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Going for Gold 

Academy of Art’s new sports program is about spirit, marketing — and the chance to break even more rules.

Wednesday, Aug 27 2008

A quick glance through a propped-open door at Kezar Pavilion reveals a dozen or so women of Amazonian proportions outfitted in snazzy black uniforms anticipating a serve. The red and black logos emblazoned upon the players' backs indicate the group is the Academy of Art University's volleyball team — that, in addition to the ubiquitous Academy of Art bus idling out on Stanyan.

Given the school's rapacious appetite for real estate and aforementioned bus fleet, just about the only place in San Francisco you might be surprised to see an Academy of Art insignia would be on a team jersey. But not for long.

This month, the art school kicks off an intercollegiate sports program, fielding 12 teams in the NCAA Division II Pacific West Conference. And if the notion of an art school recruiting players for NCAA competition and doling out athletic scholarships strikes you as odd — it is. The Academy of Art is the only one.

The school loftily tabs the multimillion-dollar endeavor as a stereotype-shattering move harking back to the ancient Greek model of blending athletics with artistic and intellectual pursuits. And yet, even for the school's own students, the notion of the academy fielding sports teams — and cheerleaders — is often unintentionally hilarious. "It's an art school. Most of us are not jocks; we're the kids drawing in the corner," said Ken, a giggling undergraduate. "I don't think a majority of students are going to give a shit about this."

Back on the volleyball court, the serve sails over the net. A black-clad player calls for it, kneels, and bumps the ball toward a teammate. With an acrobatic flourish, the setter flips the ball over her head and the outside hitter readies herself for the — slam! An unseen hand shuts the door in SF Weekly's face. The academy bills itself as a private institution — and it is, in more ways than one.

As volleyball practices go, this one did not seem out of the ordinary — except for its timing. Bob Hogue, the commissioner of the Pac West, said that he made it clear to the academy months ago that conference rules do not permit schools to hold practices before the NCAA-mandated opening date of Monday, Aug. 11. This volleyball practice took place the week prior. In fact, SF Weekly documented coaches and athletes on five other academy teams also getting a leg up on the competition by holding practices early.

In addition to the obvious competitive advantage derived from additional workouts — after all, practice makes perfect — NCAA rules set season lengths to prevent students from practicing all year long. Eyewitnesses claim some of the academy's teams were practicing with their coaches for much of the summer. "My understanding was this [early practice] wasn't going to happen," Hogue says. "If something other than that occurred, I would be surprised and disappointed."

Cue surprise and disappointment. And yet when it comes to news of the Academy of Art being unwilling to follow the rules, surprise is the last reaction from housing activists, community organizers, politicians, and city planners who have locked horns with the school.

From 1994 until last year, the Stephens family — which has owned and operated the academy since Richard S. Stephens founded it 79 years ago — purchased 14 San Francisco residential buildings, leased three more, and converted them into student housing. Not only did the school neglect to obtain the city's permission to make these conversions, city officials weren't even aware the school had obtained the buildings. It wasn't until the Academy of Art filed its Institutional Master Plan in 2006 — three decades overdue — that city planners even knew how many school structures the family owned or leased. Paul Correa, the academy's planning director, still doesn't, putting the number at "32 to 34." As for the uncertainty, "I've only been here six weeks," he says. (According to the master plan, it's apparently 32 — for now). Critics charge the school with gobbling up fistfuls of the city's dwindling supply of affordable housing, taking over neighborhoods (and clogging them with buses), and generally acting as if city laws and regulations apply only to others.

Within that belatedly filed master plan, the academy boldly projects it will mushroom its student population from its current 11,334 to 24,000 by 2017, requiring the acquisition of nine or 10 more properties. The school hopes, in part, to draw these students — and their tuition checks — by fielding competitive sports teams. Within the next decade the academy aims to make the leap from its current status of Division II to Division I — the highest level of collegiate sports, on par with UCLA, Duke, and Stanford — and even field a football team.

It's a wildly ambitious goal, but the academy didn't get to be a $100 million business by accident. And yet, if city politicos and planners or surly NCAA officials intercede, it will be the Academy of Art's turn to be surprised — and disappointed.

In the elevator to the Academy of Art athletic department's office, a dog-eared flier hangs on the wall. "Learn to throw," it reads. Is this how the academy is recruiting its athletes? Not quite: A closer look reveals the flier is an invitation to learn to throw pottery.

Within the department's headquarters, a phalanx of student interns hammers on laptops while surrounded by boxes of uniforms and other sports paraphernalia stacked almost six and a half feet high. The cardboard pillars are nearly as tall as athletic director Jamie Williams, a former San Francisco 49ers tight end during the team's glory years, who actually has to duck to enter the room.

The eyes of any visitor to Williams' office are immediately drawn to a four-and-a-half-foot–long sword dangling behind his desk. It's a remnant of his postfootball days in the 1990s, when he "trained in ninja and broadsword" in hopes of becoming Hollywood's black Conan the Barbarian. That didn't pan out, but Williams did earn a doctor of education degree from the University of San Francisco in 1999 — and he brought his sword with him. He moved into motivational speaking and became a leadership coach for corporate executives. The symbolism-laden verbiage of motivational business speechifying has apparently proven successful for wooing undergraduate athletes, and Williams slips into it with well-rehearsed ease. "People walk into this office and they understand that this is an adventure," he says. "We are warriors, and we are going up against forces, and we have a sword to fight with. When you leave here, you're a photographer, a fashion designer, or an advertiser. That's your sword."

Williams leans back in his chair and claims that "90-plus percent" of the recruits he's given his speech to have signed on the dotted line. But he says it isn't just recruits he's winning over. Williams claims that Mike Garrett and Darryl Gross — the athletic directors of USC and Syracuse University, respectively — pulled him aside at a recent convention. Their message: The Academy of Art's specialized areas of study threaten our recruiting efforts. "They said, 'We don't have what you have'" — majors such as fashion and 3-D animation. "'If a kid wants to go with what you have, how can we compete with that?'"

Gross, however, remembered a less monumental rationale behind this pep talk: "We were being complimentary and showing that Jamie Williams has hope! TONGUE IN CHEEK!" he wrote in an e-mail.

Medieval metaphors work well for Williams, since the Academy of Art's teams are named the Urban Knights. Of course, the feudal references also suit critics of the school, who accuse president Elisa Stephens of running it like a personal fiefdom.

As a for-profit, "proprietary" institution, whatever money isn't spent on staff costs, bus maintenance, and so on goes to the Stephens family as profit. The family has maintained a strict silence regarding the school's financial numbers and even obtained its real estate holdings with an air of secrecy, using a byzantine network of limited liability companies to purchase buildings — and obscure the real owners.

School instructors earn notoriously low wages — one current teacher told SF Weekly she draws roughly $9,000 a semester for teaching five classes. There is no tenured faculty, and a veteran full-time instructor said his $50,000 salary was top of the heap. So, while the notion of an art school inaugurating a sports program is strange, the idea of a for-profit institution going in for athletics is even stranger. After all, running a sports program is a marvelously efficient way to squander money. Recent NCAA statistics reveal that, among schools operating Division II programs without a football team, 93 percent lose money, with the average annual shortfall roughly $1.4 million. Incidentally, 93 percent of Division II programs with football also lose money, with the average deficit at $1.77 million. The academy, however, doesn't write off the millions it has sunk into athletics as a mere expenditure. It's an investment.

When asked, bluntly, why the Academy of Art needed a sports program, Williams was quick to drop the medieval references for another M word: marketing. "I see this place as kind of a Harvard or Stanford of art schools, but you don't know about it because athletics is usually the greatest marketer of an institution," he says.

It's an understandable rationale for an institution that hopes to more than double in size — and has recently added a school of multimedia communications with majors that veer away from the fine arts and toward more general interests. Williams happily claims that the academy can make anyone an artist — and while this is debatable, it is certainly willing to give anyone a shot. Unlike Harvard or Stanford, the academy has a 100 percent acceptance rate. Many of its current students were lured by ads aired on MTV. Perhaps in the future, those commercials will play on ESPN.

Williams and Stephens refused to disclose the school's athletic budget, but Williams claimed it was on par with other Pacific West programs. The athletic directors for those schools, meanwhile, readily revealed that they budget between $1.4 million and $3.8 million a year for sports — though none has the academy's startup costs or need to rent public facilities like Kezar Pavilion, which costs $150 an hour for practices and $2,000 to $3,000 for every volleyball or basketball game.

The academy's marked secrecy regarding its athletic budget won't last long. That data — and much more — must be reported to the Department of Education each season. Department officials in Washington said they expect to receive a report from the academy in 2009.

That notwithstanding, financial questions induce hostility. "Unfortunately, your agenda of searching for 'why a for-profit educational institution would want the financial burden of intercollegiate athletics at the Division II level' is contrary to our current priorities," Williams e-mailed SF Weekly early in the reporting of this article. "Please desist from calling and e-mailing our athletic administrative staff and coaches, as they've been instructed that the story is over."

The Academy of Art's harshest critics respect the school — just as Sherlock Holmes respected Professor Moriarty. "Their business model is miraculous," admits Brad Paul, San Francisco's deputy mayor for housing under Art Agnos. "They've figured out ways to make money no one else has."

While the Stephens family keeps the school's financial data a matter of speculation, extrapolating 11,334 students paying $670 per credit for undergraduates and $770 for graduates produces a figure exceeding $100 million a year for tuition alone. At a recent Board of Supervisors meeting, Paul took the academy's goal of 24,000 future students, multiplied it by a tuition total that included 2 percent yearly jumps over the next decade, and came up with the figure of $479 million in potential annual tuition by 2017. And yet charging tuition in exchange for a college education is not exactly a revolutionary business model. The academy's real genius came in assembling its real estate empire, which both schools and shelters ever-expanding numbers of those tuition-payers.

In 1990 — the year after Elisa Stephens joined the family business — the school's enrollment stood at 1,767 students, who were educated in three institutional buildings. In the past 18 years the head count has jumped six and a half times, while the Stephens family has picked up 29 buildings and leaped headlong into the landlord business. Living in an academy dormitory isn't cheap — a bed in a four-student room runs up to $9,000 per calendar year, while a private room can cost nearly $14,000. Meal plans, by the way, are an additional $4,500.

"They've raped and cannibalized the city's housing stock," bemoans John Bardis, a former San Francisco supervisor and one of the academy's most outspoken critics. Like Paul, Bardis tips his cap to the school's awesome ability to pull in profits. While many of the properties the academy obtained were originally rent-controlled, institutional dormitories do not fall under city rent control laws — and, even if they did, the turnover is constant. Charging tenants above-market rates while cramming several of them in a room generates a formidable revenue stream. And while residential buildings' assessed value is based on their estimated future rent-controlled income, the academy evidently never had intentions of being constrained by rent control. It could easily outbid competitors on its desired properties, confident it would make that money back — and how.

All in all, Bardis sums up the Academy of Art as a "facade" fronting a real estate operation that enables the funneling of vast sums of money — much of it from the state and federal government — to the Stephens family. According to the Department of Education, $88,272,468 in federal grants and loans was paid to academy students in the 2006-07 academic year alone. With this in mind, Bardis laughed when asked why the academy might want to compete in NCAA athletics: "They'd rather people talk about sports than how they're screwing over renters. They're scrambling awful fast to show they're legitimate."

Similar views were expressed by some of the current faculty and students, who saw sports teams and a mascot in a suit of armor as a veneer of normalcy for a school that is decidedly not normal. "It's one more attempt to make the school seem as if it has regular collegiate programs," said one liberal arts instructor, speaking anonymously — "Any kind of public dissent and they fire people right away."

A student who gave her name only as Michelle, since she's in the job market and fears speaking critically of the academy won't look good on her résumé, sees the sports program as yet another financial ploy. "The academy loves its money," she says. "With a sports program, you'll get more people in here. You can't view the academy as a school; you have to view it as a company." That sounded about right to an instructor in the school's fashion department: "The powers that be understand branding and image. In 10 years, the Giants will be playing at Academy of Art University Park."

Granted, not every rationale to join in collegiate athletics may be dollar-driven. Williams sees college sports as a cohesive element for a school lacking even a campus. Elisa Stephens wrote off the whole enterprise as a means to inspire students to live healthier lives: "Nothing promotes wellness, fitness, and better nutrition than having student athletes lead the way," she claimed in an e-mail — a novel concept, considering the millions of students and alums who eat and drink themselves silly on college game days. And, of course, establishing athletics may simply be a vanity issue for an organization with money to burn and a Pinocchiolike desire to be taken seriously as a "real" school.

In addition to repeating Williams' Harvard and Stanford line like a mantra, several coaches summed up the raison d'être of the sports program solely as the fulfillment of the longtime wish of Richard N. Stephens, Elisa's father. That, too, resounds with critics, who note that the academy is not shy about flaunting its abundant wealth. The sports program is "like the $8 million car collection on Van Ness Avenue," says Supervisor Aaron Peskin, referring to the legion of gleaming 1920s- and '30s-era roadsters ostentatiously parked on the ground floor of the academy's school of industrial design. "This is a prestige issue. To me, it's absurd on its face, but, you know, they're running a business. And if this is part of their business model, far be it for a legislator to say they can't have an athletic program."

On a brisk Thursday morning, 17 women and 18 men on the Academy of Art's soccer squads bobbed and weaved across Silver Terrace Playground. With every quick cut, rubber pellets sprang from the synthetic turf field, and the players' shouts were drowned out by machine-gun–like bursts from downshifting 18-wheelers on nearby Highway 280. Four coaches ran the players through scrimmages and drills; men's assistant coach Gabriel Davis walked over and began offering uninvited critical analysis of his players' strengths and weaknesses to SF Weekly. Once again, the practice was being held earlier than NCAA rules allowed.

Jamie Williams later had an explanation for the early start to Pac West commissioner Hogue. Williams claimed SF Weekly probably witnessed a couple of club teams working out, not squads that will soon be competing in NCAA matches. Never mind the fact that the players and coaches were all easily identifiable via the photographs posted on the academy's athletics Web page. Never mind David Benton, the recreation director at Silver Terrace, who says he's seen full teams of men and women with coaches every weekday since July 21 — men's coach Daniel Rosaia even handed him a business card. And certainly never mind the fact that Williams himself galloped across the public field to threaten an SF Weekly photographer on Aug. 8, and ended practice 20 minutes early rather than allow the photographer to keep shooting.

Since the academy aims to join the NCAA but is not yet an official member, it is not strictly mandated to follow all of the organization's myriad rules. Hogue, however, said that all schools participating in the Pac West must follow NCAA rules regardless of membership status, and added he and Williams had reached an understanding about this by the end of June. Hogue thought that was the end of the matter, but word of the academy's early practices had been trickling through the conference. Williams' fellow athletic directors, understandably, are not amused. "Certainly this is an area of concern for me," says Dexter Irvin, the athletic director of Dixie State College in St. George, Utah. "What's the intent of the rule? To make the playing field level for everybody."

Staff at the Academy of Art did not answer queries as to why the school opted to practice early. But if it is hoping to turn heads by winning immediately, a few extra workouts couldn't hurt; Williams has ambitiously scheduled a men's basketball game vs. Division I USF on Nov. 21. "If you play [badly], it's not likely you're going to get much prestige out of having a doormat team," sums up Jonathan Brown, the president of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities.

As for whether the academy's athletes are ready to play at an NCAA Division II level, many of them already have. A glance up and down the rosters of the dozen teams — men's and women's basketball, soccer and cross-country, women's tennis, softball, and volleyball and men's baseball, track, and golf — reveals a handful of players who have transferred from other colleges, some from within the Pac West. While the academy barred SF Weekly from speaking with its athletes, several gave interviews to their hometown papers. Morgan LeFever, a standout women's soccer player from Genoa, Nevada, told the Record-Courier, "I saw that they offered interior design and architecture in one degree, so I knew it was perfect for me." Brentwood's Debra Lafond, mother of softball player Shelby Lafond, told SF Weekly she and her daughter were familiar with the Academy of Art because "I see their commercials on TV all the time. I always thought it'd be really cool to go there." While other Division II schools recruited her daughter, Shelby had eyes only for the art school, which offered her a 25 percent scholarship. "Everybody in the family is saying 'What?' and looking at me asking, 'I thought she was going to play ball.' And I say, 'She is,'" Debra explains.

Most intriguingly, track and cross-country coach Mike Spino recruited "six to eight" Kenyans to run for his squad (the ambiguity results from uncertainty over whether a couple could afford plane tickets). On a recent Friday evening, the Kenyans strode out of the Star Motel on Lombard Street — the academy's latest acquisition — and headed for a waiting black bus. SF Weekly had time to ask one question — "You guys want to be artists?" — which was answered "Yes" before a man claiming to be an assistant coach bounded off the bus. "What's going on here?" he bellowed. "Come on, guys, let's go to dinner," he said, crowding the men onto the bus. Future interviews, he added, would have to be arranged by calling him. He refused to give his phone number.

Many a San Francisco developer has learned that land-use attorney Sue Hestor's first name doubles as a verb. Her Market Street office resembles a packed filing room in the moments following a grenade attack, yet she seems to be able to locate any document she wishes inside of 30 seconds. So, yeah, she can find the minutes for the 2006 meeting in Supervisor Peskin's office with the academy's lawyers and "what's her name?" — that'd be Elisa Stephens.

At that time, Hestor noted that the academy was 29 years overdue in producing its Institutional Master Plan, a voluminous document dozens of colleges, hospitals, and other San Francisco organizations must file periodically with the city to disclose their holdings and lay out future goals. When, months later, the school finally turned in a draft, city planners began visiting the scores of addresses listed within — and the academy rapidly became the Michael Phelps of amassing planning violations. Paul Correa, the school's planning director, says the academy didn't realize it was breaking rules right and left. City code enforcer Scott Sanchez scoffs at that claim. Even after being hit with a flurry of violations in 2006, the school continued acquiring property and converting it without permits through last year — which "blows their alibi about being ignorant out of the water," he says. One of those 2007 acquisitions was the Star Motel.

While the academy's conversions are not prohibited by San Francisco law, each should have required a Conditional Use Application, which can be granted only following public hearings and adjudication from the Planning Commission. In September 2007, the academy filed a barrage of such applications for the Star Motel and 13 other residential properties, some of which it had converted into student housing more than a decade ago. On Aug. 8, the Star was the first to have its day in court.

From the outset, the application looked like an easy win for the academy. Unlike other Stephens purchases, no residential housing was lost when the school took over the Star. The motel's clientele wasn't exactly A-list in recent years, and neighbors whispered about prostitution rings. At the hearing, Marina merchant organizations pushed the commission to approve the conversion, noting the academy had promised to pump money into local schools and aid with graffiti abatement. Officer John Gallagher of the Northern Police Station claimed neighborhood crime has dipped 50 percent since the academy took over the motel. Finally, Correa noted that if the commission didn't grant the permit — which affects only the rear portion of the motel — the cross-country team would have nowhere to live.

By that point, Commissioner Ron Miguel had heard enough. He abruptly curtailed the debate and moved to vote on the project. "In my mind, you have thumbed your nose at the city and have done so for some time. You've been able to hire excellent counsel over the years, but it seems that you change counsel rather than comply with the law," he said, shooting a glance at David Cincotta, the school's third attorney in roughly a year.

One by one, the commissioners rebuked the academy before giving it the thumbs down. "You've improved the property, but it's a terrible precedent we set when an institution continues to break the law and we support that," said Gwyneth Borden, setting off a bout of head-nodding among her colleagues. The academy's application to convert the Star Motel was spiked 7-0. "That," said Hestor moments after the final tally, "was a kick in the teeth."

Correa is unsure if the school will appeal the decision to the Board of Supervisors, and says he now has no idea how to persuade the commission to approve conversions in which the city actually lost housing stock. Sanchez predicts it will take years to deal with the academy's 13 remaining contested properties. But he adds that if its retroactive applications to convert buildings into dorms are eventually denied, there's no reason the school should be allowed to continue operating those dorms.

The debacle at the Planning Commission was just one of several recent setbacks befalling the academy. In late July, the NCAA Division II Membership Committee officially informed the school that its request to begin the process of becoming a member had been denied. While the NCAA would not disclose its rationale, Hogue said the governing body wanted to observe the school's sports teams in action for a year before offering an invitation. The academy has filed an appeal, but it's likely the three-year process of gaining membership won't even start until next season — if then. And on Aug. 11, Supervisor Chris Daly introduced an "urgency ordinance" which would temporarily forbid the conversion of residential rental units into student housing. That legislation could be reviewed as early as mid-September at the next meeting of the Board of Supervisors Land Use and Economic Development Committee.

The day before the planning commission meeting, academy coaches Peter Thibeaux and Lindsey Yamasaki ran a dozen men's and women's basketball players through a full practice at the Treasure Island YMCA. And a notable thing happened at that workout — aside from the fact it took place more than two months earlier than the mandated NCAA opening date for a hoops practice.

Thibeaux, a 6-foot-7 former Golden State Warrior, kept a watchful eye on his big men, both of whom towered over him as they banged bodies in the paint. Something — perhaps a lazy lob pass or bad footwork — caught his eye. "You're doing that shit again!" he shouted before banishing his team to run a set of punitive windsprints.

As Thibeaux' team lumbered back and forth across the hardwood, it was apparent the coach and players were well aware of a concept that is apparently only now dawning upon the academy: If you behave badly, you may be punished for it.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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