SBJ/June 12 - 18, 2000/Special Report

UConn produces another champion

Dave Gavitt remembers the time more than 20 years ago when he was starting the Big East Conference. "One of the schools we were thinking of including in that group was the University of Connecticut," he says.

"It was always a good, solid school, and part of the old Yankee Conference athletically. But its scope had been pretty regional in nature, and I really had to convince some of the other Big East schools that UConn should be included. Some of them weren't sure Connecticut would be able to hold its own against places like Syracuse and Georgetown, and they wondered whether it was properly funded or skilled enough to compete at that level. But I thought it was a real sleeping giant."

Gavitt, who ran the conference for a dozen years before leaving to become president of the Boston Celtics in 1990, chuckles when he thinks of those days back in the late 1970s. “I believed in UConn, but I never would have dreamed that in such a short period of time the school would have reached the level that it has,” he says. “The program there is now the standard of excellence in the Big East. It is the one the other members want to be like.”

Many people made UConn what it is today, says Gavitt, who works as the chairman of the board of trustees at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. “But there was also a guy who made a lot of things happen himself. He was in the cab of the locomotive, and he was the one who has put together what has become such an impressive program.”

His name is Lew Perkins. He has been the athletic director of the University of Connecticut for 10 years, and he is the inaugural Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal National Athletic Director of the Year.

LEW PERKINS, UNIVERSITY OF CONNETICUT


Position: Athletic director
School: University of Connecticut
Age: 55
Hometown: Chelsea, Mass.
Resides: Cromwell, Conn.
Education: Bachelor’s degree, recreational therapy, University of Iowa, 1967; master’s degree, education, University of South Carolina, 1975
Family: Wife, Gwen; daughters, Amy, 28, Holly, 26
Background: Served as director of athletics at the University of South Carolina at Aiken from 1969 to 1980; was associate athletic director at the University of Pennsylvania from 1980 to 1983; named athletic director at Wichita State University in March 1983; became athletic director at the University of Maryland in April 1987; named athletic director at UConn in July 1990, heading a Division I-AA program that currently has 23 intercollegiate sports and an athletic budget of $24 million; during his tenure, UConn has won NCAA championships in men’s (1999) and women’s basketball (1995 and 2000), and it has constructed several facilities, including a $14 million student recreation center, $4 million ice arena and $3.5 million outdoor sports complex; the school currently is moving to Division I-A, which includes building a $90 million, 40,000-seat football stadium.

A quick look at the record shows Gavitt is correct when he singles out Perkins, a 55-year-old Massachusetts native and the father of two grown daughters, who came to the Storrs campus as AD in 1990 after similar jobs at Wichita State University and the University of Maryland.

Consider, for example, that UConn has won national championships during Perkins’ tenure in women’s basketball (1995 and 2000) and men’s basketball (1999). Its women’s soccer and field hockey teams have been ranked consistently among the top 10 in the country, and so has its men’s soccer squad. UConn’s 23 intercollegiate sports have a combined winning percentage of .700, and roughly two-thirds of all UConn student athletes graduate. Under Perkins, annual fund-raising revenue has risen from $1.4 million to $10 million, and the budget has grown from $6.7 million to $24 million. The school also is rated highly in terms of gender equity, ranked 15th nationally in terms of college licensing revenue and, perhaps best of all, has not had any violations, investigations or problems with the NCAA during Perkins’ watch.

“Lew has done a great job,” says UConn basketball coach Jim Calhoun, who got to Connecticut four years before Perkins and says he encouraged the university to hire him. “He is a very good leader and a terrific businessman. He is also a visionary and an excellent fund-raiser. And he cares a lot about kids.”

Perkins grew up the younger of two children in a third-floor flat in the Boston suburb of Chelsea. Basketball was Perkins’ favorite sport, and Gavitt still remembers scouting him as an assistant coach at Providence College when Perkins was the star of the Chelsea High team.

“The night I went to see him play, he scored 65 points in a gym that was the size of an abandoned swimming pool, and that was despite having bad knees,” Gavitt recalls. “He was a big guy who had a terrific touch. The only downside was that he had bad legs.”

Those bad legs did not prevent Perkins from winning a basketball scholarship to the University of Iowa, where he played for hall of fame coach Ralph Miller and became the first member of his family to go to college. He graduated in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy, and he and his new wife, the former Gwen Flaum, moved to Norristown, Pa.

“Gwen taught second grade there, and I went to work as a therapist in a maximum-security mental hospital,” Perkins says. “Building 51, and it was a very eye-opening experience for a 23-year-old just out of school. There were murderers there, and people who didn’t belong there. It was a tough place to be, and I quickly knew that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life there.”

So Perkins and his wife moved after a year to South Carolina, where he earned his master’s degree in guidance and counseling from the state university in Columbia. “I decided that I wanted to be a high school basketball coach and guidance counselor,” Perkins says.

But while working toward his degree, he took a job as athletic director and basketball coach at the University of South Carolina at Aiken, a small two-year school just across the river from Augusta, Ga. “I taught classes, I taped ankles, I ran basketball practices at 10 p.m. because we didn’t have a gym and could only use the one at the local high school after they were done playing,” Perkins recalls.

It was small potatoes, but Perkins loved it. He knew he had found a new line of work, and it was, he is quick to say, much better than that mental hospital.

Perkins stayed at USC-Aiken for 11 years, long enough to become the assistant dean of students as well as the AD and to see the institution grow to a four-year school. Then in 1980, he left to become the associate athletic director at the University of Pennsylvania. Three years later, he took the AD job at Wichita State and from there went to the University of Maryland in 1987.

The UConn job came three years after that. Perkins, a demanding but big-hearted fellow who lives with Gwen in a house on a golf course in nearby Cromwell, says he couldn’t be happier. “I really like working here,” Perkins says. “I love our kids, I love the people I work with at the university and I love my president [Philip Austin].

“There is a real commitment toward athletics at UConn, and people want them to be a key part of the university. And we have been given the leeway to be successful as long as we don’t violate any rules. Winning is the most important for our athletic department here, but never at the expense of the university or our student athletes.”

Ask Perkins to talk about his most important accomplishments at UConn, and he invariably points to a clean athletic program. But he is also proud of the strength and power of his women’s sports program, the big increases in fund-raising revenue, the high graduation rates and the enviable winning percentage for all 23 of UConn’s teams.
“I am also excited that our football program is going to become Division I-A and that our football stadium is finally going to be built,” he says. The complex in nearby East Hartford, which will cost an estimated $92 million, will seat 40,000 and should be ready for the 2003 season.

The stadium, however, also represents the biggest disappointment during Perkins’ run, he says.

“I just wish it didn’t take so long to put together,” he says of the nine-year effort to get a stadium.
But the fact is, he was able to put it together. And if his biggest disappointment is that it took a little longer than expected, it’s no wonder he earns so many rave reviews.

John Steinbreder is a writer living in Connecticut.

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