MANHATTAN — There are few things John Currie enjoys more than the sight of construction at Kansas State’s athletic complex.
The projects — a basketball practice facility on the east side of Bramlage Coliseum and new luxury boxes and press box on the west side of Snyder Family Stadium — represent to Currie a sign of strength.
The projects aren’t cheap. Together, they will cost K-State an estimated $93 million. Few athletic departments can raise those kinds of funds. But K-State, which brought in more than $23 million in donations and revenue during the 2011 fiscal year and was recently labeled the nation’s most profitable athletic department by ESPN.com, is one of them.
“We’ve been able to create a positive situation from a financial standpoint that has given us the leverage to proceed quickly in major projects,” Currie said. “Anyone who is trying to buy a house nowadays knows that you have to have a pretty healthy balance sheet to be able to get a loan. For us to be able to quickly build was predicated on a healthy balance sheet.
“We still have more money to raise, but the healthy balance sheet is what helped us get started.”
Currie inherited in May 2009 an athletic department that spent nearly $3 million more than it earned. Combined with buyout money the Wildcats still owed to former football coach Ron Prince, alumni and boosters wondered if their donations were being wasted.
“We had a mess when he came in and everybody knew it was a mess,” said Lee Borck, a prominent K-State alum.
Earning their trust back was imperative. So was re-evaluating how the athletic department spent its money.
In his first year, Currie personally approved every expense in the athletic department. He made cutbacks, including layoffs, and restricted spending in areas such as recruiting. K-State spent more than $1.2 million on recruiting during the 2009 fiscal year. In 2011, that number was reduced to $914,411.
But with the help of unprecedented donations, the numbers improved quickly. K-State followed its budget shortfall in 2009 with about $11.1 million of profit in 2010 and more than $23 million in 2011.
“Our contributors and our fans take a lot of pride knowing they are part of this turnaround,” Currie said. “We can position ourselves in operating from a position of strength rather than being the perpetual underdog. There are plenty of schools that have a heck of a lot more resources than we do, but I think our fans and our alums take a lot of pride in what we have accomplished.”
Much of K-State’s surpluses came from large, one-time donations that were made to help its current facilities push. But a higher number of small donations are also coming in thanks to a growing number of Ahearn Fund members.
“We are getting gifts at K-State that were only in our dreams five years ago,” Borck said. “We didn’t think K-Staters had the wherewithal to do it, but they did. John and his staff have opened a lot of doors.”
Currie’s first step toward opening those doors came when he had thousands of cards printed with K-State’s yearly fiscal budget on them and began distributing them to fans. He wanted to show how the Wildcats spent money, and handed them out by the dozen, often offering multiple cards to the same person on the same day. He still hands them out to just about everyone he meets.
The goal was transparency. The response was positive.
Dave Dreiling, founder of GTM Sportswear in Manhattan, says he began increasing his donations after Currie presented him with his outline for the future.
“It boils down to leadership, and that’s what good leadership does,” Dreiling said. “They realized that transparency was a big deal and that they had a lot of damage they had to repair. They were able to lay out a vision, and you could see it. John clearly articulated this is where we are headed, and what that did was bring up the level of engagement with donors.”
Currie also welcomed many of their suggestions.
Unlike past years, when boosters say K-State administrators only seemed to ask for donations when they were in desperate need of money, they now feel like the lines of communication are always open. And when they want to talk, they think their opinions are heard.
“Donors and philanthropists aren’t going to fund everything,” Dreiling said. “But what K-State leadership has done is more effectively identify who its donors are and more effectively go out and listen to them. They got input from them and explained where they were headed. People started believing in that approach and the money followed.”
Though K-State doesn’t spend like some other athletic departments in the Big 12 — it spent about $46 million in 2011 to Texas’ $133 million — Currie says K-State takes advantage of its profits by carefully planning how to pour them back into the department.
Boosters and alums are invited to see their contributions at work. Currie regularly posts pictures of the basketball practice facility to his twitter account, and fans have been given access to a webcam near Snyder Family Stadium to see its construction progress.
“Both projects are kind of symbolic in how we do things at K-State,” Dreiling said. “The practice facility is a world-class facility, but it’s not something you’d find at Texas just built to impress. They built it in a way that fits K-State.”
Same goes for the department’s subscription-based Internet TV station. None of it would have been possible without a budget surplus, which included more than $3 million of standard revenues in 2011.
Perhaps that’s why Currie prefers to proceed with caution before planning K-State’s next major facility push.
“We will always be evaluating every expenditure to make sure it is the appropriate expenditure to accomplish our overall mission,” Currie said. “Over time, some expenditures might have been really important and critical, but might not be necessary anymore. There are some areas that become much more important as things evolve. Who could have imagined 10 years ago what we spend on Internet media or electronic communication or overnight delivery and credit card fees? We are always looking for efficiency.”
Though the $75 million expansion project on the football stadium is underway, it will take several years for K-State to pay for it.
“That is the largest obligation we have right now,” Currie said. “We have to continue to raise funds.”
The Wildcats may also need to continue winning. Its athletic department has benefited greatly from a successful men’s basketball team in recent years. The program made more than $5.6 million in 2011. But when the program was struggling in 2006, it only brought in about $600,000.
Other renovation plans are in the works, though. They include adding tennis courts and further improving the football and basketball stadiums. Currie said both parking lots need to be re-paved, and that K-State may soon need new videoboards at Bramlage Coliseum and on the north end of Snyder Family Stadium. Bramlage Coliseum will also require a new roof at some point.
Once one project is complete, the next one takes priority. Construction, it seems, could be visible at K-State for quite some time.