Can Ben Jay Save UH Sports?

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An accountant from Ohio has come to turn Hawaii’s dysfunctional athletics program around. He may be the last hope.

UH Athletics Director Ben Jay.

Photo: David Croxford

Ben Jay took a step up and a step down when he left Ohio State University, where he worked as an assistant athletics director, for the University of Hawaii, where he is the new athletics director.

Ohio’s athletics program has 36 teams, more than 1,000 athletes and a budget of over $130 million. It’s the rare college athletics program that actually pays for itself. Its football team, one of the NCAA’s most prestigious, went undefeated last year. Its stadium, which seats 105,000, regularly sells out for football games. Its exuberant fans proudly proclaim themselves to be “the best fans in the land.”

The University of Hawaii’s athletics program, by contrast, has 21 teams, about 475 athletes and budget of around $30 million. It routinely ends the year a few million dollars in the red. Its football team, which had a dismal 2012 season, ranks at the bottom of its conference. Many of its facilities are, to be blunt, shabby. Its home stadium—a poorly designed, rusting hulk that should probably be torn down—seats 50,000, but hasn’t sold out a football game since 2007.

Jay knew all this when he moved into his new office on UH Manoa’s lower campus last January. What he didn’t know is how hard it was going to be to get the burned-out light bulbs changed.

Altogether, Jay counted 72 burned-out bulbs—he is a numbers guy—along the walkways outside the athletics department when he arrived. Three months later, as he caught a red-eye flight to California for a football meeting, the bulbs were still out. This wasn’t the only facilities issue Jay faced. There were the broken toilets in the Stan Sheriff Center, the bent rims in the basketball team’s gym, the decrepit locker room that was too embarrassing for football coaches to show recruits, the weeds—the list went on and on.

Jay stewed about this all the way across the Pacific. The football team had been thoroughly manhandled in 2012, ending the season 3-9. Fans weren’t buying tickets, donors weren’t writing checks and morale couldn’t get much worse. The entire campus was still reeling from the Wonder Blunder, in which the university poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into damage control after the athletics department, in a hapless attempt to bring the musician Stevie Wonder to campus for a benefit concert, lost $200,000 to a pair of Florida scam artists. Meanwhile, with a widening gulf between the “have” and “have-nots” in collegiate sports, and with Bachman Hall floating the idea of downgrading UH from a Division 1A program, the continued existence of the athletics department as we know it had come into question.

Jay had been brought in to turn things around. And yet he couldn’t even get the light bulbs to work. As soon as his plane landed in Los Angeles, he did what exasperated people do these days: he vented on Twitter.

“Going to Home Depot & buying several cases of replacement bulbs myself. Will find a ladder & do this myself. Can’t sit idly. Embarrasing,” he tweeted, using his handle, HawaiiManoaAD.

Then he tweeted: “My staff knows when I see something broken & it obviously hasn’t been fixed in a long time, I’m impatient. THIS IS OUR HOUSE!!”

And this: “We are cleaning up our athletic offices. Getting rid of moldy carpets. making it presentable for guests, recruits, parents.”

And this: “What do recruit parents think when they see junk lying around, wallpapers falling off, landscaping overgrown? ‘They don’t care.’”

Those are highlights. There was more.