CAT CLIMBERS

WCU’s booster club steps up in response to budget cuts

By JILL INGRAM MA ’08

When state austerity measures trimmed more than half a million dollars from Western Carolina’s $2.4 million 2010-11 athletic scholarship budget, WCU director of athletics Chip Smith predicted that supporters would step up. A year later, they have, thanks largely to efforts by members of the Catamount Club.

It’s not all work for Catamount Club members, who enjoy social occasions such
as the pregame Purple Zone and an event to designate tailgate parking spaces.
Pictured (from left) are Jonathan Jorstad ’97, Gorham Bradley ’04,
Norman West ’68 and Jonathan Hubler ’08.

Today, the scholarship fund stands at $2.5 million, protected by trims across the athletics department and $433,000 in contributions raised through the Catamount Club, up nearly $30,000 from its previous record, set the year before. All gifts from fiscal year 2010-11, including restricted, unrestricted, capital project and endowed giving, totaled more than $1 million. “It’s been another great year for the Catmount Club. They really have stepped up,” Smith said, crediting especially the club leadership. “We’re basically holding the line right now on scholarships.”

The Catamount Club originated in 1965, when basketball coach Jim Gudger ’48 and athletic director Tom Young initiated a club for football and basketball season-ticket holders, said WCU sports historian Steve White ’67. The club has evolved into a comprehensive organization supporting 16 athletics teams and more than
300 student-athletes.

“We’ve learned a lot. Right now I think we’re probably the most successful and effective that we’ve ever been,” said Norman West ’68, five-time club board member and current president. West considers serendipitous the arrival of Chancellor David Belcher and his theme of regional inclusion as the Catamount Club ratchets up. Among comments from Belcher at a summer club board meeting was the belief that “a strong athletics program is essential in getting the word out about the university,” West said.

A primary goal of the club is expansion; it increased by 250 members over the past year to reach 1,000. It accomplished this by inviting entire memberships of other organizations to join, such as Greek organizations and tailgating crew “The Herd,” and by creating discounted membership categories to appeal to recent alumni and current students.

The club continues to fine-tune its established events – Catamount Golf Tour, the annual student-athlete scholarship banquet and various pregame festivities, including the popular Purple Zone – while introducing novel approaches to pique interest. West, an energetic, optimistic and die-hard supporter, is planning a fundraiser sale of limited-edition, signed prints of a campus landscape by Asheville artist Jeff Pittman.

The increased support means the club is enjoying a more solid base than it’s had in years, and that means more opportunities for student-athletes, said director Gorham Bradley ’04. Supporting student-athletes in a difficult economy is critical, say board members. “Parents are having a tougher time paying for their students to go to college, even in-state universities,” said Laura Leatherwood ’93 MS ’96 EdD ’07, who is serving her second term on the Board of Directors. Organized sports are important to the development and growth of young people, Leatherwood said. “With budget cuts and the economy, it’s up to us to support our athletes. We can’t wait for someone else to do it for us,” she said.