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Chip Drago
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Gulf Coast Classic aims high,
with Iron Bowl-like aspirations

By Chip Drago
Mobile Bay Times
When the Gulf Coast Classic here between Alabama State and Southern rivals the annual Alabama-Auburn gridiron blood-letting as an eagerly anticipated, more-than-a-football-game spectacle each fall, controversy over the $355,000 in public funding of its start-up as a "true classic" will blow over, according to organizers of the event.

As the event takes root as a "true classic" in the minds of fans of the two universities, the GCC at Ladd-Peebles Stadium will "represent a venue for entertainment, reunion and pride," wrote Taylor Hodge Jr., president of the Gulf Coast Scholar and Sports Foundation, the non-profit organization which took over management last year of the 35-year-old GCC.

Supporters come "to relate so passionately to a 'classic' in the genre of historically black colleges and universities," Hodge wrote. "To them, the 'classic' is more than a football game ... similar to the annual Alabama/Auburn football game. We are certain that when the 'classic' reaches that level, the specter of controversy will be erased."    

Formerly, the GCC had been merely an ASU home game in Mobile against various opponents. The game in 2007 got a $40,000 stipend from the city. Last year, in its revamped incarnation modeled on the Bayou Classic in New Orleans and the Magic City Classic in Birmingham, Mayor Sam Jones called for funding of $450,000 which was reduced to $275,000 in a City Council compromise during budget debate last year.

Hodge's remarks came in response to questions raised by Mobile City Council President Reggie Copeland about GCC's finances. An audit of the contest reflected a deficit of more than $188,000. The amount is nearly identical to the outstanding debt owed to the two schools under the contract which called for Southern to receive $250,000 and Alabama State to get $225,000. Also, at least one vendor has reported not being paid for its services.  

Copeland dismissed the GCSSF's response as inadequate. He said he would push for full disclosure and genuine transparency of the GCC's finances when the representatives meet with city officials March 18 to recap the venture.

Copeland and the GCSSF principles profess an identical goal: a successful, financially sound event where all hustling is restricted to the athletes on the field of play.

Even so, the two sides dispute much, including something as basic as attendance at the game.

Copeland says he has an actual turnstile count putting attendance at 10,732. GCSSF stands by its count of 22,428 through "our ticket sales and distribution."     

"Freebies," Copeland scoffed.

"If the GCC had attendance of 22,000 at 15 dollar per ticket, that's $330,000 in revenue, is it not?" Copeland said. "Add the $275,000 from us, the $80,000 from the county and the state, the $125,000 from sponsors and all the proceeds from the step show and the mayor's luncheon, I'm not sure how it is they came to have a deficit. This is based on what (promoter Steve) Harrelson told me. That comes to $810,000, not including miscellaneous revenues. That should have been enough to pay everybody in full. How come checks are bouncing? It just doesn't make sense to me."

GCSSF says the GCC had revenues of $576,005 and expenses of $764,546.   

Copeland said he would continue to seek actual bank statements, canceled checks, invoices, contracts and other documentation relating to GCC's financial arrangements.

"That's my next step: just let me look over all the paperwork connected to your financial transactions," he said. "Just let me see them, that's all. What's the big deal with that?"

Hodge countered: "An independent audit verified the validity and accuracy of our finances. The auditor was given bank statements, every bill paid and deposit made with vendor invoices and the audit substantiated the validity of the revenues and expenses. We have answered questions far and above what is required in our performance contract with the city."

As with challenges to the actual paid attendance at the GCC versus the accepted versions from the GMAC Bowl and the Senior Bowl, Hodge expressed curiosity "as to why we were singled out" for scrutiny.

"The expense line items that are in question are considerably less than the same line items for similar events that take place in the city," Hodge maintained. "We put together a shoestring budget and ran it with the Board, a committee and a shoestring staff; all with less money than we thought we would have. We think we did well by the teams and the city."

Hodge stated that efforts were ongoing to resolve issues that might interfere with future GCCs involving Southern and Alabama State.

According to hotel and restaurant interests, with some exceptions, the GCC did not generate any noticeable business beyond a typical mid-November weekend.

However, GCSSF awaits "with anticipation the results of Dr. (University of South Alabama economics professor Semoon) Chang's economic impact study which might answer the true impact of the game," Hodge wrote.

It could not be determined immediately if, how much and by whom Chang was being compensated for his work.

Hodge said GCSSF was receptive to many of the ideas and suggestions Copeland offered during a Feb. 2 meeting. The need for a title sponsor was obvious to all, he noted, adding that an "agreement in principle" was in place for a title sponsor from 2009-11. He did not identify the prospective sponsor or the amount of sponsorship. Stricter ticket sale requirements on the two schools was also in the works with an eye toward greater hotel occupancy, Hodge said.

Hodge referred to the inaugural GCC "true classic" as "an overwhelming success."

"We are all about the good of the City and the Game, and working together to make future classics even better," Hodge wrote. "

Hodge's letter was addressed "to whom it may concern."

He copied Jones, Chief of Staff Al Stokes, all seven members of the Mobile City Council, the auditors Kalifeh, Bedsole & Co., Richard Davis, Sydney Raine, Ray Lapierre, Yvonne Kennedy and Harold Williams.     
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