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Cal State football programs try to do with less

San Jose State and San Diego State, facing USC and UCLA this weekend, play at a financial disadvantage that requires both sacrifice and creativity.

September 04, 2009|David Wharton

Throw out all the usual numbers.

Total yards. Turnovers. Pass completion percentage.

On Saturday, when San Jose State plays USC at the Coliseum and San Diego State visits the Rose Bowl to face UCLA, the most telling statistic might be dollars and cents.

Only three schools in the California State University system can still afford to play college football at the highest level -- Fresno State is in the mix too -- and when you consider their financial resources, the playing field is hardly level.

According to the most recent data filed with the U.S. Department of Education, USC spent $20.9 million on football for the 2007-08 season. San Jose State spent $4.2 million.

UCLA reported $16.8 million in expenses compared with San Diego State's $8.1 million.

The extra money could pay for more recruiting trips, sophisticated training equipment and other amenities that make a team better on the field.

At Fresno State, which spent $6.9 million, Coach Pat Hill said: "We're never going to have an easy path. It's an economic thing. That's what we're fighting."

Over the last 30 or so years, one state school after another has dropped football at various NCAA levels. The list includes Cal State Los Angeles, Cal Poly Pomona, Cal State Long Beach, Cal State Fullerton and Cal State Northridge.

Not everyone sees that as a bad thing.

With its large rosters, equipment needs and travel, football is an expensive proposition. Critics of big-time college sports argue that, given gender-equity concerns and tough economic times, schools shouldn't be spending that kind of money.

The three Cal State schools that have chosen to persevere at the Football Bowl Subdivision level generate -- and therefore spend -- a lot less on their teams because they lack big television contracts and receive only a small portion of Bowl Championship Series revenue.

The recent state budget crisis has made things even tougher.

So playing at a financial disadvantage requires sacrifice and creativity. Start with coaching searches.

State schools can't afford to pay millions for a marquee name, looking instead for a young coach on the rise. San Diego State Athletic Director Jeff Schemmel said: "It makes them harder to find, but they're out there."

Whoever gets the job will probably face a schedule that includes one or two of what former Fullerton coach Gene Murphy used to call "body-bag games."

Cash-strapped teams agree to play bigger, richer, more-talented opponents -- almost always on the road -- in exchange for guaranteed money that can range from $400,000 to $1 million.

Neither San Jose State nor USC would discuss their financial arrangement, but a source with knowledge of the contract said that it pays $550,000 to $600,000 to the Spartans, 33.5-point underdogs.

San Diego State will receive only $200,000 to enter the Rose Bowl as a 19.5-point underdog because the Aztecs and Bruins are completing a multi-game deal negotiated more than a decade ago.

Though Schemmel points out that non-BCS teams have scored upsets over BCS opponents in recent seasons, he's realistic.

"You have to balance getting a huge payday somewhere in exchange for probably a loss," he said. "I think we all do that."

Fresno State has enjoyed some success against the big boys, including a victory at UCLA last season and a close loss at top-ranked USC in 2005. Yet Hill wonders whether so many tough road games have kept his program from stretching past an average of eight wins over the last 10 seasons.

"The travel schedule is very demanding, and that's the hardest part," he said.

Other aspects of the financial imbalance are less visible to fans.

Coaches must be more hands-on with fundraising, whether they are attending meetings with donors, holding team jog-a-thons or beating the bushes for sponsors.

Back when Murphy was at Fullerton, his assistants were given territories. Steve Mariucci, on his way to the NFL, was responsible for canvassing the area around Commonwealth Avenue and Harbor Boulevard.

"They'd go to corporations for money or to sell ads in the program," Murphy recalled.

Those hours represented precious time away from videotape study and game planning. At Fresno State, which has the only game in the Central Valley, Hill said fundraising is essential.

"We have a captive audience," he said. "Fresno State is always going to survive because we've got a great fan base."

Still, the Bulldogs and the other Cal State universities are constantly looking for ways to save.

When San Jose State Coach Dick Tomey sends his assistants out recruiting, they might stay with friends or relatives on the road or, at the very least, schedule their visits tightly enough to save a hotel night on either end of the trip.

The San Diego State staff is choosy about where it stays.

"Remember that your goal is to recruit kids," Schemmel said. "Not to stay in a fancy hotel."

It helps that California has a wealth of high school talent, enough to feed all seven major-college teams, so recruiters don't necessarily have to look far.

But the cost of air travel can preclude off-season trips that coaching staffs often make to observe and learn from other programs around the nation.

"We can't just decide to go and take a visit to the University of Oklahoma or Texas with our entire staff," Tomey said. "But Oklahoma might be visiting USC on the West Coast. They might say, 'Come down and we'll spend a day and a half with you.' "

To a man, Cal State coaches and athletic directors said they try to shield players from cost-saving measures, never scrimping on such things as uniforms, equipment or training table meals.

"When it comes to outfitting the team, first-class hotels, we're going to do that," Tomey said.

But when the Spartans leave campus today for the 340-mile trip to Los Angeles, they won't be headed for the airport.

As part of an effort to economize, players and coaches will travel by bus.


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