UConn president, a Duke grad, says Final Four a chance to sell university

New York TimesApril 8, 2014 

— Halfway through a private brunch Saturday, as Connecticut’s biggest donors finished their all-you-can-eat French toast and sausages, the university’s president, Susan Herbst, put down her glass and made her way to the center of the room.

She stood before a group of supporters who had given millions of dollars to the university, including Robert Skinner, one of the backers of a $40 million basketball practice complex project. At 11:30 a.m., some were wearing sport coats, and others were clad in blue UConn gear. The university had arranged for many of them to have the opportunity to purchase rooms in the team hotel and tickets for some of the best seats at the Final Four

They also got a private audience with Herbst, a 51-year-old political science professor who has been at the helm of the university for almost three years.

With UConn’s national semifinal against Florida looming later in the day, Herbst, who was born in New York and who graduated from Duke, took over the room. She briefly touched on the university’s need to build its endowment but spent much of the time praising Connecticut’s academic successes.

“Connecticut is so hot,” she said, citing the soaring applications, a move up the rankings of public universities and the luring of top scholars from other institutions.

The Final Four, among the biggest shows in sports, is now about far more than basketball. It is a priceless opportunity for a university to burnish its national reputation and introduce itself in millions of living rooms across the country.

For university presidents such as Herbst, it also offers a rare opportunity for an extended bonding session with key supporters who are basking in the glow of big-time sports success. Those moments of affection can be fruitful, helping universities attract major financial gifts, which allow them to build new facilities or to cultivate relationships with potential donors.

But the Final Four also highlights how universities are putting an increasing emphasis on assuring the success of their revenue-producing sports teams, often placing sports atop the agenda of their presidents and requiring a significant amount of their time and energy.

The UConn men’s team won the national title Monday against Kentucky. The women’s team played for the title Tuesday night against Notre Dame.

“All of this sports success turns people’s eyeballs toward the university,” Herbst said at the brunch before turning the stage over to Jim Calhoun, the university’s former men’s basketball coach. He told the crowd: “We need you. We need your support in a number of different ways.”

Perks for big donors

When a team makes it to the Final Four, the university’s elite backers are usually offered a number of exclusive perks. Once they are in town, they are often invited to events like the brunch hosted by Herbst. Sometimes the president will host a dinner or speak at a pep rally. Often, the meetings are impromptu, maybe in the lobby of the team hotel.

On Saturday morning, with UConn fans crowding the main floor of the Hyatt Regency in Dallas, Herbst held court at a table in a coffee shop. A number of people came by, including Calhoun; Dan Toscano, a member of the board of the directors of the university’s foundation; and Donny Marshall, a former UConn basketball player who is on the university’s board of trustees.

While she mingled, Herbst took a call from Geno Auriemma, the women’s basketball coach at UConn, who was in Nashville preparing his team for its Final Four. “The waiting is hard,” Herbst told him. “It’s like a medical test. Let’s do it already and see what we are up against.”

Herbst said Sunday afternoon that if the Huskies won that night, she would travel to Nashville for the championship game. Either way, the university is well represented there, too, taking advantage of the chance to tap donors.

Herbst ended her call with Auriemma with a “love you.” Afterward, she said she felt the same way about the men’s coach, Kevin Ollie, calling him a “ray of sunshine.”

It is tough not to love two winning, spirited coaches, she said. “I’m very friendly that way,” said Herbst.

On Saturday afternoon, Herbst had a moment to offer encouragement to the UConn men’s players as they ate lunch in a private room in the basement of the Hyatt.

Herbst walked across the room, first checking in with Ollie and his staff. When she eventually spotted Shabazz Napier, the team’s senior star, Herbst could not help doting. “Oh, my God, I’m so proud of you,” she said, mentioning that thousands of Huskies fans had come from all over to cheer them on.

Between bites, Napier said: “We’ve got to get this championship for them. It’s only magical if you get to the end.”

A few minutes later, Herbst was upstairs in the hotel’s ballroom alongside UConn’s pep band and cheer team, hosting hundreds of fans at an alumni rally.

‘Amazing time at UConn’

“It’s an amazing time to be at UConn,” she told the crowd, adding: “You believed in this team. I believed in this team. I’ve come to know these kids. They are great kids. They are determined. They are fierce. They are doing well in school. They are passionate about what they do. They represent this university so well.”

For UConn, the chance for Herbst and her staff to spend productive time with supporters has come at an especially important moment.

UConn, which last won a men’s basketball championship in 2011, was barred from participating in last year’s tournament because of past problems with its academic performance. The university unsuccessfully protested the penalty.

The academic transgressions occurred before Herbst arrived, from Georgia’s university system, in June 2011, but resolving them was of such high importance that, for a time, she received weekly updates on the grades of the men’s basketball players.

“I just didn’t want this to happen ever again,” Herbst said.

Around the same time, some of UConn’s conference mates in the old Big East were jumping to other leagues in pursuit of more television money. UConn did not get such an invitation and now plays in the American Athletic Conference, a new league that is not among the five power conferences in college sports.

The situation left university officials and fans worried about the financial health and competitiveness of their sports programs and wondering why none of the wealthy conferences called them.

But those fears were put away after beating Kentucky on Monday.

During the Florida game, Herbst sat about 15 rows up, next to her husband, and she checked her phone occasionally during breaks to see how students were taking in the game back on campus. As the game wore on, she became less presidential and more of a fan.

With time running out, she stood and shouted: “Oh, yeah! Bring it on! We want this!”

After the game, a parade of UConn supporters came by for high-fives and hugs. She was thrilled her team had won, but she also knew she had two more days of face time with some of the university’s major donors. They would be in a good mood.

The university’s new chief fund-raiser, Joshua Newton, taking in his first Final Four, came looking for Herbst.

“We get to do this every year, right?” he said.

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