SBJ/June 12 - 18, 2000/Special Report

AD’s biz role ‘full time, seven days a week’


Position: Athletic director
School: University of Arizona
Age: 55
Hometown: Quincy, Wash.
Resides: Tucson, Ariz.
Education: Bachelor’s degree, physical education, Brigham Young University, 1968
Family: Wife, Linda; daughter, Michelle; son, Jeremy
Background: Was a high school coach and athletic director from 1968-80; hired by Washington State University as Cage Camp director in 1980, named associate athletic director in 1982; became athletic director at Southern Illinois University in 1985, where he also served as president of the Gateway Conference from 1986-87; named athletic director at Washington State on Sept. 1, 1987; while at WSU, also served as vice president of the Pac-10 Conference and was a member of the league’s revenue-sharing and planning committees and was chair of the television, and budget and appraisal committees; named athletic director at Arizona in January 1994, leading a program that routinely finishes in the top 10 of the Sears Directors’ Cup standings and which has won NCAA championships in men’s basketball (1997), women’s golf (1996) and softball (1994, 1996 and 1997); was president of NACDA and the Division
I-A Athletics Directors Association in 1998-99, and was named the NACDA/Continental Airlines Division I-A Athletic Director of the Year in 1999.

Jim Livengood is clearly a hot property these days. Livengood, University of Arizona athletic director for seven years, has seen his name tossed around for the AD job at one of the nation's most highly regarded schools, the University of Michigan. There also have been whispers that he might some day be a good choice to head the Pac-10 Conference, or perhaps even the NCAA itself — following his predecessor at Arizona, Cedric Dempsey.

He plays down such speculation, insisting that his plans have him continuing to occupy his familiar office on the Tucson campus. He says there's still too much to do.

Livengood, 55, whose pay package can earn him up to $443,000 annually, is in the midst of a major fund-raising drive. And in a few seasons he more than likely will be faced with finding a new coach for one of the nation's best college basketball programs as well as one for football, as basketball coach Lute Olson and football coach Dick Tomey near retirement age.

Fresh from a long weekend of attending Arizona sports, Livengood discussed the issues facing his program and collegiate sports with Street & Smith's SportsBusiness Journal correspondent David Schwartz.

SBJ: Give us a feel for how the landscape has changed since you first became an AD.

Livengood: It is a totally different job right now. The biggest change is that athletic directors are under more pressure than they used to be. It's much more than winning is good and losing is bad. Academics, social behavior, leadership skills — all the things we're teaching are important parts of the picture. We've got to wear many more hats.

We've also got to have some legal background. That's not to say we don't have legal representation, but there's not a week that goes by that we don't have to think about legal problems. That means dealing with the liability involved with our venues, our coaches, our student athletes, our fans. On a weekly basis, it seems like somebody is talking about something ending up in court. It's unbelievable. It didn't used to be that way.

SBJ: What other skills must today's athletic director possess?

Livengood: I also think athletic directors are being held more accountable to be better business managers. You look at the statistics. I think 70 percent to 75 percent of Division I schools have been operating in the red. [In 1997, the latest year statistics are available, 57 percent of NCAA Division I athletic departments either broke even or lost money.] It's tougher financially, so we've got to be sound, prudent business managers. In the old days, the coach tended to become the AD, most of the time it was a male coach from football or basketball. That isn't the way it is nowadays. The business aspect of our jobs is one of the most important things we do. It's something we concentrate on full time, every day, all day, seven days a week.

SBJ: The University of Arizona is not a Michigan, Notre Dame or any other big-name program across the country when it comes to name recognition. Can you compete with that level of school for money and talent?

Livengood: You bet UA can compete. The most important thing is to know who you are and act like who you are. We spend too much time talking about who we are not and what we don't have as opposed to who we are and what we have. We need to work hard in recruiting, with the same philosophy that nothing we do in Wildcat athletics has any more importance than recruiting. It involves academics, social behavior of the athlete, athletic prowess — that's all involved. Money doesn't guarantee championships. We need to keep that in mind. That's our challenge now and in the future.

SBJ: The athletic department recently donated money to help fund a new student union, a move that could cost you $6 million. Some have branded this a statement, others a public relations move. Which is it?

Livengood: My philosophy is that UA Wildcat athletics exists only because the university is here. I've never talked to a group where I haven't mentioned the [university] first, before I mention athletics. It's a gesture in a very meaningful way — athletics is part of this university. The union couldn't have been started without athletics providing the start. Are we the most important thing to the building of the union? Certainly not. But we are an important link, and that union is important to the campus. We owed it to the institution. We can't do it all the time, but when we can, we should be looking for those kind of opportunities.

SBJ: Is money playing too big a role in your job these days? Does fund-raising dominate what you do and what athletic directors do nationwide?

Livengood: Yes, but the problem is that none of us know how to get off the merry-go-round. People would love us to be commercial free, but it's not the real world. I spend an inordinate amount of time fund-raising. Part of that is that 95 percent of our budget has to be derived from the athletic department revenue. The money to keep our doors open, to keep our programs, to try to compete nationally and to be national champions — it's a way of life. You try to survive, protect the integrity of the institution ... the department and not sell yourself out totally. That's how we deal with it.

SBJ: What is your opinion on the commercialization of collegiate athletics with such things as naming rights and sponsorships seemingly dominating the field?

Livengood: I get letters every week saying please don't go more commercial, and I'm trying [not to]. But we have three or four sources of revenue and some of them don't have the elasticity of others. Ticket prices will hit a ceiling. Fund-raising isn't a bottomless pit. We're careful with signage and we're trying to be smart about it. [Arizona has not sold naming rights to any of its sports venues.]

But we also have to look another way. As much as we're in the business of generating more revenue and finding more ways to raise money, we have to be tightening our belt and looking at expenses. And we're doing that. Everyone needs to be doing that more.

SBJ: You've been working to raise $13.1 million for an athletic center. How have you found the fund-raising climate when it comes to University of Arizona sports?

Livengood: It's gone very well. I've found that if you present a reasonable plan, people will listen to you. They want to invest in it, if it's something they deem worthwhile. Athletics is about passion — it's a head and heart buy. Your head says it's a good investment for young people, your heart says it's the right thing to do to support the university. Fund-raising is a tough game. You get a lot of people telling you no.

SBJ: This year you served your first stint on the NCAA men's basketball tournament selection committee. What were some of the lessons learned from the experience?

Livengood: It was incredible. I had perceived it much differently from the outside. I was amazed and impressed at how organized the process is. I learned a lot about leadership and teamwork, what can be done when you all are under pressure. I can't wait to go through it next year. We'll do a staff retreat in August [at Arizona], and we'll talk about a lot of things that I took away from my experience with March Madness.

SBJ: More and more underclassmen are leaving before they exhaust their athletic eligibility, let alone get their degree. Talk about the trend and what you think will happen in the future as it relates to recruiting.

Livengood: I'm afraid the trend will continue and we'll continue to have problems. It's not about getting a degree. Those who are motivated will eventually get that. It's the age you are. You'll never get back that special time in your life when you were between the ages of 18 and 23. The social experience you'll get at that age can't be replaced. I try to tell student athletes that. I wish we could get to someplace like we do with Major League Baseball, where you're going to be in school for three years [for players who enter four-year colleges].

SBJ: A few months ago you closed basketball practices because of the fear of agent recruiting and gambling informants. How deep is your concern about those influences in your programs and those in other colleges and universities?

Livengood: I worry every hour of every day. We have 469 student athletes, and I worry about them all the time. I find myself thinking if I see a student athlete who happens to be driving a new car, "I wonder whose car that is?" That's the cynical nature of me coming out, but there's reasons for that cynical view.

I tie the gambling issue together with Indian gaming — we have two casinos in Tucson. Students get hooked, borrow over their heads and money loses all value or it's blurred. Then there's someone there to bail them out, but there's a cost.

It's a big problem in college. It's not just a problem with student athletes, but with students. The reality is enormous. The best offense is education. You have to spend time talking and educating, but that doesn't guarantee anything.

SBJ: Assess the state of the union for the Arizona athletic program and what's your five-year plan for the department?

Livengood: We're doing good things. Our academic achievements are going up and our behavior issues are way down, so that's all very good. The five-year plan is for us to continue doing what we're doing and have everyone share the same vision. Part of the plan has to be addressing our finances. How do we generate more revenue and spend less.

SBJ: What are your hot-button concerns for collegiate athletics today?

Livengood: One of the worries I have has to do with facilities. If you look around pro sports, you can see how many new facilities — mostly built at taxpayers' expense — have been built over the last 10 years. If you look at the top 25 programs across the country, you'd find a lot of facilities that are getting ancient. When we have a problem, who's going to help build that next Arizona Stadium or McKale Center? It's not going to be the taxpayer. We do maintenance and safety checks, trying to stay up with everything that we can. But the secret is, we keep our fingers crossed behind our backs.

I don't have any answers. I'm putting it out there as a problem that we all share.

David Schwartz is a writer in Arizona.

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