Dr. Shirley Raines, the new president of the University of Memphis, was introduced to the general public at the U of M-Marquette basketball game, a detail of some significance.
Raines will preside over a sprawling campus, some 20,000 students, and a $253 million annual budget. But if youre going to see and be seen at the U of M or most any other NCAA Division I university, you do it at a football or basketball game.
Let the record show that Raines, a graduate of Bells (Tennessee) High School, UT-Martin, and UT-Knoxville, is the first president of the University of Memphis who is (A) a woman and (B) one of the few who is not a former jock.
But my husband [Robert Canady] went to college on a football scholarship and was probably the only art major on the team, she said with a laugh over coffee recently.
An admitted sports fan and once a novice tennis player, Raines will face the task of getting the U of M in the news more for something besides the firing of football coach Rip Scherer or the hiring of basketball coach John Calipari, the two big stories of Year 2000.
Sports sometimes seems to be the tail that wags the dog on college campuses. At the U of M, the athletic department budget is $17 million, or about 7 percent of the overall university budget. There are just 250 scholarship athletes on campus, or barely 1 percent of the student body. The bulk of the athletic budget goes to the care and feeding of the 90 or so who are on the mens football and basketball teams.
Taking this distillation process one step further, only the basketball team, with eight scholarship players, actually makes money. And over that program is Coach John Calipari, who outearns President Raines, her predecessor Lane Rawlins, and every professor on campus by a wide margin. The reason, of course, is that Calipari is a celebrity paid on an entertainment scale. He and his Tigers can, on a good night, put more than 15,000 people in The Pyramid and attract the cameras of ESPN and the ravings of announcer Dick Vitale. No such acclaim greets a new university president,
unless he or she is occupying a seat in the stands. Raines assumes her duties in July. Her tenure should be interesting, not least because of the outsized importance of the U of Ms basketball and football programs in a metropolitan area of one million people and zero major-league sports teams.
Raines hails most recently from the College of Education at the University of Kentucky, one of the half-dozen most storied basketball schools in the country. While she was there, UK won a national championship under Coach Rick Pitino, the John Calipari of his day. Before that, Raines was a professor and department chair at the University of South Florida.
Sportswise, the University of Memphis sits somewhere between the two, aspiring to compete with the Kentuckys but often relegated to the ranks of the South Floridas.
Ironically, the U of M athletic department, dogged in the past by an outlaw reputation, is of late benefitting from an infusion of football talent transferring from Kentucky and the University of Alabama, the outlaws du jour.
And in basketball, Memphis seems poised to catapult into the Top Ten next season thanks to super-recruit Dajuan Wagner of Camden, New Jersey. His coming to Memphis was assured by the hiring of Calipari, who in turn hired the young mans father, Milt Wagner, as an assistant coach. Already Tiger fans have visions of Final Fours, sell-out crowds at The Pyramid, and lucrative network television appearances even if Dajuan Wagner, should he prove equal to his press clippings, probably wont play more than a year or two before turning professional.
There is one enthusiastic new U of M basketball fan who does not have such visions, at least not yet Ñ Shirley Raines. When I asked her at breakfast two days after her appointment if she knew who Dajuan Wagner was, she said no. Who is he? Never heard of him.
Well, she will soon enough.
She had, however, met Calipari the day before and the meeting had gone well.
He said, Im glad to be working for you. I think hes wonderful, Raines reported. Athletes come [to a university] to be with great coaches, just like I hope our students come to be with great teachers.
The new president said star athletes should be treated as students and graduate with degrees, but if salaries do not rise for our faculty, then we will not have faculty stars.
Athletics, she says, must pay its own way and must not take revenue away from the academic side. She believes the athletic department can break even, not necessarily by ticket sales, but by combining ticket revenue with contributions, branding, and merchandising. A well-rounded program, she adds, must include good programs for women and minor sports.
Thats easier said than done. Two years ago the University of Michigan ran a deficit with a budget of $48 million and one of the most marketable brands in sports. Former University of Michigan President James Duderstadt wrote a book, Intercollegiate Athletics and the American University, which concludes that the marriage of big-time sports and higher education may be impossible.
We have no business being in the entertainment business, Duderstadt wrote. We must either reform and restructure intercollegiate athletics . . . or spin big-time football and basketball off as independent, professional, and commercial enterprises.
Some local sports boosters doubt whether U of M athletics can break even but strongly believe it must go first class in football and basketball anyway.
Its very important that the new president be sports friendly in the current college environment to be competitive, says Rick Spell, past president of the board of the Tiger Club. We have already seen what happens when you underfund sports. It looks underfunded and shoddy.
Raines seems disinclined to rock the boat, at least not right away. But she is no naif, either. At Kentucky, she worked closely with the director of academic programs for student athletes and with coaches in organizing community service projects for athletes. At a Memphis press conference she was asked if she could fire a football coach, and she replied, You bet your boots.
I asked if she could fire a basketball coach, too.
I could fire any coach, if there was cause, she replied.
She didnt hesitate and she didnt blink.
[This story originally appeared in Memphis magazine.