University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler launched his search for an athletic director by demanding a stronger “tone at the top” in response to an embarrassing scandal and troubling financial audit that brought negative attention to his school.
The person Kaler hires next year to lead Gophers sports will inherit a department on the mend, one rich with both challenges and opportunities. The athletics budget exceeds $100 million. Fundraising for a $190 million facilities project requires constant attention. And the daily demands of leading 25 sports, 300-plus staff members and 725 student-athletes forces an athletic director to wear many hats.
The role of modern A.D. has changed dramatically in recent years, contorted by the explosion of TV revenue, a facilities arm’s race, ever-expanding budgets and the growth of social media. The job description never again will resemble what it was 10 years ago and might have a new shape in five.
“It’s changing, it seems, like daily,” said Joe Castiglione, Oklahoma’s athletic director. “This job is more of a vocation than an occupation.”
Castiglione, who took over Sooners sports in 1998, said the job hardly resembles the duties he inherited nearly two decades ago. Changing just as fast are the résumés of those who sit in the A.D. chairs. Once upon a time, schools often hired former football coaches to run athletics because they carried stature and knew the inner workings of a department.
But as college sports have transitioned into an enterprise worth billions, more schools have embraced a different profile, hiring “nontraditional” athletic directors with business backgrounds who operate the department with the acumen of a CEO.
The Gophers are in the market for an athletic director after Norwood Teague resigned abruptly in August in response to sexual harassment allegations against him by two university employees. University officials haven’t revealed a certain profile of candidate they’re seeking to hire by July 1, but the new A.D. will need to be a savvy fundraiser with a smart business sense, uncompromising integrity and an ability to connect with coaches and players in all sports, not just moneymakers football and men’s basketball.
“I was a college president for 25 years and I can tell you in addition to turning all my hair white — the difference in the issues in athletics between when I started and when I ended, it’s like another world,” said Pepperdine Chancellor Michael Adams, formerly president of the University of Georgia. “It’s big business, big money, expected big results.”
In 2006, the Gophers athletics budget was $54 million. That figure has increased to $105 million this year. That degree of rapid growth is not uncommon. Eleven of the 14 Big Ten schools have athletic budgets of at least $70 million.
The Big Ten’s next TV deal, beginning in 2017, is expected to pay each school a reported $44.5 million annually. Other major conferences also have lucrative television pacts.
Former Ohio State President Gordon Gee, who now holds the same position at West Virginia, said the college athletics landscape has been turned “upside down” by astronomical TV revenue.
“With all the pressures that are brought financial and otherwise,” Gee said, “with all the media and social media exposure and then the moving parts of athletics, the earthquake that is going on out there in so many ways is changing the nature of intercollegiate athletics.”
College sports CEOs
The role of athletic director has shifted along with that, putting more emphasis on the business side. Tom McMillen, president of the Division I-A Athletic Directors Association, said that roughly 10 percent of A.D.s hired since 1997 have come from nontraditional backgrounds: limited or no college athletic administration experience.
Some of those moves backfired. Michigan ousted Dave Brandon (former Domino’s Pizza CEO) after 4 ½ years while Steve Patterson (former pro sports executive) lasted only 22 months at Texas.
“It’s proven to work at some places,” said Bob De Carolis, former Oregon State athletic director. “The problem with a lot of those people that come from other walks of life is that the learning curve is so steep. It’s not that you can’t accommodate that, but it just takes a lot longer.”
The more common path remains upward mobility, learning the ropes as an assistant A.D. before moving into the top seat.
Gophers interim A.D. Beth Goetz has followed that career arc, previously serving stints in athletic administration at Missouri-St. Louis and Butler. Goetz, 41, has not disclosed publicly whether she will seek the job permanently.
“I think the better path to an A.D. job is somebody who has been in the system 10, 12, 15 years and has sort of developed that sixth sense about people and needs,” Pepperdine’s Adams said.
Rising ambitions, costs
Chris Del Conte was hired as Texas Christian’s athletic director in October 2009. In the interview process, the school’s chancellor asked him two pointed questions: Could he help raise enough money for a $164 million renovation to the football stadium, and could he get the school into a BCS conference.
“I’m thinking to myself, ‘This guy is crazy. And I love it!’ ” Del Conte said. “He has audacious goals. He wanted to be great.”
Del Conte accomplished both of those goals, helping transform TCU as a Big 12 member with a nationally recognized football program. TCU’s athletic department has billed more than $250 million in construction projects under Del Conte’s leadership.
“You can’t use 1950 Bunsen burners to teach modern-day chemistry,” Del Conte said. “You want to build a modern science building to attract the very best scientists. Same as intercollegiate athletics. If you want to compete at the highest levels academically or athletically, you’ve got to provide the young people with the facilities to fulfill their dreams.”
But those rising expenditures fuel concerns that college sports are spiraling out of control and drifting closer to professionalism. Much of the criticism falls on A.D.s who sign off on facilities projects and huge coaching salaries.
“I know people can step back and criticize and engage in wishful thinking about how they would like it to be,” said Oklahoma’s Castiglione. “But the reality smacks everybody in the face. Each institution has its own goals and aspirations.”
Stretched too thin?
Aspirations require money in college sports, meaning A.D.s must spend considerable time nurturing relationships with boosters and corporate sponsors. Those demands create a constant tug of war for A.D.s between satisfying external and internal obligations. How do they socialize with influential boosters and corporate clients while also handling daily issues inside their department?
“I don’t know if you can have the emphasis both ways, because they’re both demanding and draining,” former Gophers athletic director Joel Maturi said. “Internally, you’ve got to spend time with the coaches, with the athletes, with the support staff. Well, if you’re doing that, you can’t spend as much time with the donors and sponsors. There are only so many hours in the day and so many days in the week.”
College administrators say the modern A.D. must hire a strong No. 2 executive who can run the department day-to-day while the boss focuses on external demands.
“The role of the athletic director in many ways parallels the role of the university president in terms of external activities,” Gee said. “You have to make sure you’re surrounding yourself with people who can fill your gaps.”
Del Conte said he devotes more time to external needs because TCU needed major facilities upgrades. Maturi took a different approach.
Hired in 2002, his primary task was to merge separate men’s and women’s departments, a challenging undertaking. Maturi built a reputation as an A.D. who regularly attended events for nonrevenue sports.
“I was old-school and I probably didn’t change enough, to be honest,” he said. “It probably cost me my job. That’s OK. I understand it. If I were an A.D. today, I wouldn’t do it the same way.”
Pat Richter is credited with revolutionizing Wisconsin athletics from financial drain to thriving enterprise built around a successful football program. He eliminated baseball, and he hired Barry Alvarez as his football coach.
Even though an A.D.’s job has changed, Richter believes fundamental principles remain.
“It still boils down to making good personnel decisions,” he said. “You’ve got to have the right coaches to be successful because if you don’t, then you’re going to have difficulty with financials.”
Today, one trait seems to trump all others when searching for a new A.D. Nine university presidents and current or former A.D.s were asked for their No. 1 hiring criteria, and five picked the same word.
“Integrity,” Castiglione said. “I wouldn’t put anything above integrity.”
Said Gee: “Without a doubt, integrity. As a university president, I want to be able to sleep at night.”