Money matters will fill new AD's days and nights

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 8, 2012 - 11:45 AM

Being a premier fundraiser has become an increasingly important part of the job.

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Utah athletic director Chris Hill said he raised $22 million of the $52 million needed to build the Utes’ 45,000-seat Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City a decade ago.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune file

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Morgan Burke was a lawyer and a senior vice president at a steel company nearly two decades ago, and he remembers how different the rhythm of his work week would feel. By Friday, after five days in the office, "you would start to wind down and relax," he says. "Now, I work the same hours, but on Friday, I'm gearing up. I've got to meet and mix with all those people who are relaxing the way I used to."

That's because to Burke, the athletic director at Purdue since 1993, those people -- the corporate executives and the old-money alums -- have a more precise name: donors.

And on campuses all over America, cultivating donors and prying open their checkbooks is perhaps the most critical and time-consuming duty an athletic director can undertake, one that Minnesota's next athletic director will face from the moment he or she accepts the job.

"Fundraising has become more and more important, and consequently it's become a bigger and bigger part of the job," says Chris Hill, who has led Utah's athletic department since 1987. "The job has changed in that the stakes are a lot higher, the money is lot bigger, and while you're constantly dealing with the business of it, the non-business end of the job hasn't gone away. If anything, it's greater, too."

Joel Maturi's successor at Minnesota will have to be administrator and counselor, schmoozer and visionary, accountant and communicator. The prototype of a modern AD is no longer a coasting-toward-retirement ex-coach or good-ol'-boy alumnus. These days, the job demands a laptop-wielding multi-tasker.

"I think to be an effective AD these days, you really do have to be trained for it. They don't come up through the athletic department so much," said Burke, the longest-tenured athletic director in the Big Ten. "You have to understand how marketing really works. You have to know finance. There's leadership. There's personnel [in hiring coaches]. I run a small business, essentially, and I have more stakeholders than most businesses -- fans, coaches, athletes, the board [of trustees], the president."

While the position is a senior one, more schools are looking toward younger leadership. Greg Byrne, for instance, became Mississippi State athletic director at 36; now 40, he is in his second year at Arizona.

"We're wearing so many different hats, it's not like a business with a typical business structure. You have so many constituents to answer to," said Byrne, whose father, Bill, is a longtime athletic administrator and currently the AD at Texas A&M. "If you're doing it effectively, you have to be engaged with it round the clock. There's revenue generation. You have to be sensitive to compliance issues. You have to be efficient, have a strong commitment to the academic mission, and communicate effectively internally. And that's before you even deal with the fan base, which is your most visible role."

Fans care mostly about wins and losses, though, and who is coaching the team. "Each game is a 50-50 proposition," Hill jokes, "and we're all expected to win at least 70 percent of the time."

Changing with the times

As with many occupations, the Internet and social media have changed the job drastically, for good and bad.

"One guy posts a picture on Twitter of [an athlete] with a beer in his hand, and now you're dealing with that," says Hill, whose 25 years and counting at Utah make him the second-longest tenured AD, behind DeLoss Dodds of Texas, in all of Division I. "The amount of visibility and scrutiny of every part of the job, from behavioral issues to hiring coaches to how the players play -- it's become much more intense. Most of that is a good thing, but it's something you better be ready for at all times."

And you can't always prepare for it, because the explosion in interactivity can include plenty of misinformation, too. "As AD, you try to control your message, and you have to decide whether to address some of those [incorrect] things," Burke said. "If you're not on top of it, that [message] can appear quite chaotic."

Nothing is quite as chaotic as the conference shuffling that is going on in Division I these days, and while it's an issue that doesn't directly affect the Gophers -- the Big Ten has so far resisted wholesale expansion, adding only Nebraska -- the driving force behind it is something about which all athletic directors have to be cognizant. There are millions of dollars at stake in college football, whether in televising it or filling stadiums, and the competition is as fierce as any Ros Bowl game.

And when change is necessary, an AD's job is to lead, even in the face of criticism -- which can be withering at an institution with as much respect for tradition as a university. The Gophers' next athletic director may face that reality in any number of ways. Dave Brandon, Michigan's athletic director and previously the CEO at Domino's Pizza, told ESPN.com recently, "Whenever you're in a significant leadership role and you make changes, there's going to be certain people who resist and who want everything to stay the same."

Bring in the money

Hopefully, none of them are donors. Because Byrne and Burke each estimated that fundraising or selling the program absorbs at least half their time -- and it's much greater when large projects loom.

"It was 60 percent or more when we decided to refurbish Mackey Arena," Burke said of Purdue's 45-year-old basketball arena, a project that will cost nearly $100 million.

The challenges at Minnesota are similar. The basketball program needs a practice facility, and perhaps a whole new arena. The baseball team needs a new stadium. And the Gophers fund 25 sports on a $78 million budget.

"Every school always has needs," said Utah's Hill, "and everything has gotten so expensive."

He and his brethren should know. Hill raised $22 million of the $52 million for Rice-Eccles Stadium, a 45,000-seat football stadium that opened a decade ago. Only seven years later, it cost Minnesota $288 million to build TCF Bank Stadium -- certainly a larger (50,000 capacity) and more ornate facility, but hardly five times so.

In Tucson, Byrne has been soliciting donations for a $72 million renovation of one end of Arizona Stadium, with a corresponding expansion of football offices and facilities inside.

"It seems we're all dealing with bricks and mortar," Byrne said, "but at its heart, this job is about people."

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