The Oregon State University Beavers have tripled their sports budget over a dozen years under director of athletics Bob De Carolis. // PHOTOS COURTESY OF OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY
Sports fans may not be aware of this fact, but the mascot for the largest public university in Oregon is not a Duck or a Beaver. It is a Viking. Portland State University has 27,000 students. About 280 of them are athletes.
Portland State’s athletic director, Torre Chisholm, has been on the job for three years, and he acknowledges that PSU has to overcome the perception of running an underperforming sports program. “Portland State’s a great university and we need to represent that by being a great athletic department,” says Chisholm. “Athletics can be the most visible personification of excellence. Right or wrong, it’s athletics that ends up getting the most media coverage and recognition in the university setting.”
Chisholm has hired nine new head coaches over his three years on the job, partially because his $10 million department is not wealthy enough to keep pace with the market rate for top coaches. He points out with pride that four of the young coaches he’s hired won conference championships in their first year. Unfortunately, these sports weren’t football, so they didn’t generate much in the way of headlines — or revenue.
The Vikings had their glory days under quarterback Neil Lomax in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but they have struggled in recent years, playing to more empty seats than filled ones. The university hired former pro coach Jerry Glanville to resuscitate the program in 2007, but Glanville resigned last November after losing 24 games and winning just nine.
“The hard thing about ticket revenue is it’s so tied to performance,” says Chisholm. “Bottom line is, we have to make some progress in football and we have to sell some tickets.”
The marketing hype that surrounds big-time college sports obscures the fact that for every football team selling out stadiums and boosting admissions there is another playing to lackluster crowds and losing money. The most common approach to solving that problem is to invest as much as possible in the team (recruiting a former pro coach, for example) to make the program stronger.
But the University of Portland proves that a university can run a big-time athletics program without playing football. Athletic director Larry Williams oversees a $12 million, 60-employee department that has grown dramatically due largely to the phenomenal long-term record of its men’s and women’s soccer teams.
“Nobody does soccer better than us, and arguably that’s because we can focus on it,” says Williams. “We’re not focusing on that big animal that is football.” But UP is very much the exception rather than the rule.