Witherspoon's basketball budget is $750,000, more than three times the size of Morris Brown's (but less than half of North Carolina's). It's all part of lightening that load of rocks on his back as he looks forward to a day without NCAA sanctions. This year Witherspoon brought in a recruiting class that includes three freshmen from Michigan and Turner Battle, a guard from North Carolina who's a top 100 recruit. "We need to be stable and do things the right way," Witherspoon says. "It's not going to happen overnight, but we know shortcuts aren't the way to go about it."
To the people who run Northeastern Illinois, the notion that their 11,000-student commuter school on the northwest end of Chicago needs Division I athletics seems laughable. The majority of the school's students work full time. Most are the first members of their families to attend college; half are minorities. There is little time for watching sports, and a mandatory $48 student fee for athletics is money that is needed elsewhere. Yet only four years ago Northeastern Illinois competed at the Division I level, using student fees and state funds to finance a program that few cared about and even fewer have missed since the university scuttled the entire athletic department at the end of the 1997-98 season.
In the late 1980s Gordon H. Lamb, Northeastern Illinois's president, argued to the school's trustees that the way to promote the school nationally was through Division I sports. "My predecessor had a dream, that the jump to D-I would bring glory," says current president Salme H. Steinberg, who was an associate provost when the school left Division II for Division I in 1990.
The centerpiece of the move was the men's basketball program, the only one of Northeastern Illinois's 14 sports with the chance of making money or gaining exposure. The Golden Eagles hired Rees Johnson, a successful NAIA coach at Wisconsin-Parkside, and Northeastern Illinois squeezed $10.5 million from its capital development budget to build the Physical Education Complex, which included a 5,000-seat gymnasium. "I thought it would work," Johnson says. "But money was tight. When we jumped to D-I, we had eight scholarships. It stayed at eight for four years, even though 15 was the max at the time."
It was certainly a strange environment for the athletes. The average age of the students at Northeastern Illinois is 26.3. Without any dorms on campus, the 170 scholarship athletes lived in an apartment complex a few blocks away. Yet Johnson's program gradually improved each year, from 2-25 as an independent in 1990-91 to 17-11 in 1993-94 as a member of the East Coast Conference.
The next year, shortly before Northeastern Illinois's first season in the Mid-Continent conference—a move that greatly reduced travel expenses—the Illinois Board of Higher Education sent a directive to its universities asking them to determine the "appropriate scope and size" of their athletic programs "in relation to institutional and academic priorities." The board was concerned about the increasing amount of state funds going to athletics, and in the Golden Eagles it had a perfect example. That year Northeastern Illinois's basketball team generated $92,965 in revenue, not enough to cover its own expenditures of $163,130, much less those of the nonrevenue sports that drove the athletic budget to $1.57 million.
Steinberg formed a task force to examine the issue, and in May 1996, following a season in which Johnson's team went 14-13 but drew only 500 fans a game, it recommended that Northeastern Illinois drop to Division II. Later, Northeastern Illinois's board of trustees voted to stop using state money for athletics and to develop a fund-raising plan instead.
A study which focused on the school's ability to raise $3 million over three years concluded in August 1997 that many of Northeastern Illinois's alumni "believe the University should focus more on improving the quality of its academic programs rather than promoting athletics." A month later, after seven years in Division I, the trustees voted to drop all sports. "It was like getting punched in the stomach," says Johnson, whose 1996-97 team had finished 16-12, with wins over Arizona State and Oregon State. "You work for almost 10 years at something, then it gets taken away. The kids were devastated; I was devastated. We had good players coming back, and I think we could have made the NCAA tournament."
Four years later Johnson, 60, is coaching at Division III North Park in Chicago. He won his 500th game last season, his 36th as a coach, but he's still coping with the fact that his Division I dream has passed him by. "I had two goals when I got into coaching," he says. "I wanted to run a clean D-I program, and I wanted to coach one game in the NCAA tournament. I got to do the first, and I think I was close to doing the other."
While sympathetic, Steinberg supports the decision to deep-six Northeastern Illinois's sports. The more than $1.5 million used annually for the athletic budget has been diverted to academic programs, renovations, scholarships and opportunities to study abroad. The phys-ed building that was rarely open to regular students is now a hub for intramural and club teams. Students with children bring them to swim in the Olympic-sized pool.