Pete Najarian’s phone buzzed nonstop the day Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague resigned in disgrace. Friends and business acquaintances encouraged Najarian to show interest in the vacant job.
Being a college athletic director wasn’t a career ambition. But the more he thought about the job and the current state of Gophers athletics, Najarian became convinced that he has the energy, vision and business acumen to change the culture at his alma mater.
“If the university decided that they wanted to take this path, I would absolutely want to do it and I think I have as good a résumé as anybody outside of the fact that I don’t have the experience running the department,” he said.
“But my comeback to that is, I have run a large company. I’ve been a boss to a lot of employees. I’ve had to deal with compliance and risk management. …
“This is no longer just sports. This is a $100 million business a year. I looked at it as, this isn’t so far-fetched. Why wouldn’t this be a great fit for me?”
Najarian would qualify as a “nontraditional” candidate because he has no experience in athletic administration. He comes from a business background as a highly successful options trader, founder of OptionMonster and current TV personality on CNBC.
Najarian built a national profile because of his success in the financial world and he has close ties to the Twin Cities business community.
He also had a decorated football career at Minnesota, earning a spot in the “M” Club Hall of Fame. Najarian works as a color analyst for ESPN’s college football coverage. His daughter is a college athlete at Nebraska. College sports are not a foreign concept to him.
“If I put myself in their shoes, what I would do is to consider the standard candidates that I’m sure would be the people on the list,” Najarian said. “I don’t know why they wouldn’t want to at least go a little outside the box.”
Since 1997, roughly 10 percent of athletic directors hired have come from nontraditional backgrounds. Some have backfired on schools, but not all.
Nontraditional hires bring an element of risk because they have no track record in athletic administration. But traditional hires aren’t foolproof, either. How did Teague work out?
The Gophers carry a $105 million athletic budget. Fundraising for the $166 million facilities project is stagnant.
The Gophers need an athletic director with a smart business sense. University President Eric Kaler and his search committee would be foolish not to at least interview Najarian, hear his ideas and give him honest consideration.
Where’s the harm in that?
“It’s not so much that I’m running for [the job],” Najarian said. “But I look at the university and think to myself, this place is so great and I think it could be better.”
His lack of experience is a concern, or at least an unknown. Running an athletic department requires a wide range of skills and knowledge of the operation. Schools that hire nontraditional candidates need a strong No. 2 executive with experience in the day-to-day duties.
Najarian isn’t naive about those challenges.
“The day-to-day and the administrative side of things, that’s not my expertise,” he said. “But my expertise is something they don’t have.”
As a star linebacker at the U, Najarian had a close relationship with athletic director Paul Giel. Najarian recently found a box in his parents’ attic that contained stacks of handwritten letters from Giel.
Giel wrote to Najarian during his recruitment, when he had a difficult freshman season and many other occasions about football, school and life.
That left an indelible impression on Najarian.
“He literally was like a second dad who happened to be on campus,” he said.
Najarian moved his family back to Minnesota last year. He says he feels “a weird sense of negativity” toward Gophers sports.
“My sense is that we should not be satisfied — and I’m not saying we are,” he said, “but if feels like part of the problem and why people have not engaged with the university has been that we have settled to be where we are.”
Kaler faces a critical decision with his next athletic director. The Gophers need bold leadership, someone who will make fans and donors believe in the product.
Would Najarian bring some risk? Yes, but he’s a fascinating option worth consideration. The university shouldn’t automatically disregard him or act uppity only because his résumé doesn’t look like others’.