School officials are hopeful things are about to get sweeter for the Missouri State University Lady Bears.
With an appearance in the NCAA Sweet 16 still fresh and a new head coach on board, officials say they expect sluggish attendance numbers and donations to perk up over the next year.
“We’ve seen good response already because the team’s going to be good,” said Brent Dunn, MSU vice president for university advancement. “Both men’s and women’s basketball will be in the top of the league, we anticipate, because they have great talent coming back.”
The women’s team finished 25-10 this season, under head coach Kellie Harper, and notched its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2016. Harper, who was at MSU for six seasons, announced in April she was leaving the Lady Bears to join her alma mater, the University of Tennessee.
School officials are citing excitement around the Lady Bears’ new head coach Amaka “Mox” Agugua-Hamilton, despite MSU basketball legend Jackie Stiles getting passed over for the job. Many fans thought Stiles, an assistant at the time, would become the Lady Bears’ head coach.
“There’s expectations from everyone – coaches and fans – that this is going to be a good season,” said Tom Ladd, longtime voice of the Lady Bears.
Stiles announced in April she was joining the University of Oklahoma as an assistant women’s basketball coach.
MSU Athletic Director Kyle Moats said he’s unsure if the Stiles’ decision would result in fewer donations.
“I don’t know if that’s going to happen yet,” Moats said. “I certainly hope not. We have not had anyone say ‘I’m done.’”
Hotel developer Earl Steinert is one.
“Jackie was not done right,” said Steinert, of EAS Investment Enterprises Inc., who’s supported and donated to the Lady Bears for nearly two decades. “I was very upset after her being at MSU on the bench for six years, being worked around and hiring someone else outside.”
Donations to the Bears Fund are listed on university documents under Steinert’s Home2 Suites by Hilton. He said he usually contributes $2,000 to the Bears Fund each year, along with another $8,000 in donations, but he will not be donating to the program this next year.
Lady Bears support
Very few Lady Bears’ donors responded to Springfield Business Journal’s requests for comment, but those who did cited sentimental reasons for wanting MSU to choose Stiles as head coach.
Darrell Proctor, owner of D-4 Investments LLC, has been donating to the Bears Fund for close to 40 years, and he plans to continue his annual donations.
“From a sentimental reason, I was hoping Jackie Stiles would be the coach. But there’s a lot more to it than the sentimental factor,” he said. “She probably needed a little more head coaching experience, not that she isn’t a talented person in every way.”
Stiles, a Lady Bear from 1997-2001, led the team to the 2001 NCAA Final Four before she was drafted into the WNBA. Stiles told Springfield sports radio host Art Hains on Jock 98.7 FM during an April 24 interview that she applied for the head coaching position.
“When the job came open at Missouri State, I just knew I had to pursue it because … I would always wonder what it would have been like if I had possibly got a head coaching job,” Stiles said in the interview. “That’s when the fire was really lit in me. I’ve never felt so alive in my life. Now, I want to continue to grow as a coach. That is my goal. Maybe one day I’ll get to come back to Missouri State – the school I love so much and have so many amazing memories with.”
Hains told SBJ that he’s since had listeners share concern for the team.
“There are some people that are upset Jackie was passed over … I think Clif [Smart] and Kyle [Moats] felt like coach Mox had a better set of experiences to take that and run with it,” he said.
Financial contributions and attendance have steadily declined for the women’s team since the 2015-16 season. The Lady Bears also made the NCAA Tournament that year.
Comparatively, the team receives about $1 million less in annual Bears Fund donations than the men’s basketball squad.
Donations to MSU athletics from individuals and businesses are given through the Bears Fund, which is a fundraising program that benefits all NCAA sports programs at MSU. The Bears Fund is part of MSU’s athletics budget, which Dunn said includes funding from scholarships, season ticket sales and the NCAA.
The Lady Bears received around $393,000 in fiscal 2016, which is more than double the amount so far for fiscal 2019 at $187,000. The figures include scholarship money and Bears Fund donations.
The Bears Fund contributions go toward athlete recruitment, room and board, fees, tuition, books and scholarships. A university brochure details a cost of $20,592 per Lady Bear to cover the player’s equipment, travel and food expenses each year.
Dunn said the decrease in donations isn’t based on a single reason, but it includes the drop in attendance and the lack of seat assessments for ticket holders. Seat assessment areas, which are high-dollar seats, help generate additional funding to the program and make up a large portion of the variation between Lady Bears and Bears program donations, he said.
Last week, SBJ reviewed fundraising efforts for the MSU men’s basketball team and talked with longtime donors who seemed on board with head coach Dana Ford’s goal to increase funds. The men’s team has collected as much as $1.1 million in donations this fiscal year.
Excitement is the word school officials are using for the next Lady Bears season. Agugua-Hamilton, aka “Coach Mox,” was announced as head coach after a weeklong national search by the MSU Board of Governors. Agugua-Hamilton is the first African-American female head coach of any sport at MSU.
She comes from Michigan State University, where she worked with the team for six seasons and was associate head coach for the last four seasons. She helped the team advance to NCAA Tournament play four times, one Women’s National Invitation Tournament bid and the regular season title for the 2014 Big Ten Conference.
Agugua-Hamilton spoke at a breakfast on May 14, where she and her staff met Lady Bears season ticket holders, according to a Twitter post from MSU President Smart.
“She was at every table, shaking hands,” Ladd said of Agugua-Hamilton. “I think as people get to meet them, they’re going to fall in love with this coaching staff, too.”
Last season, home games averaged 2,333 people. But back in the 2016 season when the team was last at the NCAA Tournament, the stands were filled with about 3,400 people per home game. The difference is about 31%.
Ladd remembers when the stands used to be filled.
“I wish we were back in the heyday,” Ladd said.
“That was part of Jackie’s year. There was so much enthusiasm then. Now, you have a team that’s back, and there’s expectations, so I think the crowds will increase because of that.”
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