College athletic programs across the country, from Louisiana to Pennsylvania, have struggled to deal with the fallout from state budget crises. Perhaps the most dire situation, and one that could impact an entire conference, is with Chicago State.
The state of Illinois has been operating without a budget since July 2015, when its Democratic-controlled legislature and Republican Governor Bruce Rauner failed to come to an agreement. Without a budget, the state has not been able to provide funding to any state university. Larger institutions with big endowments, like the University of Illinois, have been able to sustain themselves, but smaller institutions are much more at risk.
Chicago State, a 4,500 student university tucked deep in Chicago's South Side, gets about a third of its revenue from the state, per the Chicago Tribune. Without that money, the school finds itself in a precarious situation.
Last week, Chicago State announced it would cancel spring break and close early. On Friday, it sent layoff notices to all 900 university employees, just in case a funding resolution was not forthcoming. The Tribune reports the university could run out of money "as early as March."
Chicago State competes in the WAC, a conference wrecked by recent instability and realignment that has only one school (the University of Missouri-Kansas City) anywhere near Chicago State. Without a stable funding source in sight, Chicago State's ability to compete next year is in doubt.
A WAC spokesperson told SB Nation that while they have been in communication with Chicago State's administration, they "are not going to assume anything," and that they "will address issues if and when they happen."
Chicago State isn't the only WAC institution facing instability. New Mexico State, the conference's strongest basketball program and the only member of the conference who has been there longer than 2012, just had their football membership in the Sun Belt canceled. As the program looks to find a new football home, either in FBS or FCS, a new conference affiliation for all sports could be on the table. Since the WAC is one of the smallest conferences in Division I, with only eight member institutions, a departure with New Mexico State or Chicago State (or both) could really put the WAC in a tough spot.
An NCAA spokesperson confirmed to SB Nation that conferences only need to have six members to be eligible for an automatic qualification to the NCAA Tournament, so hypothetically the WAC could withstand the loss of Chicago State and New Mexico State and still keep their auto-bid. If the unexpected loss of a conference member did occur, and that loss threatened to hurt a program (say, a school was unable to schedule enough games, or if the conference unexpectedly dipped to five members) the NCAA would consider waivers on a school-by-school, conference-by-conference basis, "with attention to the specific circumstances in each instance".
The WAC has struggled with bouts of instability before. Founded in 1962, the WAC was perhaps best known for being one of the first "super conferences" and years of high-scoring football teams. BYU won a national championship in football as a WAC member in 1984, and Boise State became a household name after dominating the WAC in football in the mid-2000s. But conference realignment was not kind to the WAC, which lost members after a chunk of schools left to found the Mountain West, and then bled others to the MWC, Conference USA and the Sun Belt.
After the 2012 season, the WAC dropped football, and replenished its membership with institutions like Utah Valley University, CSU Bakersfield, Seattle and Grand Canyon University, currently the only for-profit institution competing at the D1 level. Per CBS, the WAC currently has the 26th ranked conference RPI for Men's Basketball, out of 32 conferences.
Chicago State did not respond to SB Nation's request for comment, but university officials did speak with Vice Sports, who recently published their own look at Chicago State's situation. University athletic director Denisha Hendricks elaborated on how the budget uncertainty has impacted athletic programs. From Vice:
Chicago State athletic director Denisha Hendricks says much of the state funding allocated to sports goes toward scholarships; since the department won't skimp in that area, it has been forced to sacrifice in other ways. Hendricks talks about distinguishing "needs versus wants." That means the volleyball players don't get the team T-shirts they desire, coaches conduct recruiting visits via Skype, and staffing vacancies remain unfilled, forcing athletic department faculty to split the load on vital tasks like compliance.
Hendricks says the department has sought out airlines with low baggage fees, cut restaurant coupons for team meals, and begged hotels for favorable group rates. Chicago State's basketball players taste the world of big-time college athletics, playing road games against power conference schools like Illinois, Iowa State, Marquette, and Northwestern, and then watch their coach haggle with diner managers over discounts. "You kind of have to suck up your pride," Dildy says. "But we're not going to ever compromise the experience for our students."
Chicago State's men's basketball team has struggled. The Cougars are 4-26 this season, and are winless in WAC play. In fact, the program hasn't had a winning season since the 2008-09 campaign, when they were an Independent. With conference opponents in far-flung locations like Utah, Washington and Arizona and their budget situation, competing at a high level is a tall order.
Chicago State isn't the only Illinois institution whose athletic programs are threatened. SIU-Edwardsville recently cut their Men's Tennis and Women's Golf programs, pointing to the state budget situation as a reason. Moody's also recently downgraded both Northern Illinois and Eastern Illinois' credit ratings, which could make spending on athletic department improvements more difficult in the future. If the budget impasse continues throughout the year, it's certainly possible other institutions in the state could be negatively impacted, including their athletic programs.
The WAC has a long and proud college athletics history, but their current membership includes many schools that do not have massive endowments and could be even more exposed to risk from changes to local funding situations. Hopefully, these conflicts are resolved soon.