Surely this has to be the end for Chicago State University and their tenure as a participant in Division I athletics. Ever since the announcement came that the University of Missouri-Kansas City would be returning to the Summit League this summer, the writing was on the wall.
But how did we get here, to begin with?
Chicago Politics are One Hell of a Drug
Chicago State as a university has been awash in friends hiring friends for some time now, and only in recent months have we seen evidence that this might be starting to change.
The cronyism and backdoor dealing has been present for the better part of two decades, if not longer, but really hit a peak in the past decade:
- Leon Finney is about to undergo a federal investigation for fraud and other charges. Finney was the director of CSU’s board of trustees as recently as nine years ago.
- Finney was responsible for hiring Wayne Watson as the school’s president in 2009, despite Watson’s history of alleged misconduct while serving as Chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago.
- Watson was hired because the previous president, Elnora Daniel, was fired for using her university credit card for personal purchases.
- Watson falsely accused two CSU trustees of misconduct when they attempted to replace him in 2013 – and it worked, because the Governor didn’t renew their positions and Watson’s contract was extended through the end of 2015.
- Watson was later found guilty of his false accusations from 2013 as well as causing CSU to lose a 2014 lawsuit to the tune of $4.3 million when he threatened the school’s general counsel to not release unflattering information about the school publicly.
- Watson’s replacement, Thomas Calhoun, Jr., was fired nine months after he was hired, Nobody knows why, but he received a $600,000 severance check.
- They settled out of court on another whistleblower lawsuit in 2017 to the tune of another $1.3 million.
- Zaldwaynaka Scott has been the school’s president since July of 2018. She was also one of the board members Watson got replaced via false accusations in 2013.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE.
In 2011, a state audit found 41 problems with financial accounting at the school, including failure to bill students for tuition, federal grants misspent and overpayment of vendors.
That included misspending some of the $614,000 in grant money the state gave to the pharmacy program. School officials invoiced the state for food, utilities, humidifiers in the library and advertising — all unrelated to the pharmacy program.
In 2017, the interim dean of the College of Pharmacy was charged with stealing a total of $650,000 from the Student National Pharmaceutical Association for her own personal use.
Heck, just last year they wound up giving a $694,000 severance check to Angela Henderson after she became interim provost, faced serious (and probably accurate) charges of plagiarism, was cleared of wrong-doing but was removed from her job anyway.
Chicago State’s sports information director was hospitalized a little over a year ago with the flu and wound up passing away from complications at only 40 years old. Fourteen months later, the Cougars still don’t have a SID.
This is quite clearly a school that spent a solid decade not being able to spell “get your act together” let alone actually do it.
Chicago State Athletics Are Not the Antidote
That’s the umbrella under which lies the actual problem as it pertains to the WAC – the miserable state of Chicago State Cougar athletics, especially when it comes to basketball, the flagship sport for a conference without FBS football.
Chris Zorich, of Notre Dame and Chicago Bears fame, was hired as athletic director in 2018 despite his own personal history of money mismanagement and tax evasion, only to be fired without cause a year later.
As recently as December 5th, Chicago State had a glimmer in their eye after their men’s basketball team went on the road and defeated SIU-Edwardsville and ended a two-year, 53-game road losing streak. Unfortunately, after that win brought them to 4-6 on the season, they didn’t win another game.
This isn’t anything new for the Cougars, though.
They went 13-19 overall and 8-8 in the WAC during the 2013-14 season, their first in the conference. Since then, they’ve posted an overall record of 28-161 and a conference record of 6-80. This is a team that hasn’t even flirted with being competitive in more than five years.
In fact, after producing a record of 38-17 in their first two seasons as a Division I independent back in the mid-’80s, the ensuing 34 seasons of Cougars basketball have only produced one winning season.
That 13-19 record that CSU posted in their inaugural season in the WAC still stands as their fourth-best season all-time. The only thing more depressing to consider is the men’s team is the more successful of the school’s two basketball programs.
When the Cougars’ women’s basketball team beat Seattle U on February 8, 2018, it ended an NCAA-record 59-game losing streak. Chicago State has gone 3-60 since then and will enter their WAC tournament game on Tuesday with a record of 1-26.
For those uninterested in doing the math, I’ll actually go back further. In the spring of 2011, the Lady Cougars reached the Women’s Basketball Invitational semifinals before falling to Bakersfield in overtime and ended the season with a record of 24-10. They’ve gone 25-239 in the nine seasons since.
Change Is Inevitable, and Isn’t Always Pretty
Football is often talked about as the front porch of your university. When you don’t have a football program, basketball is your front porch, and Chicago State’s porch has been sinking into the ground for some time now.
If the university can’t keep its finances in order or its athletics competitive to the point that canceling the end of their basketball season actually made sense, and the school was already considering whether to even remain a Division I school, what now?
UMKC leaving the conference eliminated the Cougars’ de facto travel partner and creates a scenario where their nearest conference opponent is Tarleton State, which sits more than 1,000 miles away in Stephenville, Texas. Travel expenses for every sport will go up for an athletic department that can only afford exactly one athletic trainer.
The logical move for this university – one whose enrollment has shrunk by 60% in the last decade, and who can’t keep its finances straight or its administration from hiring their unqualified friends – is to drop all the way to Division III.
That is a massive drop, but you’re talking about a school that was seriously wondering if they would cease to exist entirely three years ago, let alone sponsor athletics and hasn’t really rebounded from that point.
It makes sense for a school like this to tighten its purse strings in all non-essential areas. For a school like Chicago State, those non-essentials absolutely include Division I athletics, if they even retain athletics at all.