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October 10, 2004

UCLA On Track To Regain Former Glory

FROM LA-LA LAND comes a status report on the sometimes divergent reality between booster ethics—no, that is not an oxymoron—and student-athlete temptation.

That boosters are typically 50-ish and 60-ish individuals who should know better and student-athletes are newcomers to adulthood only complicates an already dicey interaction.

The UCLA Daily Bruin online recently ran a lengthy article describing the importance, finances, expectations and excesses of boosters as an integral part of UCLA’s return to greatness.

The starting point is the NCAA definition of boosters, which takes on many shades and nuances not related to the actual donation of money. The most controversial (and risky) of these nuances entail recruiting and general contact with student-athletes.

Although it is a very small percentage of boosters, some of them have been known to tempt recruits or reward student-athletes. It’s not right, but it’s human nature. It’s the George Steinbrenner Syndrome.

These student-athlete rewards generally fall under the NCAA’s “extra benefit” rule, and that is what got UCLA into big trouble in 2001. In a high-profile scandal, star running back DeShaun Foster was forced to sit out the last three games driving a car lent to him by a well-intentioned—but ethics-challenged UCLA alumnus.

Elsewhere, one of the most infamous of all “extra benefits” transgressions occurred at the University of Michigan, which was placed on probation because a booster gifted $616,000 to four basketball stars in the 90s. A lack of booster ethics coupled with the temptations of cash-poor young men can be a recipe for disaster.

In 2003, boosters contributed over $8 million to the Bruin athletic department, about one-fifth of the total budget. The funding goes for equipment, scholarships, traveling and other necessities. Last year, these donations made up about one-fifth of the athletic department's entire budget.

Athletic director Dan Guerrero said. "We're pretty much a self-sustaining operation, so donations are critical to allowing us to make our budget." At many schools some boosters want to influence decision-making, but Guerrero insists he has not felt any pressure of this form.

However, Guerrero experienced significant scrutiny in just his second year, when football coach Bob Toledo and basketball coach Steve Lavin were roundly criticized by boosters for their teams’ sub-par performances. Several boosters allegedly offered to buy out contracts of both coaches in the middle of each of their respective seasons.

Some boosters think that their access to the athletics staff comes with a right to influence decisions. However (at least in the case of UCLA), that is not the case. Says Jim Pagliuso, a UCLA booster who has endowed a scholarship, "People that donate and think they have some kind of influence find out quickly they essentially have no influence."

Hmm. No ambiguity there.

Like any school, UCLA offers a range of perks and benefits to boosters that are commensurate with their level of giving: seat placement, invitations to receptions, parking privileges, etc. However, a curious counter-intuitive pattern has emerged with respect to big donors and small donors.

"People who give the most expect the least and the people who give the least expect the most," says Ken McGuire, UCLA’s Assistant AD of Development. Boosters who endow scholarships, the most coveted of donations, are the least interested in what they receive in return.

Go figure. Stealth wealth.

UCLA has a ways to go to rejoin the top echelon of revenue sport supremacy. But they are clearly on the right track to get there (although some over-anxious boosters might prefer a more risky shortcut) and with the steady stewardship of Dan Guerrero and a highly capable senior staff they are quite likely to reach their goal.

More later . . . .

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(this 610 word excerpt—with supplemental commentary—was distilled from a 2810 word article from the UCLA Daily Bruin of 9-26-04)