SBJ/January 29 - February 4, 2001/Special Report
Bottom-line challenges top the demands on today's Ads
Published January 29, 2001
Michael Cleary may never have worked in a university athletic department, but he has worked in collegiate sports for four decades. He's held positions at the NCAA and the NAIA and for the last 35 years has been executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics, the service organization for athletic directors and administrators.
As executive director, Cleary oversees NACDA's operations, which include hosting an annual convention and several other workshops; maintaining a scholarship foundation; publishing the bimonthly magazine Athletics Administration; operating two preseason college football games, the Pigskin and Kickoff classics; and administering the Sears Directors' Cup. He also ran the Division I-A Athletic Directors Association from 1986 to 1992.
Under Cleary, NACDA has gone from being a 300-member organization to one that has more than 6,100 members from more than 1,600 institutions. Through his work with the industry, Cleary said he has learned "the philosophies of Division I, Division III and everything in between."
Street & Smith's SportsBusiness Journal staff writer Jennifer Lee sat down with Cleary at the NCAA's annual convention earlier this month to discuss the demands of college athletic administration, the changing role of athletic directors and the impact of commercialization on the industry.
SBJ: As the association that manages and helps educate athletic directors, NACDA has been in a position to witness the evolution of athletic directors over the years. Can you tell me a little about those changes?
Cleary: Things have changed greatly. In the old days, it was common for a football coach if he was fired to be moved upstairs to the athletic director's office without having the knowledge of how to run the department. And so suddenly, he'd show up to work on a Monday morning and he'd have a $6 [million] or $8 million budget to oversee, and that was it.
About 20 years ago, you started seeing a trend of schools getting an alumnus who had made his mark in the business world and decided he wanted to come back to campus and be the athletic director without having had prior athletic administration experience.
And now it's become more professional. In the old days there were no schools for people to learn the trade, but now you have people like John Swofford, the commissioner of the ACC, and Jeremy Foley, the athletic director at Florida, who went through Ohio University's [sports administration] program. I think as athletic administration has grown and become more complicated, the need for trained people is just there.
SBJ: What about the coaches and alums who didn't have that athletic administration training? Where are they now?
Cleary: I think a lot of them have been phased out, but there is still a very qualified group of them that have adapted to the changes and stepped up and done a hell of a job.
SBJ: Are there certain qualities ADs have to have?
Cleary: They have to be bottom-line individuals in all areas, at all times. They have to be bottom-line in finance, bottom-line in wins and losses, and bottom-line on graduation. I think that's why you see so much turnover in [Division] I-A, because the pressure of the job to meet those bottom-line requirements can be too much.
SBJ: What has the impact of money and commercialization been on college sports?
Cleary: Well, intercollegiate athletics is certainly driven by it now. Everyone wants to keep up with the Joneses, and it's gotten to the point where I think it will keep on growing. I just don't see anyone going in the other direction any time soon.
Title IX certainly has driven the need to maximize revenue. There are only so many revenue sports. And for those sports to continue carrying everything else in a program, they just have to maximize the revenue.
SBJ: What about NCAA President Cedric Dempsey's recent proposal to essentially pull the reins in on spending?
Cleary: I don't see how anyone's going to do it. The proposal sounds nice, but I don't think realistically people are going to go the other way. Under the current system, there's going to come a point where you'll see 60 or so schools dominate the NCAA because of their football programs, and the other programs are going to realize that it's their lot in life and they can't compete.
SBJ: With that said, it would seem the impact of money on college sports has been more negative than positive?
Cleary: Well, the philosophic and altruistic perspective is that it has had a negative impact. But now that it's in the system, it's become a fact of life and I don't think anything's going to change it.
Intercollegiate athletics is healthy right now because of what the money has allowed departments to do, which is fund Olympic sports, women's sports and non-revenue sports. It's the people that are jumping in and trying to play with the big boys — they just can't do it and they're killing themselves trying to. That's when the issue becomes a toughie.
SBJ: The need to constantly generate money and meet budget has become such an important part of running athletic departments. What impact do you think a recession could have on how departments are run?
Cleary: Well, I think you have to keep up with the times. Sure, everyone would like to go back to the good old days, but what good is that when you have to pay bills?
I don't think a change in the economy will really affect college athletics as much as some might think. Sure, it will affect it, but not like it's going to affect it like it would in professional sports. For example, a Notre Dame alumni living in Chicago that's been loyal to the school for years would give up his Bears tickets before giving up his Notre Dame contributions. There's just a loyalty there in college sports. Sure, people might hold their donations a little closer to the vest, but I don't think it's going to be devastating to the college community.
Organization: National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics
Resides: Bay Village, a suburb of Cleveland
Education: Bachelor of science degree in criminology, 1956, John Carroll University
Family: Wife, Sue; daughters Mary, 44; Ann, 37; Liz, 34; Maggie, 33; sons Mike, 42; Brian, 41; Kevin, 40; Owen, 30; and Dan, 27
Background: Mike Cleary has worked in intercollegiate athletics for 40 years. Before taking his current position at NACDA, he worked at the NCAA as a director of championship events for three years. He also was with the NAIA for two years, where he was in charge of the association's championships and operation of its annual convention. Before getting into college sports, Cleary was the general manager of the Cleveland Pipers of the American Baseball League, where he worked under owner George Steinbrenner. Cleary has served on committees for the U.S. Olympic Committee, the New Jersey Sports Exposition Authority, the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame. He currently is on the board of directors for the National Football Foundation. In 1995, he received the Outstanding Contribution to Amateur Football award from the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame.