises his arms as though a referee. Heidi Morgan, one of the Dixie Darlings, hugs her dance mates. Kelly is mobbed by his teammates.

Bowl finances are the furthest thing from any of their minds.

"I can't believe it," gushes Morgan, who has a double major in dance choreography and elementary education. "I'm from Mobile. I'll remember this all my life."

So will Kelly, who is from Deer Park, a half-hour drive north. "I'm tickled to death that it ended like this," he says. "We just had a ton of heart out there."

A huge bag of ice is taped to his right elbow. He holds a cellphone to his ear, waiting for an interview with ESPN Radio. He signs the cap of a well-wisher an old-time hero embracing the modern notion of multitasking.

"Winning the game is what we came for," Kelly says. "And if the school made some money, too, then that's good. College football is a business, and I think we all understand that."

Coach Jeff Bower does. He is good at the business. His teams have won three of their four bowls. "I think this was the sweetest one," he says. "What a great way to end it for our seniors." And so the Golden Eagles head home for the holidays.

"A bowl game is like a giant Christmas present," Villareal says. "That's really what it is." Another present will come later, after all the bills are paid and the ledgers filled. Sometime a little after the 12th Day of Christmas, the Southern Miss athletic department will count up how much moola they made for themselves.

Showing fiscal fitness
Southern Mississippi's balance sheet from the 1999 Liberty Bowl:

Bowl payout: $1,200,000
Share retained by Conference USA: $350,000
School's share: $850,000

Team and staff: $39,775
Band and cheerleaders: $15,900
Official party: (faculty, athletic department, etc.): $4,100
TOTAL: $59,775

Meals and lodging
Team and staff: $65,750
Band and cheerleaders: $54,950
Official party (faculty, athletic department, etc.): $50,950
TOTAL: $171,650

Entertainment: $29,600
Promotion: $16,550
Awards: $51,250
Equipment and supplies: $1,200
Tickets (7,661 of 15,000 allotment unsold): $268,135
Administrative: $119,350
Other (includes media guide, use of practice facilities): $19,375

Total expenses: $736,885

NET REVENUE: $113,115

(Source: Bowl financial report from the school)