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SBJ/June 7 - 13, 2004/SBJ In Depth
Old school New school
Published June 7, 2004
Vince Dooley, Georgia’s outgoing athletic director, considers himself part of the old school as far as ADs are concerned.
Dooley, 71, has been with the Bulldogs since 1964 — first as football coach, then as AD. He landed the athletic director spot in 1979 because of his tenure as coach and because of his experience as the department’s assistant athletic director. Back then it was common for the football coach at major football programs to become AD.
“In the past it didn’t make any difference if the person was good enough [for the job], they just put them in the position if they wanted it,” Dooley said.
In those days athletic departments were a fraction of the size they are today, women’s sports barely existed and college sports overall, while popular, did not receive nearly as much attention.
As Dooley recalls, the Georgia athletic department when he arrived as coach had a budget of about $2 million. Fifteen years later when he became AD, the budget was around $12 million. Today Georgia’s budget tops $50 million.
“When I became athletic director, we never had to do anything like marketing, never had anything like development and never had a compliance director,” Dooley said. “We certainly have all of that now.”
Back then it wasn’t rare for a coach to also be a teacher or hold another job on campus or within athletics.
When Dooley started as AD in 1979, Dan Magill, Georgia’s tennis coach at the time, was also the department’s sports information director and the secretary of the Bulldog Club, Georgia’s fund-raising arm.
“Today I’ve got 38 people doing the job that he and a secretary did,” said Dooley, who is retiring from the AD position June 30. “So yeah, I’ve seen some dramatic changes.”
The responsibilities of athletic directors at institutions with major sports programs are enormous. Athletic department budgets have skyrocketed along with facility construction, television agreements and sponsorships. Many Division I programs also face increased pressure from university administration to run self-sufficient departments.
More responsibility, more money
The added responsibility and demands on athletic directors has come with increased pay.
Division I-A directors have seen their compensation levels increase dramatically since 1990, according to Dutch Baughman, executive director of the Division I-A Athletic Directors’ Association, which compiles compensation information on its directors.
In the first few years of the 1990s, only a handful cracked the $100,000-a-year mark. Today, the average annual base salary for the 117 directors in Division I-A is $210,000, Baughman said, citing compensation studies conducted by the association.
Baughman declined to break down the association’s information beyond a national average. But he said the contracts normally seen at a BCS-level school are now more common across the board.
The annual base figure does not include other forms of compensation such as car allowances or country club memberships and does not include incentives, all of which could bump an AD’s total compensation well into mid-six figures.
The way in which AD contracts are structured also has changed. Contracts for ADs have evolved from one-year letters of agreement in the late 1980s to what’s most common today — a straight term, five-year contract.
These days, though, it’s become imperative to be a good multitasker and people person. Knowledge of finance, marketing and fund raising have become almost prerequisites.
“College athletics for the longest period of time has been a place where a certain understanding of business principles was enough,” said Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione.
“I still chuckle to some degree when people don’t acknowledge that this is a business,” Castiglione said. “Because it is and it’s a big business.”
As the demands on the athletic director have increased, master’s degrees in sports management or education as well as years of athletic administration experience have become more commonplace. Coaching experience still goes a long way for athletic directors because it’s easier to empathize, but it’s not required.
Some think the demands on athletic directors require even more education.
The management and negotiation skills learned from MBA and law programs “are mightily important,” Geiger said. “I think there are good things in sports management programs, particularly some, but I think there are issues that we deal with that sports management programs [don’t cover].”
Athletic directors at major sports programs run multimillion-dollar businesses. In Geiger’s case it’s an $80 million business that has him less involved than he’d like to be with coaches and student athletes and “much more involved in management kinds of issues,” he said.
Answering to many
Beyond increased management responsibilities, interest is on the rise from various constituencies on and off campus.
“The job is perhaps more complex than people realize primarily because of the number of constituencies that are involved,” said Maryland AD Debbie Yow.
There are boosters, university board members, media, student athletes, coaches, staff, alumni associations, the NCAA, conference members and faculty, all of which want some input in how athletics is handled, she said.
Many athletic directors interviewed said modes of media such as the Internet and 24-hour talk radio have dramatically changed what they do. “It used to be if somebody was critical about something they’d write a letter, take the day to think about, leave it in their desk overnight and they may or may not ever send it. Now you can fire it off on your computer and press send,” said Iowa AD Bob Bowlsby.
“It’s very unusual for things to be accurate,” Byrne said. “So what I find myself doing is responding to wacko rumors out there that have no justification or basis of fact. I find myself going on the offensive. At Oregon and Nebraska I did my own radio shows, and now at A&M I try to get as much accurate info out there as I possibly can.”
At A&M, Byrne uses his Wednesday Weekly column on the Aggies’ Web site to address current events, dispel rumors and disseminate information on things such as A&M’s athletic department budget.
“The level of interest, investment and/or sense of entitlement depending on who you’re talking to has certainly changed,” Yow said. “Everything seems to be more intense now than it was 10 years ago.”
That intensity and level of interest in big-time programs has led campus presidents and chancellors to take more active roles with athletics.
“The president has the ultimate responsibility, and if an athletic department is out of control in any way or even perceived to be out of control it can bring down a president,” said Bill Carr, a college sports consultant who conducts job searches for the industry.
Ohio State AD Andy Geiger faces the media over the Maurice Clarett situation. Such scrutiny of college athletics has become commonplace.
“It’s no longer possible for the AD to be the master of his or her domain without a lot of involvement by the leader of the university,” said LSU Chancellor Mark Emmert. “The attention given to athletics today by our society, both positive and negative, means the price of mistakes is just enormous. The pressures that are brought to bear on these programs are so large that the head of the university has simply got to be engaged in working with the AD.”
Despite the need for increased presidential oversight, presidents need not micromanage their athletics department.
“I don’t have any interest in telling my athletic director how to do the job,” said Emmert, scheduled to become president of the University of Washington on June 14. “I have a keen interest in oversight over big policy decisions that are reflective of the university. Other than that, the job is the athletic director’s.”
Presidents and chancellors are increasingly asking their ADs to report directly to them instead of a vice president. Some campus leaders, like Ohio State President Karen Holbrook, set up regular meetings with their ADs to keep abreast of what’s going on in athletics.
A few years ago Geiger didn’t even report to the president’s office and reported to the vice president of student affairs instead. Iowa’s Bowlsby also said he is for the first time in his career directly reporting to his president. In the past, he’s reported to a vice president for finance, at one time a vice president for university relations and, for a while, to the general counsel on campus.
“In a lot of ways I question the importance that that gives to athletics to be reporting directly to the president, but on the other hand [athletics] is a volatile enough of an environment that the president is well served to keep a close look at what’s going on,” Bowlsby said.
Others familiar with the industry said presidents are now including their ADs on their executive campus committees or boards. Colorado, on the heels of a recruiting scandal in football, last month announced changes to the reporting and oversight structure of its athletic department that will now include Athletic Director Dick Tharp on its executive committee.
The increased input from all sides has made the athletic director’s role more challenging, Castiglione said.
Iowa's Bob Bowlsby (right) is among the ADs now reporting to their university's president.
As NCAA President Myles Brand sees it, the fact that presidents are becoming more involved or taking more of an interest in their athletics programs should not be a sign that the role of athletic director is diminishing.
“President control means the president has direct lines of communications through the AD into the athletic department,” Brand said. “It doesn’t mean the president gets involved in a daily operations basis.”
The direct communication to upper university administration, combined with more involvement in other areas of campus, has elevated the role of AD, Brand said.
“I think ADs are becoming more important players in the university than they have been in the past,” he said. “This puts more pressure on the athletic directors but it also makes the job a lot more interesting.”