Each April, after most college sporting events have ended, Arizona athletics director Jim Livengood and his staff produce five-year projections for what their department's future budgets might look like.
When Livengood saw the projections this year, his heart sank.
"The numbers were big enough and scary enough," Livengood said. "We're looking at multimillion-dollar deficits. The old adage of 'just make more money' through better development and fundraising won't help. The problems are too big to just be able to fix on the revenue side."
At a time when colleges and universities across the country are cutting sports programs and slashing budgets, even those athletic programs in better financial shape are trying to identify ways to reduce costs during the current recession.
Livengood, who is in his 16th year at Arizona, was one of several college athletic directors who met last weekend in Durham, N.C. The group, which Livengood described as a "think tank," has been meeting for more than a decade. The group also includes athletics directors from Alabama, Boston College, California, Duke, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Stanford.
The country's struggling economy, and its effect on intercollegiate athletics, was a hot topic at last weekend's meeting, Livengood said.
"I think it's been more than an eye-opener," Livengood said. "I think it's a lightning rod. I think if we don't get serious about this issue, I think we're going to look back in the very near future and really regret it. There's a chance the economy gets worse before it gets better. In big-time athletics, none of us are on an island where we're protected."
While only a few of the country's larger universities have been forced to cut entire sports teams, nearly every NCAA Division I athletic program is seeking ways to reduce expenditures. Many schools are changing the way their teams travel to road games, taking longer bus trips to avoid costly charter flights. Many schools have stopped publishing printed media guides, and a handful of conferences have reduced the size of their postseason tournaments.
I think if we don't get serious about this issue, I think we're going to look back in the very near future and really regret it.
”-- Arizona AD Jim Livengood
"These are very, very tough times for us economically," Boston College athletics director Gene DeFilippo said. "But the silver lining in this dark cloud is we've really started to look at ourselves and see where we can save money and cut costs and work smarter. College athletics has been growing as far as facilities and staff size. The economy isn't going to stay like this forever, but we need to be smarter in how we do things."
The biggest concern among many college sports administrators is that the playing field will be even less level once the dust settles. Schools from the larger conferences with rich TV contracts haven't been hit as hard, and some schools, such as Florida, have actually increased their athletic budgets. But private schools, like Stanford, have been forced to reduce their budgets by several million dollars, forcing them to lay off employees and cut sports programs.
DeFilippo and Livengood believe the only way to slow down the arms race in college sports is to do it through NCAA-mandated changes. The Pac-10 recently recommended NCAA-wide rules changes that would prohibit overseas trips for sports teams and end the practice of teams' staying in off-campus hotels the night before home games.
"We can't have a laundry list of 30 items," Livengood said. "We need to pick out a few things, and they need to be drastic. We're all going to be in trouble if we don't get a handle on it."
DeFilippo said it's difficult for an individual school to eliminate certain expenditures if its rivals aren't doing it, too.
"We need to look at it on a national level so there's a more level playing field," DeFilippo said. "None of us want to disadvantage our student-athletes or our coaches or our teams. If Stanford is going to lose three administrators, then so does Boston College and everybody else. If Stanford is going to lose a coach, then everybody needs to do it. Stanford shouldn't be the only school hurt."
But getting schools to come to a consensus on cost-cutting measures will be difficult, Livengood said.
"This thing is so hard," Livengood said. "Even in that group, in which we've all been friends for 25 years, it's hard to get a consensus on things that can get done and will work. We're all so different in terms of institutions."
But as the summer of 2009 draws to a close and athletic departments across the country are preparing for the upcoming school year, the harsh reality is that no one really knows whether the economy will get better or worse.
"What's going to happen in 2012 when all the stimulus money is gone?" Livengood asked. "That's when the rubber hits the road. It's scary."
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.