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Gerlach: Leaving AAC not an option

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East Carolina University interim chancellor Dan Gerlach at ECU on July 12, 2019.

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, August 11, 2019

In one response to the Cherry Bekaert assessment report on East Carolina University finances and athletics, ECU interim chancellor Dan Gerlach did not mince his words in guaranteeing that the Pirates leaving the American Athletic Conference is not an option.

“No. Hell no,” said Gerlach, who emphasized that Connecticut’s plan to leave the AAC is costing the Huskies $17 million in exit fees, during an ECU special Board of Trustees meeting on Aug. 1. “That is not on the table to do that with us. That is money we would not be able to spend on anything else for the student experience.”

UConn and the AAC recently negotiated a deal for the Huskies to return to the Big East on July 1, 2020. UConn’s main motivators for the move included geography and basketball.

ECU does plan on exploring guarantee games — commonly referred to as “buy games” — in major revenue sports football and men’s basketball. Guarantee game contracts involve a team earning a one-time payment to travel to a school from a Power Five conference, without the traveling school receiving a return trip for an even home-and-home setup.

Pirate athletics director Jon Gilbert said he is looking at the Pirates’ 2023 football schedule for that lucrative opportunity.

“It will be a team that makes sense from a resource standpoint,” he said Wednesday. “It will be with bigger schools. ... I agree that we are going to need to play one or two here and there, from a funding standpoint. You don’t want that to be bread and butter and you need to be mindful when you do it.”

Gilbert added that all ECU team budgets are in the bottom third of the AAC, with baseball as the only exception as it is in the top third.

UConn and East Carolina are among the teams nationwide facing athletic budget deficits in the millions of dollars, thus needing other university money for support.

The Pirates, who according to the Cherry Bekaert report faced an athletics budget projected annual net deficit of $11.9 million for this fiscal year and an $11.4 million deficit in 2020, received funds to balance their budget and have an approved athletics budget through 2020. Part of the deficit is related to ECU investing in facilities and infrastructure in football and men’s basketball with expectations of producing better results as soon as this year under coaches Mike Houston (football) and Joe Dooley (basketball).

ECU finished next-to-last in the AAC East in football and next-to-last in the league in basketball last season.

Houston has an 80-25 career record and is a first-year coach for the Pirates. Dooley has created buzz this offseason through recruiting and by revamping his team’s roster.

Baseball, under coach and East Carolina alum Cliff Godwin, has been an annual conference championship contender, which Gerlach pointed out in his latest public address to ECU trustees. The Pirates won the American tournament in 2015 and ‘18, and this year they took the league regular-season title with an AAC all-time record 20 wins before also winning an NCAA regional in Greenville.

“There is a direct correlation there,” Gilbert said. “Cliff built that, because he wasn’t at the top of the third (in budget) when he took over the program (in 2014). He clearly has built that.”

Gilbert also likes to point to the track and field success at Southern Miss, where he was AD for the Golden Eagles before being hired by the Pirates in December, as another quality example. He said there is no locker room specifically for track at USM, and the university’s track facility is far from top-notch.

But the Southern Miss women tied for 24th in the country at the NCAA outdoor championships in June in Austin, Texas, finishing ahead of a slew of Power Five schools. North Carolina A&T tied for 15th with Arkansas from the Southeastern Conference.

“They beat a ton of well-resourced schools,” Gilbert said of Southern Miss. “If you have a head coach that puts a mindset in that we are not going to be distracted by the things we don’t have, you can have a competitive program at East Carolina. That is my expectation.”

Gerlach’s message about athletics has centered around university trustees, officials and coaches working together as accountable guides and shedding a strategy of simply hoping. The next BOT meetings are scheduled for Sept. 12-13.

The chancellor also reminded trustees how the many aspects at a university, especially student enrollment, are constantly connected to each other.

“If enrollment goes up, then the athletics situations looks better because a lot of our revenues come from student fees,” he said. “The more students you have on campus, the better off you are and the more healthy a lot of these functions look.”

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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