TAMPA, Florida - Mark Harlan found his plate very full very quickly when he officially started as USF's new athletic director in March.

He inherited a basketball team without a coach, a struggling football team, and sagging attendance numbers at Raymond James Stadium. But beyond the obvious issues, Harlan also inherited an athletics budget balanced on the backs of students, regardless of whether they ever set foot inside a single stadium.

Through public records requests, 10 Investigates obtained athletic budgets from Florida's largest public universities. And few major athletic departments -- anywhere in the country -- rely as heavily on student fees as USF.

Last year, USF Athletics reported $44.6 million in expenses, but $16.2 million were covered by student fees. At $14.73 per credit hour plus a $10 flat rate charge, the average student on USF's Tampa campus will spend $444 a year -- nearly $1,800 by the time they graduate -- supplementing the athletics budget.

As USF faces constant pressure to avoid tuition hikes and cut academic spending, even the once-threatened nighttime hours at its library, the athletics department's appetite for spending has continued to grow. The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a national group dedicated to preserving academic balance in college sports, has been critical recently of universities that have over-emphasized varsity sports.

LOOKUP: Any university's athletic & academic spending

USF's athletic fees are larger than any of the other fees most students on the Tampa campus will pay, including the health fee ($9.94/credit hour) and campus activities and services fee ($12.08/credit hour). Students pay an average of $3,250 a year in various fees on top of tuition.

Even students at USF's branch campuses help subsidize the athletics program. USF-St. Pete students pay $2.45 per credit hour to varsity athletics, while USF-Sarasota/Manatee students pay $4.23 per credit hour.

The fees entitle students to free admission to all USF athletic events, a luxury their counterparts at the University of Florida (UF) and Florida St. University (FSU) do not enjoy. At those schools, students have to pay a nominal fee for student football tickets.

But at the more established universities, booster support diminishes the need for hefty student athletic fees.

At UF, where boosters contributed more than $48 million last year, students pay just $1.90 per credit hour -- money that indirectly gets returned to the university through excess athletic profits. At FSU, where booster contributions dropped to "only" $19 million last year, students pay $7.90 per credit hour to athletics.

But USF's budget is similar to those of other up-and-coming athletics programs in Florida. UCF's budget, which includes debt service on a new on-campus football stadium, students cover nearly 50% of the athletics budget via a $13.44/credit hour fee.

And students cover the vast majority of the athletics budgets at universities with new football programs like FIU and FAU.

But at USF, the huge reliance on students isn't born from football -- it turned a nearly $3 million profit last year. But of USF's 13 other varsity sports, not a single one turned a profit.

A closer look at fees

All USF fees are approved annually by a committee of students and faculty, then confirmed by the Board of Trustees.

USF Athletics has requested an increase in fees each year, but has been denied in each of the last two. In fact, all fees at USF were frozen or lowered this year, the first time its happened in at least 17 years. {READ: Student fees charged by each Florida university}

Harlan told 10 News at his introductory press conference that bang for students' bucks is one of his top priorities.

"What we want to do is to make sure students are getting everything out of (their investment)," Harlan said. "Give them a great product ... get them to come out to games. That's very important."

The department also stresses the quality-of-life value varsity athletics provide.

"Athletics help to create a culture of involvement, investment and pride within the university by providing a central rallying point for students, faculty, staff, alumni and the community," a USF Athletics spokesperson told 10 News via email. "Athletics enrich the college experience, including admission to more than a hundred athletic competitions yearly without the purchase of tickets, and provide hundreds of participation and educational opportunities whether it be in the 300-member band, cheer or dance teams, or undergraduate and graduate internships in athletics training or athletics administration.

Will reliance on students shrink? Or grow?

Harlan, heralded as a fundraising wizard at UCLA, faces other challenges as USF's new athletic director. Right now, the program is paying two athletic directors, two head football coaches, and two head men's basketball coaches.

Harlan's predecessor, Doug Woolard, will remain with the department for the rest of 2014, while former basketball coach Stan Heath and former football coach Skip Holtz are each receiving compensation for their firings.

Add in the instability in the NCAA's conference picture and the eventual end of Big East payouts to its former football schools, and there are great question marks about USF's future revenue streams.

"There are certainly revenue streams in intercollegiate athletics we have to make sure we maximize," Harlan said.

"All athletic departments nationwide are susceptible to fluctuations in revenue streams such as ticket sales, fundraising, sponsorships and media rights fees," added a USF Athletics spokesperson via email. "(Those revenues) are affected by internal factors such as success in competition as well as external factors such as changes in the national and local economy, conference television contracts and competition for entertainment spending."

Find 10 Investigates reporter Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Read his Sports Business Blog at Shadow of the Stadium.

Read or Share this story: http://on.wtsp.com/1giHjwd