The Bill Martin Legacy, And What's Next

When Bill Martin took office as athletic director at the University of Michigan on March 6, 2000, he inherited a department in disarray. Tom Goss, who was forced to resign, had left the cupboards bare. The athletic campus facilities was stale and old, the basketball program was getting taken out to lunch by the NCAA, and the department as a whole was bleeding cash.

Most casual Michigan fans don't pay too much attention to the AD. Unless rules get broken or something is not going the way it should, the role of AD publicly is just to be the PR guy, the face of athletics at the university. Sure, he must sign off on projects, approve budgets, but really Bill Martin might have spent more time delegating to his associates and sailing than he did actually turning around the department. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Maybe Martin's most significant role was not just his ability to do his job well, but hiring smart and dedicated people to surround him.

I think Martin's overall legacy will be that he turned around the fiscal nightmare that was Michigan athletics (2.8 million dollar deficit in 1999) and kept the department in the black during the rest of his term. He also was able to put into motion many construction projects that would, in reality, rebuild or renovate all of the more marquee facilities.

In 2002, he issued this statement comparing Michigan's athletic facilities to that at Ohio State:
“They’ve rebuilt their entire athletic campus for the next 100 years, while we’ve ignored ours for the last 20 years.”
That comment stung the regents and the athletic community at Michigan. But it also set into motion the single largest and most expansive renovation campaign this university had ever seen.

Among the many construction projects: A massive Michigan Stadium renovation, new indoor football practice facility, much needed Crisler Arena updates, new basketball practice facility, new baseball and softball complex, new soccer, wresting and tennis facilities, and a academic center for student athletes.

All these updates were completely funded by the athletic department, and never used one cent from the university's general budget. And, he actually was able to turn a profit of 13.8 million in 2003-04. Michigan is one of only 6 schools in the nation which has been able to run the department with a budget surplus for the last 5 consecutive years. An amazing accomplishment considering regular ticket prices for football...the largest source of revenue for the department, have not been drastically increased. Sure, season ticket holders must now purchase a seat license for each seat...but that's not outside of the norm for a major program.

For a lasting legacy, Bill Martin did pretty much everything right during his time at Michigan.

I have to find it interesting though, why, out of hundreds of schools in the country with athletic departments, Michigan is only one of 6 to run a surplus for so long? Could it be that Martin knew he had to save his nickels to pay for this huge update to stadium? As far as I've been told, the new premium seating and luxury boxes are going to pay for the stadium renovations...and that cash will not cycle through the department until the stadium project is paid for...all $225 million of it (and counting).

My guess is, the next AD will not be so conservative with the budget. He won't be able to. Bill Martin was great at rebuilding this department and giving the next AD a solid foundation. In collegiate athletics...just like in pro sports, to be successful, you must outspend the competition.

I'm not suggesting you should pay student athletes...this isn't Ohio State for crying out loud. What I am trying to say is, at Michigan, it's not just Bo's legacy and the spirit of Fielding H. Yost that makes people dish out their hard earned cash to watch Michigan play football 7 or 8 times a year.

It's the athletic department's responsibility to get people interested in Michigan sports. It starts with providing top notch facilities...which Michigan is finally doing. But it continues with hiring the best coaches money can buy. Providing the funding for these students athletes to get a free education. Paying for recruits to visit the campus. Paying for coaches to visit recruits. Getting the football program to away games and bowl games. Employing enormous staffs that handle every detail of what it takes to run a top tier program. That money has to come from somewhere. Those kinds of functions, on a ridiculous scale that most fans don't even realize, are what cost universities and athletic departments millions of dollars a year.

It will not surprise me in the following year or two, once the new AD gets into office, to see the budget for Michigan especially, swell into Ohio State or Texas territory. Those two schools lead the way in athletic spending...both well over 100 million dollars a year. Michigan currently spends 85 million dollars to fund it's athletics. Both Texas and Ohio State's budgets have skyrocketed over the past two years...while Michigan's has remained relatively stable. As I said before, like pro compete on the highest level, you better be prepared to spend like crazy.

I don't want to get ahead of myself, I don't know for sure what will happen when Bill Martin steps down. I'm not naive enough to think all you have to do is throw money at the wall and you will get wins in return. Both Texas, Ohio State and many other schools have had tremendous success on the football field for many other reasons besides just financial freedom.

But as the overall economy improves, and budgets swell even further out of control, it will be very interesting to see what the next AD does with his checkbook.

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