Alvin Brown and the Decline of the Willie Gary Football Classic
Early in the campaign, several local reporters commented on the elusive nature of his work history, lamenting that it was difficult to accurately assess Mayor-elect Alvin Brown’s performance in a seemingly endless series of over-lapping jobs held since leaving the Clinton Administration more than a decade earlier. It seems that Brown’s role as president and executive director of the once-promising Willie E. Gary Football Classic, a scholarship program featuring an annual match-up of historically black colleges, might provide the most important clue as to his leadership abilities.
Founded by flamboyant trial attorney Willie Gary in 2002, the annual football game started out as something of a smashing success. In its early years, the classic was played at Alltel Stadium and drew relatively decent crowds — averaging about 15,000 per game between 2002 and 2004. Not bad for an annual match-up between two smaller schools.
The early contests featured Jacksonville’s Edward Waters College — a school that revived its football program a year earlier after discontinuing it in 1967 — and Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, one of the co-founding schools in the NCAA Division II’s Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA), the oldest African-American athletic association in the nation. Shaw, which dropped its football program in 1979 after fielding a team since 1912, re-instituted its program in 2002.
Gary, who had generously provided hundreds of thousands of dollars for both schools to return to the gridiron, was excited about his annual football game. “ We are going to make this the preeminent Classic in the country,” he said. “We're going to build this into [one of] the most anticipated Classics of the college football season.”
And at first it looked like he might.
Brown and his wife collected more than $500,000 from the Willie Gary Football Classic between 2005-2009, even as the game suffered huge declines in attendance.
The first game of the Willie Gray Football Classic, played on Oct. 12, 2002, drew 15,040 at Alltel Stadium.
The 2003 game even featured a special half-time appearance by former President Bill Clinton, an old friend of Gary’s who told the announced crowd of 17,410 that he loved Willie and deeply admired his work in promoting historically black colleges. The game also drew several other celebrities, including former baseball great Cecil Fielder.
The football classic foundation prospered in its early years, generating income of $1,159,973 in 2003 and more than $716,000 in 2004, a year it attracted 11,402 fans to the annual Edward Waters-Shaw University game.
There was also some significant taxpayer money involved; in 2003 the city of Jacksonville, for example, paid $100,000 for Alltel Stadium to be used as the site of the game and put up an additional $25,000 for advertising. The Jacksonville Economic Development Commission (JEDC) also budgeted a substantial amount in event contributions for the football classic during that period.
Despite its auspicious beginning, the Willie Gary Classic unwittingly found itself in the center of a little-publicized liquor heist in September 2003, when two South Florida men — one of them cleverly posing as Alvin Brown’s son — convinced three local companies that they represented businesses that were holding a party for the Willie Gary Football Classic.
The two men, who were later arrested, arranged for $65,000 worth of alcohol to be delivered to tents set up at the Bit and Spur Saddle Club on the Northside, and then handed the unsuspecting distributors bogus checks. The men then loaded the liquor into an unmarked van and took off.
Brown told First Coast News at the time that he was saddened that anyone would rip off a non-profit charity.
Then there was the embarrassing episode during the 2005 Super Bowl when organizers of the Willie Gary Football Classic Foundation party had to apologize and offer refunds to people who had expected recording artist and actress Janet Jackson to attend the event. Hoping to capitalize on Super Bowl fever sweeping Jacksonville at the time, event organizers had announced Jackson's appearance to party-goers before she confirmed that she would come.
The Classic's Steep Decline
In 2005, the Willie E. Gary Football Classic added a second game — the Willie E. Gary Triangle Classic — to its annual menu of events, a September 18 match-up between Shaw University and North Carolina Central University played at Wallace-Wade Stadium on the campus of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
That year, the foundation took in $367,738, including $116,581 in gifts, grants and contributions. That was a significant drop from the previous year, when it reported gross receipts of more than $716,000.
Alvin Brown’s annual salary of $150,000 and personal expenses of $16,795 accounted for the foundation’s single largest expenditure in 2005. How much, if any, of the $197,956 in public relations, advertising, consulting and other miscellaneous fees might also have been paid to the Brown Empowerment, LLC — Brown’s own consulting firm, originally registered with the state of Florida in August of 2005 as The Brown Group, LLC — is unclear from the organization’s IRS filings.
The September 10 game in Jacksonville, again featuring Edward Waters and Shaw, attracted approximately 8,600 fans while the game in North Carolina drew some 10,000 spectators, according to event organizers.
The same thing was essentially true in 2006, when the Willie Gary Football Classic really began its downward spiral. Brown, who claimed to work 60 hours per week, year-round, promoting the football classic, again drew an annual salary of $150,000 (and a deferred compensation package totaling $11,505). According to its IRS Form 990, the foundation made two charitable contributions that year — $4,955 to Edward Waters College and a $1,000 donation to Northwest Behavioral Sciences on Edgewood Ave.
The September 16 contest between Edward Waters and Shaw in Jacksonville drew only 5,000 fans, while attendance at the North Carolina Central-Shaw game at Durham’s O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium two weeks earlier — a 21-12 win for NCCU, the reigning CIAA champions — was never publicly announced.
The Mayor-elect's Wife Takes Over
The once-promising football classic continued on its trajectory in 2007. Brown, as president and director of the Willie E. Gray Football Classic, again received a six-figure compensation package — $92,308 in salary and $9,292 in deferred compensation — while his wife, Santhea Hicks, apparently assumed the role of executive director toward the end of that year and received $13,431 in compensation.
The non-profit reported total expenses of $195,868 for the year while raising only $145,994 in direct public support.
While some might suggest that appointing his wife as executive director might have been a conflict of interest, Hicks appeared to have been uniquely qualified for the position, having once served on the board of directors of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission, filling a vacancy created by the resignation of former disgraced D.C. Mayor Marion Barry.
According to the foundation’s financial statements, Brown and his wife spent more than $45,000 on advertising and public relations promoting the 2007 annual classic that — by their own admission — drew a pathetic 600 fans. The identity of the advertising agencies or PR firms allegedly involved in providing those promotional services remain unknown, but whoever they were, it’s safe to say they were vastly overpaid.
It was one of the lowest turnouts for a college football game in the country that season, far below the attendance at a typical NAIA or NCAA Div. III game. According to the NCAA, attendance for the average Division II college football game in 2007 was 3,894 per game.
By 2008, the Willie E. Gary Football Classic, a 501(c)(3) exempt private foundation, had become a shell of its former self, with the foundation raising less than $96,000 — almost half of which was paid to Hicks, its executive director. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Jacksonville was its biggest donor, giving an aggregate of $86,439 that year, much of which was spent on unidentified “public relations” activities. Again, the foundation racked up more than $28,000 in public relations expenses and somehow also managed to accumulate telephone charges in excess of $5,600.
The foundation reportedly raised only $2,000 in sponsorships for the annual game that September, a 55-13 blowout won by the Shaw Bears at Raines High School before another sparse crowd.
In 2009, the foundation, according to its official filings, didn’t even bother to sponsor a game and instead simply held its annual Martin Luther King luncheon — a tradition started in 2004 — featuring an essay contest for elementary, middle-school and high school students at the Prime Osborne Center. The luncheon, of course, cost the dwindling foundation only a small fraction of its annual budget.
The organization’s 2010 filing is not yet publicly available.