Could A&M's fiscal cuts be a sign of a deeper financial crisis?

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

The holiday weekend was a bad time around Texas A&M, where unprecedented economic struggles are leading to major financial changes in the school's athletic department.

Long-time employees Billy Pickard, Chris Harrell and Jim Kotch were among 17 support personnel who were told their jobs would be phased out last week in a series of meetings that have been named "Black Thursday" by Texas newspapers.

Even veteran A&M radio broadcaster Dave South will be taking early retirement, keeping his play-by-play job while his job as associate athletic director in charge of sponsorships and broadcasting is being phased out.

"The Texas A&M University Athletic Department is facing difficult economic decisions like many companies and universities across the United States. Charged by the University to reduce the budget by $4.5 million for the 2009-2010 fiscal year, our goal was to make spending cuts that would not impact the competitiveness of our teams and to ensure that our student athletes have a good experience here at Texas A&M," Texas A&M athletic director Bill Byrne said in a prepared statement.

"We were able to identify $3.5 million in cuts without reducing personnel. Unfortunately, the Athletic Department had to eliminate 17 positions to balance the budget. The cuts came across the entire spectrum of the department. This difficult decision came after an exhaustive review of the entire program and with great reluctance."

The cuts run deep. Take Pickard, who began his association with A&M when he worked as a student trainer under Paul "Bear" Bryant and remained working with the athletic department for 45 consecutive years. Or Harrell, a longtime employee of the Aggies' sports information department who grew up nearby and attended high school at nearby A&M Consolidated. Or Kotch, a former A&M ticket manager who has worked at the school for 28 years.

These job cuts are coming on the heels of the revelation of a $16 million, no-interest loan the athletic department received from the university four years ago from former A&M president Robert Gates. The athletic department has to start repaying that debt back to the university in November.

The job cuts are part of a university directive designed to reduce the budget by $4.5 million for the 2009-10 fiscal year.

And that comes after the resignation of A&M president Elsa Murano. The Aggies are still paying for Dennis Franchione and his $4.4 million settlement. The Bryan Eagle reports that sales of football season tickets are down for the upcoming season.

These struggles are prompting a lot of grumbling among A&M former students considering the recent economic success at two of the Aggies' biggest rivals.

As the Aggies are cutting, the Oklahoma athletic department recently announced it would be giving $3 million back to the school's general academic fund to keep the school from having to raise tuition. And Texas is having unprecedented recent success after leading the nation in football revenue at $72.95 million last season and in total athletic department revenue at $120.8 million.

The Longhorns recently gave most of their football staff raises totaling $44,000 after the Longhorns earned a share of a three-way tie for the South Division championship last year.

Another item of contention has been Byrne himself. The A&M athletic director received a $204,000 raise less than a year ago from the A&M Board of Regents, boosting his yearly salary to $690,000. His salary total ranks third among Big 12 athletic directors behind only Lew Perkins of Kansas and Joe Castiglione of Oklahoma.

When Byrne arrived, he saw a crumbling infrastructure which needed immediate fixing. He invested heavily in facilities and coaches for sports other than football, men's and women's basketball and baseball -- traditionally the backbone of A&M's athletic support.

That attention clearly has paid off. The Aggies claimed the national men's golf championship and the men's and women's track and field championships in the last several months. Those victories helped the school finish 13th in the national Learfield Sports Directors' Cup and a record 12th nationally in the Sports Director's Cup standings last season.

But as strong as that success has been, it's been somewhat of a pyrrhic victory for many Aggie fans. A&M's football program has struggled with a combined record of 25-24 in the last four seasons.

A&M comes into the season with lessened expectations than in any recent season as most preseason polls predict that Mike Sherman's team will struggle to stay out of the South Division cellar. The Aggies haven't sniffed of a South Division championship since R.C. Slocum led them to the 1998 title.

Since then, Mack Brown and Bob Stoops have helped boost Texas and Oklahoma into consistent national championship contenders with record attendance figures to boot.

And across the South Division, other schools and their football programs clearly are on an upswing. Mike Leach has transformed Texas Tech into a program with wide national appeal. Oklahoma State is poised to do that this season with more preseason publicity entering the season than any in recent memory. And even Baylor is nipping at A&M's heels as most preseason predictions expect them to pass the Aggies and contend for their first bowl berth since 1994.

One other item that made me realize how real the economic problems really are at Texas A&M.

The school has agreed to allow the Texas Hurricanes of the Southern Indoor Football League to use the school's McFerrin Multi-Purpose Facility as it relocates to the Bryan-College Station area. While there, the school will battle the team for sponsorships and the hearts and minds of Aggie fans during the spring sports season.

It's never wise to allow any kind of competition to gain a foothold in your own backyard. But the Aggies' sports administration must believe that rent payments from the arena team will help offset any losses that might be caused with their other sports.

The economy has made for some bleak times for athletic departments across the country. A&M hasn't decided to cut any athletic programs -- yet.

Still, Byrne will be facing a difficult task of trimming budgets in an uncertain time as he tries to ramp up the overall athletic success of his school.

Throw in the fact that his football program is rebuilding and it makes a challenging economic task that much tougher.