Walter Family donation for multipurpose facility divides Ohio University Campus

Ohio University (and St. Charles Preparatory School -- Go Cards!) alumnus Robert D. Walter (From The Compass)

On Dec. 17, 2010 Ohio University announced that alumni Robert D. and Margaret Walter had made a $10 million dollar donation for renovations on the Convocation Center and the creation of a multipurpose facility.

Twenty-four hours later and nearly 1,000 miles away, Ohio football coach Frank Solich broke the news to his ecstatic team during a pregame speech before its 48-21 loss to Troy in the R+L Carrier New Orleans Bowl.

At his National Signing Day press conference on Feb. 2, 2011 the coach emphasized the role that donation – the idea of an indoor practice facility – had in recruiting that year’s class.

“I think Bob Walter and his donation towards an indoor facility was something we were able to use and assure players that that gift was presented,” Solich said. “That was, I’m sure, somewhat big in players’ minds.”

He talked about how important it was for college athletes – not just his, but all – to be able to train year-round, to have a place to practice in the face of the notoriously fickle Ohio weather. This multipurpose facility would give them the chance to “separate themselves” from other athletes.

Then his tone and his message changed.

“This is going to give not only the football team the ability to use it year-round,” Solich said. “It’s also going to serve a huge purpose for this university in terms of students and recreation and the community.”

Not just intercollegiate athletes, Solich said. Students and faculty, intramurals activities, even Athens community soccer teams could benefit from the Walter donation.

In the face of an estimated $19.7 million university budget gap for the next year, as a representative of an embattled athletic department with it’s own budget woes, Solich nimbly sidestepped the proverbial ‘gotcha’ moment.

As university officials are quick to point out, the multipurpose facility – currently little more than an idea with some substantial financial backing – is intended be used for a broad array of purposes, and serve even broader base across campus.

“Certainly it will be used for intercollegiate athletics, but it will also be used by the Marching 110. It will be used by the ROTC. It will be used by the physical therapy program, by the sports management program,” said Rebecca Watts, chief of staff and special assistant to OU President Roderick McDavis. “The sky’s the limit.”

But still others believe that the multipurpose facility should hardly be a priority for a university exploring employee furloughs and freefalling in academic prestige.

“We’re about ready to drop out of the main line schools academically because of budget cuts and other reasons,” OU professor of economics Richard Vedder said, “For us to be going full steam ahead on this is the height of irresponsibility.

“It’s a frill. It’s one that a lot of (Mid-American Conference) schools have. It’s one that a lot of schools have. But it’s still another example of the athletics arms race in action.”

Ohio University professor David Ridpath’s time at Marshall shaped his outlook on NCAA athletics

OU professor and former Marshall compliance officer David Ridpath (From ESPN)

When the Center for College Affordability and Productivity released a study in January suggesting that Ohio University students neither realized the financial drain nor appreciated the contribution of varsity athletics, it further ignited a debate around campus and throughout the nation.

Many considered the findings a swipe at the university’s athletic department – already under fire for continuing to overspend on its budget to the tune of nearly $1.2 million annually for the last five years.

Some pegged the study’s authors, Matthew Denhart and OU professors Richard Vedder and David Ridpath as disgruntled academics, unaware true impact of intercollegiate athletics.

At least in Ridpath’s case, they couldn’t be further from the truth.

The assistant professor of sports administration spent over a decade working in college athletic departments. He has coached conference champions and worked with future Hall of Famers.

He has also experienced the dark side intercollegiate athletics, and knows better than most just how tainted the institution can become.

“I really kind of saw the true face of college athletics,” Ridpath said. “It was a big eye-opener, which has kind of led me on the path I’m on now. I want to save college athletics from itself.”

A ‘convenient scapegoat’

It was Friday July 2, 1999 when Ridpath, then the assistant athletic director of compliance and student services at Marshall University, got the call.

Michelle Duncan, an academic advisor, informed him that a professor and volunteer football strength coach, Bruce McAllister, had approached her asking what grades a number of football players in his class would need in order to be eligible.

“The first time (McAllister) stopped me in the hallway and asked me in passing and I thought he was joking,” Duncan said. “It wasn’t until he asked me the second time that I realized he was serious and that’s when I contacted Dave Ridpath.”

Duncan also informed Ridpath that earlier that spring, McAllister had provided football players in one of his classes with a copy of a test ahead of time.

“[Ridpath was] probably shocked more than anything. As you can imagine a compliance officer probably hears about all kinds of details and events,” Duncan said. “But when he heard about this one, it immediately raised a red flag.”

This was the first Ridpath had ever gotten word of the issues, but he knew he had a serious problem on his hands.