Merrill Eckstein said he needed one more challenge in his life when he left the Greater Chattanooga Sports & Events Committee after 17 years to become Finley Stadium’s executive director in June 2009.
That final challenge may not be at the halfway point.
Eckstein and Stadium Corp. chairman Bryan Patten have negotiated an agreement that would keep Eckstein operating the 20,668-seat home of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team three more years through May 31, 2014. The board will have the opportunity to review and decide whether to approve the letter of understanding at today’s scheduled Stadium Corp. meeting.
“Merrill, in my view, is just absolutely perfect for the job that he’s performing,” Patten said. “He doesn’t mind working alone, and he doesn’t require a lot of supervision. He is completely honest. He loves what he’s doing.
“I am pleased that Merrill is interested in working for three more years with the possibility that in the third year we would identify a likely successor and that he might diminish his involvement.”
The 66-year-old Eckstein has operated Finley Stadium the past two years at an annual salary of $88,000, and Patten said the new agreement calls for a “very modest increase.” Longtime board members Ryan Crimmins, Gordon Davenport Jr. and Jerry Summers helped formulate Eckstein’s new package, Patten added.
Eckstein was hired to oversee Finley Stadium several weeks after Russ Huesman had been named UTC’s new football coach and several weeks before former McCallie School quarterback B.J. Coleman decided to transfer to the Mocs from the University of Tennessee. UTC had gone 6-28 during the final three seasons under former coach Rodney Allison and had a paltry average home attendance of 5,748 in 2008.
The Mocs have gone 6-5 each of their first two years under Huesman, the program’s first consecutive winning seasons since 1990-91, and their average home attendance last year swelled to 12,699, ranking 24th among Championship Subdivision programs.
Eckstein, who has followed Chattanooga Lookouts owner Frank Burke’s four-year run as executive director, has projected a $12,000 surplus for the fiscal year that runs through the end of this month from an operating budget that is nearing $700,000.
“It’s not my great genius that is getting this to break even,” Eckstein said. “It’s the fact the football team and, to a lesser extent, the Chattanooga FC soccer team have put people in seats. That’s the key. We make our money from concessions and parking, plain and simple.
“Rent is rent, and we do make money from the rent, but our rental fees are very nominal, especially in relation to other facilities in town.”
Finley Stadium has endured two sizable setbacks since Eckstein took over.
The facility lost the FCS championship game in February 2010 to the Dallas suburb of Frisco after housing the event from 1997, the year Finley was built, through 2009. And last month, Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield did not include any funding for Finley in his proposed $201 million operating budget for the 2012 fiscal year.
Finley Stadium has received $60,000 from the city each of the past four years, and Eckstein already has scratched his projected surplus of $26,000 for the 2012 fiscal year.
“If the funding from the city stays at zero, Merrill and the board will have their work cut out for them,” Patten said. “I have a solution, and I hate to put it on B.J. and Russ Huesman, but they will need to go two home games deep into the playoffs to offset the failure of the city to fund.”
The Mocs have not qualified for the FCS playoffs since 1984, when they lost at Arkansas State 37-10.
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...