If you don't know Jeff Crane, Senior Associate Athletics Director in charge of Development, well, he wants to meet you.
Such is life for the man tasked with fundraising for South Carolina's athletic department - there are always more people to meet, to get to know, to ask for help. As someone who came from Texas Christian University with Chief Operating Officer Kevin O'Connell and departed Athletics Director Eric Hyman, Crane has been instrumental in helping the school set record numbers both in terms of private giving and in Gamecock Club memberships while accomplishing both in the face of a nationwide economic recession and under the cloud of an initially unpopular seat-licensing campaign.
Now, from his spacious office in the sparkling new Rice Athletic Center and with an equally sparkling new boss in Ray Tanner, Crane is able to reflect on a period of stunning growth in both finances and facilities. Sitting with GamecockCentral.com's Ron Aiken last week, Crane spoke about how critical the past six years have been, what an immediate positive impact Tanner has had already and looked ahead to what could be the most exciting era in school athletic history.
GC: You came with Eric Hyman from TCU, your alma mater, but you didn't grow up in Texas, correct?
Crane: That's right, I'm from Shreveport, Louisiana, originally.
GC: Which can only mean you were raised an LSU fan, right?
Crane: Yeah, I grew up an LSU fan. I've had like 15 members of my family go to LSU, so I was definitely immersed in it as a child. But for college I went to TCU, and it was there that I had a chance to work for Kevin and Eric, which gave me the opportunity to come to South Carolina as the director of marketing when they came. I then moved into fund raising about four years ago, in 2008.
GC: Working in the development field, what is your relationship with your peers at other SEC schools? Is it friendly?
Crane: It is. We benchmark and talk to other schools in the SEC a lot. We compete on the field, but we don't compete for donors. So we do share ideas a lot, and there are a lot of forums in the SEC where we meet several times a year. I think the camaraderie in the SEC from a development perspective is very good.
GC: Have you taken programs or models from other schools and used them successfully here?
Crane: If you take a look at that YES program, our seating program, we studied at about 20 different schools to see how they did it, many of them SEC schools, and tweaked it based on that. Arguably, we've had great success with that. We've certainly generated the revenue to support our building campaign through that. We clearly have some work to do, though, because the stadium for a lot of our non-conference games isn't full. Other schools have experienced the same thing in the SEC. When they implemented a similar program, seeing their attendance dip, so it's really an economic problem that's happening at a lot of stadiums all over the country.
The YES program, we really looked to our peers. Our fundraising staff in fact was just at Auburn on [Sept. 17]. We visited their campus, took a tour of their facilities and met with their development people. They just built an indoor football practice facility, so we learned about how they went out and fundraised for that, what the pitch was and what the facility looks like. It helps us when we talk to our donors about what we're up against in the conference.
GC: Going back to the then-controversial YES program, what was it like weathering the initial blowback?
Crane: It's been an amazing transformation, really. When we were on the front lines with that, our fans were upset. They were upset to the point where they were saying things like, "I can't believe what's happening; you're pricing us out of the market." Now it's transitioned into, "Thanks. Thanks for what you did." I just met with a gentleman from Asheville, North Carolina, yesterday and he showed me an email he had sent Eric Hyman just blasting this program and he told me right there, "You know, y'all were right. Y'all were right." The proof is in the pudding.
You're seeing the facilities being built, you're seeing the results. You're seeing our programs getting better and competing not just in football, but two national championships in baseball, our volleyball program is 13-0 right now, our men's and women's soccer programs are winning their conferences, a new softball stadium is going up... . Our fan base, from where they were to where they are, has really transformed. We have asked a lot and still ask a lot, but this is what it takes to compete in our league.
GC: Can you talk about the progress that has been made and the fundraising accomplishments here since you came?
Crane: Where we've seen a huge increase is in private support, meaning outside of ticket money, outside of Gamecock Club memberships. In the last six years we've done $45 million in private support. By comparison, from 1995-1999, private athletic contributions totaled $1.3 million. From 2000-2006 they totaled $2.9 million. Together, that's $4.2 million over 11 years. So with $45 million, you're talking about 91 percent of all the money raised since 1995 coming in just the last six years. That is remarkable. That's really been the difference-maker in our league.
For the most part in the SEC, ticket money is comparable, television money is comparable. Where we can really get an edge is in the area of private support. You see people like Dodie Anderson, you see people like Joe and Lisa Rice, you see the dozen or so donors who gave money for the video board; those are game changers for us, and those gifts are about relationships and about timing. But while the large gifts have helped jump start this, most have come from the masses, from those who are just giving what they can afford to give. Not everyone can give millions, and while those conversations are wonderful when you can have them, what we've found is that most Gamecocks are willing to do a bit more because they can see the results for themselves. Our peers have been doing this for 20, 30 years, and we've really only been doing it this way for the past six years, with a truly private, philanthropic commitment.
GC: What opened the doors to those dollars coming in like they hadn't before?
Crane: We probably spent a good three, four years on educating our donors about the opportunity; here's what it is, here's where we want to go and here's how we want to get there. Along the way, you can show them the benchmarks, the Dodie Academic Center, the baseball stadium, the new Rice Athletic Center, the Farmer's Market, the video board, and they can see them. They'll say "Oh, this is what y'all were talking about in 2007." Then we can show them the future, the indoor practice facility, two outdoor fields and an indoor facility, renovating the area around Williams-Brice Stadium and creating a beautiful plaza. They can see it coming together and really believe it.
We really want to bring that campus feel to the stadium. Where we are, in a former industrial area, could be viewed as a negative, but now we've flipped that to a positive. We have 54 acres of some of the best tailgating in the country. No one else can say that. Nobody can go and pull up right across the street from the stadium and plug their television, heater and cooker right into their parking spot. Our peers, when they come visit, they say, "I can't believe what you have going on at South Carolina." Our fans have given us the opportunity to create that environment. We're all about enhancing the game day experience for our fans, We've increased costs. We've asked for more donations. But we hope they see the experience is better.
GC: You came to USC with Eric Hyman, but now have a new boss in Ray Tanner. What's that been like for you?
Crane: I enjoyed working with Eric very much and he gave me some awesome opportunities in the past. But to be honest, from a fundraising standpoint, Ray Tanner is a fundraiser's dream. He's genuine. He's well known and well liked in this state. When we bring him out in the community and talk about ways to help our program, people respond. That's the reality of it. And he's very willing to do it.
There a lot of athletic directors out there who don't want to go out and fundraise. It's not something they're interested in. He is. We're just trying to keep up with him. He wants to be out there seeing people. He's on the move. From a fundraising standpoint, he's extremely valuable. He knows how to build a team and he knows how to win.
GC: I get the sense people are excited about being on Tanner's new 'team', so to speak?
Crane: Absolutely. We all, from an athletic department standpoint, want to be a part of that. Externally, donors want to be a part of that, too. It truly is a privilege to work for a person like him who has had such success and is such a great person. His expectations are high, just like they were for his players. He makes that known. But he's going to help you and coach you through it and help you execute it. It's fun to work for a person like that.
In the last two or three years, he has literally done hundreds of appearances. I don't know if there's a person in the state of South Carolina that has more friends than Ray Tanner does. And form a fundraising standpoint, that's phenomenal. When he's willing to give of his time to go help those organizations succeed, when he goes out and asks them to help us succeed, they're equally as open to that. He puts his money where his mouth is.
GC: Does that mean you now have even higher goals with Tanner on board?
Crane: Yes. Football season is our key time. We're very much out there talking to donors about how they can help our program, because one of the areas we need the most help now with is in football. We have a great plan in place. We have a great staff out there knocking on doors and building relationships. On Saturdays, we strategize about where we want Coach Tanner to be and consciously put him and us in front of the right people to be successful. We learned that after the first game, that we have to plan a bit more time, because when he stops and he's around, people come to him. They want pictures and autographs, which is great.
GC: Have you ever worked for someone so popular?
Crane: I have never worked for an athletic director who on game day I have to carry a Sharpie around to handle autographs. I had a donor come up and ask me not long ago, he said, "Coach Tanner signs baseballs, but what do other athletic directors sign?" I said, "They don't." Nobody wants the athletic director's autograph. They want Ray Tanner's autograph, though, so our game day operations have ramped up because of him. Once he gets in that stadium, he's working the club areas, the suites. Anywhere we need him to be, he'll be there. That's the type of person he is. He's gong to spend time with people. He's genuine with people. He's not afraid to invest in people, and that's a big deal.
GC: What are some of the specific goals you have going forward?
Crane: This year, our hope was to get to over 14,000 Gamecock Club members. The all-time high was 14,444 in one of the Lou Holtz years. Our hope was to exceed that and we did. We're at over 15,000 Gamecock Club members now. From a development standpoint, timing is so important; last year our goal was $6 million in private support and we raised $15.3 million.
So we hit some good timing for people, our football program had the best year ever, people feel good on what they're investing in and people feel like they're getting a return. This year our goal is $7 million, and we feel like we'll hit that and maybe exceed it if the opportunities present themselves. People feel good about what's happening here, which is no different than when people invest in a company. They want to feel comfortable in the people and leadership and the direction.
That's the value Ray Tanner brings, that's the value that wins and losses bring and that's the value that our student-athletes graduating brings. We have five years of placing more kids on the SEC Academic honor roll than anyone else, and the Dodie is a big part of that. It's a long-term approach. It's about being patient and really building that relationship with the donor.
GC: What is the next step from a long-term revenue standpoint for the athletic department?
Crane: Many of these new facilities were paid for from state bonds that the revenue is being generated to pay for from private support, television and ticket money. We're about at our maximum in terms of our current revenue stream, so for us to continue our building, the indoor practice facility, we need to generate those dollars privately. It's more critical now to do that than ever. Now, we don't have the same financial flexibility we've had in the past, and our donors are responding to that.
If you're not looking ahead to our next facility, you're going to get left behind. Our friends in the Upstate just built a new indoor facility, Georgia just built one, it needs to get done. We'll probably be fundraising this way for a long time at the University of South Carolina, because that's what you have to do to compete in this league and succeed.
GC: Finally, you're from Louisiana, got your undergraduate and master's, not to mention your professional start, at TCU, and now are here. Do you see yourself here for a long time?
Crane: Kevin O'Connell originally hired me, and it's been a great opportunity for me to work for him and for Eric. I kind of got lucky there. I loved TCU, but this is such a great place to be because the momentum is so great here at South Carolina.
Often times you're at a school where especially in our league, that's figuring out how to maintain what they have. Here, we're building and on the move. Our student athletes here are having a phenomenal experience, and that's very gratifying. Academically, our student-athletes are doing better than they've ever done. It's fun to feel like you're a part of that in a small way, and I look forward to being a small part of it for a long time.