By Vince Nicastro*

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Mike Perrin is the recently appointed Athletic Director at the University of Texas, one of the genuine powerhouse programs in all of college sports.  By all accounts, Perrin is quite accomplished.  A successful trial lawyer, former UT football scholar-athlete, and highly respected leader in the Lone Star state.  And, after just a couple of weeks in the new role, he noted that, “It is a far more complex job than I thought it might be.”

Perrin’s sentiments might very well ring true with regard to some other nontraditional ADs, all very accomplished leaders in their own right, who have sometimes struggled to navigate the unique world of Division I athletics.  A world where a seemingly obvious and rationale course of action often becomes the absolute worst possible decision one could make.

Changing Nature of Intercollegiate Athletics

The intercollegiate athletics industry has moved toward a more business centered model.  The position of athletic director has evolved from the former coach profile toward more of a professional administrator model, as the work has become more sophisticated.

For certain, the old school model – former coach (usually football) moved into the front office to schedule some games and shake hands with donors – is long gone.  Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin might be the last holdover of that era – he even heads back down to the field to coach in bowl games from time to time.

The focus on business issues is greater than ever, as ADs face pressure to generate revenue through seemingly any means necessary.  They are charged with planning, financing, and constructing large scale facilities, engaging fickle fan bases, and navigating conference realignment activity.  Add into that equation rapidly changing technologies, growing responsibility for the health and safety of students, and the multiple litigations that could result in fundamental changes to the traditional model of college athletics.  And, for good measure, top it all off with managing multiple constituents (often with conflicting viewpoints), high profile coaches with strong personalities, and governing boards that are more involved than ever before in athletics matters.

All told, ADs are challenged with leading during one of the most complicated times in college sports history.

Emerging Leadership Profile – The Athletics CEO

As the business model has changed, schools have become more open to nontraditional AD leadership – an Athletics CEO, so to speak.  The rationale is that as the new environment requires a different set of skills and experiences, more focused on the bottom line, brand development, and fan engagement – buzzwords generally associated with consumer products and professional sports.

In recent years, a number of people with nontraditional backgrounds have been hired to lead some “blue blood” programs.  Steve Patterson at Texas, Dave Brandon at Michigan, and Pat Haden at USC have led some of the highest profile departments in the nation.  Positions, by the way, that would be coveted by some of the most talented and accomplished ADs in the industry.  Patterson, primarily a pro sports executive, lasted less than two years leading the Longhorns.  Former Domino’s Pizza president Brandon, a UM football alum, was dismissed less than four rocky years after being hired at his alma mater.  Brandon is now back in the retail world as CEO of Toys “R” Us.  And, Haden has experienced some public bumps in the road during his tenure.

On the other hand, Jack Swarbrick from Notre Dame, Bill Battle at Alabama, and Ray Anderson at Arizona State seem to be adapting quite well to their roles.  All three had limited experience in the higher education environment, but have seemed to navigate it quite nicely thus far.  Of course, speaking from my own experience, we know that danger lurks around nearly every corner.

What’s the upshot?  Universities will likely continue to be more open to nontraditional AD profiles.  The athletics director-as-CEO model clearly has some merit, considering the evolution of the industry.  And, governing boards populated by business leaders tend to lean in that direction.

However, a deep understanding of the culture of higher education, an ability to develop positive working relationships with various constituents (faculty, students, etc.), and the ability to navigate the sometimes labyrinthine NCAA regulatory environment is still part of the “art” of being a successful leader in college athletics.  It is clear that these abilities are key to the success of athletic directors – particularly those with limited experience in academe.

Someone once described the world of sports as “too much of a sport to be a business, and too much of a business to be a sport.”  The irrationality of the world of intercollegiate athletics is at its core connected to the emotional attachment to one’s alma mater and their teams.  As a result, a successful AD must account for those qualitative and intangible dimensions – something that requires “feel” and judgment.  Those leaders who understand these unique aspects will be much better prepared to lead the contemporary Division I program.

* Vince Nicastro is the former Athletic Director for Villanova University, and currently serves as Associate Director for the Jeffrey S. Moorad Center for the Study of Sports Law.


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