SBJ/June 9 - 15, 2003/Special Report

Geiger blends on-field success with overall mission


For anyone who stereotypes Ohio State's athletic program as a sports factory, Andy Geiger, the university's athletic director, thinks you'd change your mind if you took a closer look.

Sure, the Buckeyes' athletic department had a whopping $79 million budget this school year — the largest in college sports. But that's what's needed to fund 36 sports at the highest level and pay for facility projects that included the recent $200 million renovation of Ohio Stadium.

And, yeah, the Ohio State football team did win the national championship Jan. 3, and the success of the program's other 35 sports so far this year has pushed the program to No. 2 in the latest NACDA Directors' Cup standings.

But athletic prowess does not take precedence over the university mission — at least not on Geiger's watch, he says.

For Geiger, making sure athletics is not separate from the university is paramount. With such a high-profile sports program, getting that message across can be a challenge, but for Geiger, it's one that is "critically important." All of which is why Geiger has been selected as Street & Smith's SportsBusiness Journal National Athletic Director of the Year.

"Andy is a person who knows athletics is just a means of building a high-quality extracurricular experience for students," said Brit Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland and former president of Ohio State. "He is someone who truly cares about the quality of the academic enterprise."

Jim Delany, commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, added: "He understands that we [in college sports] have had our critics over time, but the best rebuttal to the critics is to have a program that not only stands on its own merits in terms of performance but also with respect to the ability to integrate the values and mission of the department with the values and mission of the school."

An athletic program has to be successful on and off the field, according to Geiger. "I don't believe it's an either/or situation," he said. "We can and should do both."

Ohio State had 413 scholar athletes this year, 46 of whom played on the national championship football team. Scholar athletes are those who earn a 3.0 grade point average or better.

Ohio State also led the Big Ten this year with 250 Academic All-Big Ten honorees, ending Penn State's six-year run at the top of that category.

"Not bad for a sports factory, huh?" Geiger asked.

By comparison, five years ago the athletic department had only about 250 scholar athletes.

Ohio State's athlete graduation rates, according to the NCAA's latest report, are at 60 percent, compared with 56 percent for all students at the university.

Admittedly, Geiger would like to see higher graduation rates, but they've been "inching up" annually and they're now beating the university's average.

"It's not a 'Ha, ha, we're better than you,' thing," Geiger said. "It's a matter of asking ourselves, 'Are we of the place or are we not of the place?' If we're of the place, then we ought to be able to demonstrate that in the classroom and on the field."

Geiger, a self-described "railroad nut" since he was a boy, never planned to get into the college sports business. Instead, he planned to major in business, then get into transportation.

But thanks to a bunch of Syracuse crew team members, who persuaded him to join the team on freshman class registration day, Geiger was able to experience the life of a student athlete and, subsequently, "fell in love with intercollegiate athletics."

"I had a marvelous experience," he said. "I became a much more disciplined, a much more involved and a much more confident person because of it."

As a result of his experience, he majored in physical education instead of business and began learning the college sports business as a junior, when he interned in the Syracuse athletic department.

Since then, Geiger has moved through the college athletic administration ranks, eventually becoming AD at Brown University in 1971, at the age of 32. From Brown, Geiger went on to head the athletic departments at Penn, Stanford and Maryland before landing in Columbus in 1994.

Like others, including his successor at Stanford, Ted Leland, Geiger used the 1994 book "Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies," by Jerry Porras and Jim Collins, as the basis for redefining his management philosophy in athletics. The book examines 18 "visionary companies" such as Walt Disney, IBM, Wal-Mart and General Electric and shows how they are different from their counterparts.

In his first year, Geiger distributed the book to the Ohio State staff and used it in a series of staff retreats to hone the mission of the department. Out of the retreats came the department's six core values: education, integrity, innovation, excellence, respect and leadership.

"We use those values in every aspect of what we do here," Geiger said. "We have cards printed on our desks that remind us of those values."

Commitment to the six values has helped propel Ohio State's athletic department to where it is today, according to Geiger and others in the department.

Since Geiger's arrival in '94, the Buckeyes have gone from a football powerhouse that did so-so in other sports to a powerhouse in virtually all of its sports.

"We've always been strong in football, but the change in our across-the-board ability to have success is new for Ohio State," Geiger said.

Jan. 3 was a "pretty stunning experience" for Geiger, but the department has had many others. Take the men's tennis team, which got to the round of 16 in the NCAA championship this year. "For years and years we were last in the Big Ten," Geiger pointed out.

"If you lump those kinds of [turn-around] experiences together, I think that defines who I am as an AD. I love to be part of those kinds of successes."

One of Geiger's strengths is his commitment to the so-called Olympic sports and gender equity, Kirwan and others said.

Since he's been at Ohio State, the Buckeyes have added three women's sports — rowing, lacrosse and ice hockey, without sacrificing any men's sports, which is often the case at other schools.

"I really admire the way he is able to both administer a big-time football program, at a place where the sport has such incredible visibility, but also spend the time and attention and make the commitment that he does to the other sports," Kirwan said.

Off the field, Geiger has been the catalyst for more than $300 million in facility construction and improvement — $200 million for the Ohio Stadium renovation, $110 million for the Schottenstein Center, and millions more for a 4,300-seat baseball stadium, a soccer, lacrosse and track and field facility, and a student-athlete support facility. The student-athlete center was built in the center of campus, not near the athletic buildings, because Geiger said it would have been the "wrong signal" if the department had segregated its athletes from the rest of campus.

Geiger also has made increasing Ohio State's athletics endowment fund a priority. Since 1994, Ohio State's endowment has increased from slightly less than $4 million to more than $20 million.

Even with 36 sports to run, facilities to build and funds to raise, working isn't the only thing that keeps Geiger busy.

Whether it's spending time with his wife and two sons, tinkering with a railroad he built that runs through his garden or finding another addition to his collection of 2,500 jazz albums, Geiger is on the move ... a lot.

"I guess I'm probably ADD or hyper-something," Geiger said. "I'm always on the go."

Once a week, during lunch, Geiger heads down to the local jazz radio station to record a two-hour show that runs on Sunday nights.

"I love running into people in town who don't want to talk to me about the Buckeyes and instead want to talk about John Coltrane or something else," Geiger said. "I like that. It's kind of right brain-left brain stuff."

Geiger's appetite for more than college sports allows him to succeed at making sure his department and his athletes are part of the rest of campus. For example, he was the one who partnered with the campus's arts center to promote an on-campus exhibit of works from Roy Lichtenstein by featuring a lithograph by the renowned pop artist on the cover of a football game program.

Kirwan, Geiger's former boss at both Ohio State and the University of Maryland, pointed to what a trustee at the University of Maryland once told him.

"He said, 'You know, if you just met [Geiger] and started having a conversation with him, you might assume he was a faculty member.' That captures what I think is such an appealing aspect of his personality."

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