Bargain Win: Royals Buck Odds

By Mike Barber, Daily News-Record

Todd Phillips, EMU men's basketball
Todd Phillips and the Eastern Mennonite University men’s basketball team beat Division III’s No. 1 team, Randolph-Macon, 90-67 Wednesday – despite the school’s small $950,000 athletic budget. See a short video of the game! Photo by Michael Reilly

Even in the modest world of Division III basketball, Eastern Mennonite University is an underdog. And that has nothing to do with points, rebounds or steals. It has mostly to do with dollars.

EMU has the smallest endowment of the 11 basketball-playing schools in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference by a large margin, at about $23 million a year. That’s about half of the next lowest school’s funds (Virginia Wesleyan is estimated at about $45 million).

That means less money for scholarships, coaches and recruiting budgets.

Even with those limitations, coach Kirby Dean has guided the men’s basketball team to a No. 18 ranking in this week’s poll. Wednesday night, the Royals stunned the No. 1-ranked team in D-III, routing Randolph-Macon 90-67 at Yoder Arena in what was probably the biggest win in school history. See a short video of the game!

“I wouldn’t have bet any amount of money that we could have done what we did last night,” EMU President Loren Swartzendruber said Thursday.

Swartzendruber and has wife, as they normally do, attended the game, sitting in the front row at center court as 1,564 fans packed the stands and even lined the indoor track that overlooks the basketball court. They watched as the Royals forced turnovers, created breakaways and threw down vicious, crowd-pleasing jams.

“I couldn’t allow myself to even imagine what was happening until about seven minutes to go in the game,” Swartzendruber said. “And a lot of the credit does go to Kirby. He has energy. He has a great relationship with his players. He knows how to recruit at our level.”

The 39-year-old Dean also knows the community. He’s from Penn Laird, played his high school ball at Spotswood and is a 1992 EMU graduate.

He learned about recruiting to a hard-sell college as a D-I assistant at VMI before taking the head coaching job at Waynesboro High School in 2002. In 2003, Dean returned to his alma mater, hoping to turn around a program that hasn’t won an ODAC tournament game since 1983.

“It’s a big challenge, but I understood that on the front end,” Dean said Thursday as his team got back to practicing for Saturday’s game against Randolph College. “It’s easy to get hung up on the negatives, because there are numerous ones. The other side of the coin is, we have the best facility in the league. We have a great town. We have a good school that has a good education and good people.”

Dean doesn’t like to discuss the program’s shortcomings. He feels it gives his players an excuse not to succeed.

“We expect to win, regardless of all those things,” Dean said, as his players sprinted through an exhausting five-man weave drill less than 24 hours after their big victory. “We have to do the best we can with what we have.”

What the Royals have is three part-time assistants and a meager recruiting budget of $1,500 – but that’s better than it used to be. Through private donations, athletic director Dave King increased funding to allow assistants to spend more time on the road recruiting during the offseason last year.

King hopes to include similar increases again in the upcoming fiscal year for both the men’s and women’s programs.

EMUs athletic budget for the current school year is about $950,000, Swartzendruber said. By contrast, rival Bridgewater College’s athletic budget is $2.7 million, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In the end, King said what makes Dean and women’s basketball coach Kevin Griffin successful recruiters has more to do with how much effort they put into the endeavor – including dipping into their own wallets.

“I know they put a lot of their own personal dollars in,” King said by phone from Atlanta, where he was attending an annual NCAA convention. “We have a recruiting vehicle available, but very rarely do I see Kirby or Kevin use it. Very rarely do I see an expense report come through.”

The men’s team is 12-1 overall and in first place in the ODAC at 6-0, while the women’s squad is 10-2.

“We love our school. Kirby and I are both products of this school and we believe in it,” said Griffin, a 1993 EMU graduate. “We sort of take it like, we know what we’ve got going into and we decide to fight against it.”

Even so, Eastern Mennonite’s administration realizes that money facilitates success in sports. Both Swartzendruber and King said increasing the financial resources of the two basketball programs would give their coaches a chance to sustain their current success.

And both men said that benefits the overall university.

“It certainly raises our profile,” Swartzendruber said. “There were a lot of community people at that game [against Randolph-Macon]. Any time we can get people on our campus to see who we are and what we’re about, that’s valuable.”

EMU also made a rare appearance at the top of the News-Record sports section Thursday morning, and Dean was a guest on a sports-radio talk show – hosted by Mac McDonald – that airs in much of central and western Virginia, including Richmond.

King said the on-court success helps attract both more student applicants and more potential donors.

“We have not done a real good job making connections. We’re not Notre Dame. We’re not U.Va. We don’t have football,” King said. “But everyone follows a winner.”

So will Eastern Mennonite expand its budget? King hopes so, but Swartzendruber said academics come first – making a major increase in sports funding iffy.

With extra funding, Dean said, EMU could go from having a great season to building a great program.

“I hope people realize, we kind of caught lightning in a bottle here,” Dean said. “I don’t want to say we can’t sustain it. But the way things are, I don’t know if, long-term, you can do the things we’re doing right now. If we were on par with everybody else in our league from a financial aid standpoint, we could be in the top two or three every year. Absolutely.”