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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Time for long-term balancing act at UH

By Ferd Lewis

When it comes to University of Hawai'i sports, hardly anybody seems to want to talk about the money.

By all means show us the games, the wins, especially. But show us the money? Some other time, please.

And, frankly, we'd rather write about the athletes, games and coaches, too. At some point, however, reality intrudes and the financial situation becomes so onerous that it can't be ignored.

The guess is we're nearing that point, however long overdue.

The UH Board of Regents is scheduled to review an independent auditor's annual report at Thursday's meeting, and what they could find, an accumulated net deficit upward of $7 million, should be eye-opening.

Not surprising to those paying attention for the past seven or eight years, but jarring in sheer numbers.

Once upon a time, the athletic department actually paid its bills, and regularly. But long about 2003 profligacy took hold. If there were still checks in the checkbook, the reasoning seemed to be, then people could keep writing them. And they did to the tune of nearly $30 million annually.

For eight years or so the Mänoa campus has been providing overdraft for those checks as the accumulated net deficit soared, even in the best of economic and competitive times. Three million bucks, $4 million, $5 million. ...

Not until state Rep. K. Mark Takai held a hearing three years ago were some of the disturbing numbers and practices publicly acknowledged. Still, when athletic director Herman Frazier was removed six months later, it wasn't for a checkbook run amok. It was for an inattention to June Jones' contract.

The legacy of that free spending era has been such that, like an aircraft carrier, UH athletics has become something that can't be turned around overnight. Now that the economy has been in a tailspin and some teams suffering, even some cost cutting and new avenues of revenue by the current administration haven't stemmed the red ink. Estimates say deficits will continue for several years. Where do we draw the line, $12 million?

Athletics is, as ex-president David McClain put it, a front porch for UH. And in the world of Division I, it isn't alone in deficits. But UH's resources are more limited than many, as is state largess. If the powers that be are comfortable continuing, that's one thing, though good luck explaining that to other areas on campus.

A wiser course would be to put some heads together. See what creative assistance can be provided and, then, draw up a realistic timetable to balance the books. Otherwise some day there is going to be a slam-on-the-brakes reckoning that nobody is going to like.