Staton orders ECU athletics audit
By Michael Abramowitz
and Nathan Summers
The Daily Reflector
Friday, August 10, 2018
ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton has requested an independent audit of the university’s athletic department in hopes of putting to rest continuing concerns raised about the financial health of the Pirates’ sports program.
Staton told The Daily Reflector in a conversation Wednesday he asked the UNC System to hire a private firm to review the department’s finances. The audit would be the latest in a number of reviews prompted by criticism from alumni and concerns about a deficit of more than $3 million between spending and revenue in the department — blamed in part on fees associated with ECU’s entry into the American Athletic Conference.
The Reflector asked Staton to confirm reports the paper received about the audit, and he spoke to a reporter after an unrelated meeting on campus. In response to a question about recent exchanges about him between the ECU Board of Trustees and the Board of Governors, the university leader said most of the turbulence at the top has centered on the athletic department.
“A lot of it has to do with athletics and two 3-9 football seasons in particular,” Staton said of ECU, which bought out the contract of unpopular athletic director Jeff Compher in the spring, hired former ECU AD Dave Hart as a special adviser but has not named a permanent replacement.
“It’s very frustrating for me to be in a situation where I have to defend those kinds of things. But it goes with the territory. These are tough times for public higher education, not just here but around the country. There are powder kegs every day that you try to step over or keep from blowing up. It’s just part of the turf.”
ECU acting chief operating officer Lee Workman, who also is the acting athletic director until a new one is named, offered support for Staton and the audit process on Thursday.
“We support the chancellor in his decision to initiate this process and will supply all information that is requested,” Workman said via email. “It is our belief an outside, independent review will address any additional questions.”
The losing football seasons, declining attendance, an expensive stadium renovation project and the need for a new AD all figure into the challenge. Staton said Hart has been a vital addition and maybe best understands the challenges ECU is facing. Staton said that the latest audit is meant “to try to deal with any last doubts or concerns.”
“We’re trying to do Division I athletics at a very high level,” Staton said. “Dave Hart summed it up as succinctly as anyone has: ‘Our expectations for success are not matched by our financial resources.’ There it is in a nutshell. So, we’ve got to raise more and we’ve got to invest more. We’ve got to win because, as you know, that is certainly a part of revenue generation as a part of athletics. We’ve got a lot of things we have to do, but at the end of the day, all of this could really have been plotted out, and should have been seen in some cases, once the decision was made to leave Conference USA and join the American Athletic Conference.”
Staton said he hoped this audit would dispel what he called “wild rumors” about the state of ECU athletics.
Former vice chancellor for administration and finance Rick Niswander told the Reflector the same thing in April when officials released the results of an internal audit that spelled out the department’s deficits and challenges. He said the audit was in response to a detailed complaint lodged by ECU season ticket holder and Pirate Club member John Bream. He and other officials said Bream’s complaint and other chatter exaggerated the problems. Niswander said it was a chance to put rumors to rest.
“Because there was so much chatter going on out there, let’s have them take a look at it,” Niswander said of the decision to go ahead with the review by ECU auditor Stacie Tronto, also saying it was uncommon for the school to conduct an audit based on what were believed to be largely unfounded claims.
According to Staton, there were four reviews on ECU athletics last year, including one by State Auditor Beth Wood, an annual Pirate Club (external) audit, the Tronto audit and another look at the books by Sara Thorndike, who replaced Niswander.
The chancellor cited many other athletics challenges, including paying full cost of attendance for student-athletes and paying hefty out-of-state tuition fees in the process.
Mostly, however, the athletics problems are of the football variety, including the school reportedly being 3,000 season tickets behind last year’s pace this summer and having multiple home games last season that were among the most poorly attended in more than a decade.
“The situation we’ve been in the last two years with football ... it’s a cumulative thing,” Staton said. “We’re not going to get there overnight, but the sky’s not falling; we’re not about to fall over a cliff. Though we have challenges, we’re sober about them and have a lot of work to do, and Dave Hart’s been a great help to that.”
While the chancellor said he is mostly met with positivity from those with whom he comes in contact, he admits sports fans can be an exception.
“They don’t know me and most of the time I don’t know them,” he said. “But they’re important; they buy tickets, they’re butts in the seats and we certainly depend on that for our financial stability in athletics. A lot of that (negativity) is just the nature of athletics. They really don’t know me.”
Contact Nathan Summers at firstname.lastname@example.org, 252-329-9595 and follow @NateSumm99 on Twitter.
COMING SATURDAY: Chancellor Staton addresses recent exchanges about him between members of the ECU Board of Trustees and the UNC Board of Governors.