For Gophers AD, inroads made but heavy lifting remains

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 16, 2013 - 12:27 AM

In his first year, AD Norwood Teague has laid the groundwork for his vision of Gophers athletics.

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Mark Santelman of Winthrop, Minn., had some 1-on-1 time with Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague during a gathering in New Ulm in mid-May. On the state of Gophers athletics, Teague said: “It’s tough for me with patience. And fans get impatient, too.”

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On the night before the Gophers home football game against Syracuse last fall, Norwood Teague, the school’s new athletic director, opened the doors to his two-story condo for a reception.

The guest list included boosters, university faculty, Gophers coaches from various sports, athletic department officials, even media members. He also invited Syracuse athletic director Daryl Gross and his staff, as well as a prominent donor from Teague’s previous school, Virginia Commonwealth.

Hired largely on his reputation as a gifted fundraiser, Teague looked comfortable as he worked the room. He even kept fundraising in mind when he selected his home because he desired an open floor plan on the main level so that he could entertain large gatherings.

“It’s a huge deal,” he said. “Luckily, I enjoy it.”

But as Teague discovered in his first year in Dinkytown, his job requires more than an ambitious thirst for fundraising. As he approaches his anniversary this week, he is presiding over a department in transition, and experiencing the problems inherent in such makeovers. Teague has made sweeping changes in top-level personnel, one major coaching hire, suffered through one public relations crisis and has several times delayed unveiling a long-term facilities plan.

“It’s been probably the quickest year of my life,” he said. “I’m running really hard trying to meet a lot of needs and be a lot of places.”

Though he projects a relaxed Southern charm in public appearances, Teague also has exhibited a certain aggressiveness and willingness to shake things up in his desire to create a “national brand.” Seeking a “new set of eyes on our challenges,” Teague overhauled his management team by hiring and/or promoting five new administrators — including David Benedict and Mike Ellis from his staff at VCU — while letting go several holdovers from Joel Maturi’s staff.

He fired men’s basketball coach Tubby Smith, who had a $2.5 million buyout, after an NCAA tournament victory and replaced him with 30-year-old Richard Pitino. Teague said he received minimal criticism from fans for dismissing Smith, but he made a PR gaffe when the news leaked before the veteran coach had been informed.

Teague also has “totally rebuilt” his development department in order to breathe life into disjointed fundraising efforts. He changed management structure, beefed up staff and focused on more fan outreach.

“It’s tough for me with patience,” Teague said. “And fans get impatient, too.”

He felt that impatience after he agreed to pay $800,000 to cancel a home-and-home football series with North Carolina. Teague said he expected some pushback, but he underestimated the severity of fan backlash.

“It was a good learning experience,” he said.

In the aftermath, Teague invited more than 50 disgruntled fans to his office for individual meetings to discuss his reasoning and to hear their grievances.

“There was a guy who said, ‘You said should not take this personally [because] part of this is 40 years of frustration coming to the surface,’ ” Teague said.

Teague declined to say whether he would make the same decision again, indicating only that he wishes he had presented the announcement differently. “We all wish we had hindsight,” he said.

Facilities need donor

Teague’s legacy will be determined by his ability to raise money and build facilities, two areas that are intertwined. At his introductory news conference, he described the need to sell hope to fans. Prolonged struggles in football and men’s basketball have resulted in sagging attendance and a dormant donor base.

Teague oversees a 25-sport department with a $79.5 million budget, but the Gophers trail their Big Ten peers in facilities and other amenities. The school needs a basketball practice facility, a new indoor football facility and a new academic center. Teague estimated the entire project could cost between $80 million and $125 million.

The unveiling of the facilities master plan has been pushed back several times as the athletic department attempts to tackle a massive project at a university that has come under heavy criticism for its spending habits. Teague also acknowledged that his early time line for the rollout was “overly optimistic.”

Despite a lucrative annual payout from television revenue through the Big Ten Network, the Gophers operate in a tough economic climate because of dismal football attendance and a fanbase that needs to be rejuvenated. But they feel optimistic about the overall direction of the department.

“You’ve got to sell your vision and sell what you’re doing,” Teague said.

Teague has devoted considerable time to cultivating relationships with corporate partners and prominent boosters, specifically billionaire alum T. Denny Sanford. But Teague’s inroads with Sanford were threatened when a proposed takeover of Fairview Health Services and the University of Minnesota Medical Center ended acrimoniously in April, as Sanford Health withdrew from those talks after intense scrutiny.

University President Eric Kaler placed restrictions on communication with Sanford during merger talks to eliminate the appearance of a conflict of interest. Those restrictions have been lifted, which opens the door for Teague to resume his courtship of Sanford, whose $6 million donation to TCF Bank Stadium was the largest personal gift for that project.

It seems unrealistic that the Gophers could fulfill their entire facilities wish list without a major donation from Sanford or someone else. Teague said previously that a lead donor is preferable and a traditional model in any major facilities project, but he indicated the Gophers also could have a “lead donor on a variety of different buildings.”

AD job has changed

Teague fits the mold of the modern athletic director: equal parts CEO and socialite. In a span of one month this spring, his schedule included 42 appearances, split between private donor meetings and speaking engagements. Fundraising remains his bailiwick and a key distinction between him and his predecessor.

Maturi built a reputation as a dogged supporter of every Gophers team and a grunt worker who kept long hours in his office. Though he also devoted an abundance of time to fundraising, Maturi seemed to lack the inherent comfort and ease that Teague shows in that capacity.

“Norwood knows how to make everybody feel like they’re important because you never know when somebody is going to go in their pocket and write a check,” booster Harold Goldfine said. “He is into the business.”

That business focus has become an integral part of the job, a byproduct of the arms race in college athletics.

“I think the makeup of the AD today is different than obviously 30 years ago,” said longtime Gophers baseball coach John Anderson, working under his 11th athletic director. “It becomes more about being able to manage the financial enterprise. I’m not so sure it’s less about athletics and more about business to be honest with you.”

Teague said he strives to find balance in his job and disagrees with any notion that he is an absentee administrator focused more on fundraising than his school’s athletic programs.

“As an athletic director, you could easily get sucked into dealing with personnel all day,” he said. “You’ve got to fight to get out [of the office]. Now, I have to keep a close watch on it. I will not be an MIA AD.”

Gophers soccer coach Stefanie Golan said Teague maintains a visible presence inside the department despite his fundraising schedule. She noted that Teague even attended her team’s first-round match in the Big Ten tournament in Indiana last fall.

“He’s very invested in our players,” Golan said. “Yeah, he has people who are here a lot and doing a lot for him and they’re good at what they do. But just because he’s out there doing the fundraising doesn’t mean that he’s not present at the same time.”

Ultimately, Teague knows that winning typically spurs financial giving in college athletics. To that end, the Gophers desperately need their football program to become successful in order to boost attendance and harvest goodwill among fans and boosters.

“I believe in [coach] Jerry Kill like you can’t believe,” Teague said. “But football is a big battleship and it’s slower to turn around.”

Teague is confident that will happen eventually, which will help make his enterprise more viable. Any athletic department’s overall health stems from its success in football and basketball, and that mission, Teague said, remains his priority.

“We need to be competing at a higher level in our revenue sports,” he said. “I’m thrilled with our women’s program, and we’ve got to continue to support them. But we’ve got to excel in both of our basketball [programs] and football in order to build our brand and build revenue. That will generate more revenue, more interest in what we’re doing and it will help everybody else.”

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  • Norwood Teague, left, and new men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino were part of the Gophers’ goodwill caravan that made a stop in New Ulm in mid-May.

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