The most compelling streak in UA sports history isn’t Lute Olson’s 71 consecutive victories at McKale Center or the 16 consecutive games Ka’Deem Carey rushed for more than 100 yards.
This is the Biggest Streak of All: From 1984 to 2013, John Perrin, who is the UA’s chief financial officer for athletics, turned a profit every year.
For 30 years, it didn’t matter if the UA football team averaged 41,000 or 55,000 fans at Arizona Stadium, the school never ran a deficit. All black. That’s the real 30 for 30, not some ESPN program.
This isn’t Alabama or Oregon, where the athletic department all but prints money. And it certainly isn’t Arizona State, which operated at an $8.9 million deficit a year ago.
It is a school that didn’t get its first major booster gift until Tucson icon Roy Drachman donated his Price Club stock so that the Wildcats could build a track and field stadium in 1981.
How ironic. Perrin operated the UA athletic budget as if he were a Price Club (now Costco) shopper, never spending more than he had in his pocket.
“I was the guy who would tell the director of athletics when to hit the brakes,” he says, chuckling. “We hit the brakes a lot.”
John Perrin was going to be a lineman for the county — Eddy County in eastern New Mexico, stringing telephone wires from cow town to cow town. Instead, he wound up as the most accomplished CFO in the modern history of Pac-10/12 sports.
“All of these people, young, eager beavers, would come through the UA, primed to make a name for themselves,” says TCU athletic director Chris del Conte, who for seven years was an associate AD at Arizona. “But in the end, they would wind up going to John for advice. He is the ‘it’ factor. His word is the gold standard.”
Perrin was hired March 4, 1980, a week before a slush-fund football scandal imperiled the entire UA athletic department and three years before it absorbed women’s sports.
The athletic budget was $4.7 million. Arizona had 48 employees in the athletic department.
“Things were so bad that I was put on a committee to find out what was wrong with college athletics,” Perrin remembers. “We had to drop wrestling and men’s gymnastics. After (football coach) Tony Mason was fired, it got pretty intense around here.”
Now, as Perrin balances the books one last time before he retires June 30, the UA’s athletic budget is almost $70 million and more than 200 people work in the athletic department.
Perrin is a big man with a buck-stops-here bearing. He grew up the son of a mechanic in eastern New Mexico, married his high school sweetheart at 18, went to night school while stringing telephone lines, got his degree in accounting at New Mexico State, and took his first job for a CPA firm in Los Angeles.
“I did one audit,” he says. “I came home and told my wife: ‘Jennie, I can’t do this. Nobody likes you when you audit them.’ ”
He did the books for NBC, rubbed shoulders with scores of celebrities, but decided the Big City wasn’t for him. He was hired at Arizona, he says, by happenstance. Perrin didn’t know a soul on campus, but when he met athletic director Dave Strack 34 years ago, they sat in his office and talked sports for an hour. Strack liked him immediately.
“Strack’s office was where Greg Byrne’s office is today,” Perrin says. “But everything else has changed.”
In 1980, the UA athletic department was operated by the seat of its pants, with no real business model or long-range plan. Nobody got rich — football coach Larry Smith was hired away from Tulane for $58,000 a year. His offensive coordinator, Steve Axman, earned $19,000.
The non-revenue sports, swimming and baseball, would often bunk four to a hotel room to save money.
But when Cedric Dempsey became the AD in 1983, it all changed.
“Ced hired Lute, and it changed the face of what we were,” Perrin says. “We generated a ton of money in basketball. We merged with the women’s sports program. We started running the athletic department like a business.”
Every year, on June 30, Perrin balanced the books. The budget grew from $10 million to $25 million and to $50 million. Dempsey was replaced by Jim Livengood, who was replaced by Byrne.
The one constant was Perrin.
“John wasn’t just the Money Man,” del Conte says. “John became a confidant for all of us. There’d be a line to his office. Whenever there was an internal conflict, John would resolve it. He was the backbone of the department.”
The kicker to this story is that Perrin appeared to balance his last UA sports budget in 2004. That’s when he had triple bypass heart surgery, announced he would retire, and in fact, cut back and took care of himself.
He nods when asked if he is lucky to be alive.
“What I had is called the widowmaker,” he says.
Perrin came back stronger than ever, putting his touch on the books when Sean Miller required a $1 million signing bonus to leave Xavier, and finding a way to avoid financial distress when Mike Stoops and his staff were fired.
Those are the kinds of unseen expenses that break an athletic department’s budget, especially at a school without a reservoir of savings.
“There were times we really had a bad year, especially in some bad football seasons, and I just didn’t think we could stay in the black,” del Conte says. “I would see John, and he’d be cool and confident. I’d wonder: ‘What does he have? Why can’t I be like that?’
“If you’re on a ship in a storm, get on John’s ship.”
Perrin is leaving just as the UA’s ship has come in. The school received a record $19.5 million from Pac-12 media rights last year, almost triple what it was four years ago. It has received booster donations of more than $50 million since 2011.
In September, when Arizona begins its football season, Perrin won’t be a stranger, but he will have a different feeling when he walks into the stadium.
“This time,” he says, “I won’t worry about the attendance.”
For the first time in 34 years, he will be off the books.