SBJ/June 13 - 19, 2005/SBJ In Depth

SBJ Athletic Director of the Year: DeLoss Dodds

DeLoss Dodds was the track coach at Kansas State University when he first started thinking that becoming an athletic director might be the way to go.

“My athletic director played golf every afternoon,” he said. “I thought that was a pretty good job.”

So good, in fact, that he took that very job at Kansas State a few years later, after a two-year stint as assistant commissioner of the Big Eight Conference. And three years after that, in 1981, he became men’s athletic director at the University of Texas, a position he still holds.

Back then, the business of sports was much smaller, and in many ways more manageable.

When Dodds arrived at Texas, the athletic department budget was $5 million; fund raising was handled, with varying success, by several groups outside the university; and the big-money deals that now are taken for granted — for media, sponsors, signs, video boards — were just beginning to develop.

Today, Texas has an $83 million budget, a foundation that raises $20 million a year, a building plan that has put up $150 million in facilities in the last seven years and has another $150 million in the works for the next seven, and teams whose broad-based success consistently lands the school in the top five among national programs.

“The job has changed,” Dodds said. “It’s gotten harder. We don’t get to play golf quite as often.”

But while the job may have changed, those who know Dodds say that he hasn’t. You don’t have to talk with many of them before a few themes emerge. Among them: He is generous with his time, serving as friend, sounding board and mentor; he has earned respect that makes him influential at every level; and he provides his program with consistent, even-keeled leadership, a trait that many of the people interviewed for this story described as “sustained excellence.”

It was the combination of those factors — his program’s success, both recently and over the long haul, as well as the approbation of his peers — that led to Dodds being named 2005 Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal Athletic Director of the Year.

Following the plan

He does not know why his mother named him DeLoss. He asked her, but beyond simply liking the name, she didn’t have a very good answer. “I did find out that there is a Greek island called Delos,” he said. “But it’s pronounced differently, and it doesn’t have a capital ‘L’, so that wasn’t much help.”

He met his wife when he was 6 and she was 5. Dodds and his dad were changing a tire on a street in his hometown, Riley, Kan., when his dad looked up, saw Mary Ann walking along with her father and said, “There goes a pretty girl. You should marry one like that some day.” So he did, 48 years ago.

He was an outstanding athlete at Kansas State, winning the Big Eight championship in the 440-yard dash as a junior, and anchoring a pair of league-champion mile relay teams, once clocking a 45.9-second quarter-mile. Later, as head track coach at the school, while guiding the team to six Big Eight titles, he began fostering many of the relationships that he would build throughout his career.

Chuck Neinas, commissioner of the Big Eight at the time and now head of Neinas Sports Services, was impressed with Dodds’ decision-making and people skills.

Among the many improvements planned for the university’s sports facilities is a project at Memorial Stadium that will boost capacity to 91,000.
“By age and tenure he was far junior to most of the other track coaches,” Neinas said. “When the group would meet, there would be a lot of arguing and bickering over problems. DeLoss would wait his turn to speak, but when he did, he would provide clear solutions that everyone respected.”

When Dodds arrived at the University of Texas in 1981, he immediately showed that in addition to great interpersonal skills, he possessed a sharp business sense.

Take fundraising. The year he arrived at Texas, only about $400,000 came in, and all of that was through off-campus efforts.

“When I got here,” Dodds said, “it was explained to me that basketball fundraising was done by a pharmacist and a lobbyist, that track was handled by an oil-and-gas executive, and that football fundraising was done by an attorney in Austin.”

By 1984, fundraising was brought in-house. That year, a million dollars rolled in. This year, the Longhorn Foundation will bring in $20 million.

The money from donations and from maximizing revenue from sponsorships, media rights and ticket sales has helped fuel a facilities program that is the envy of most of the country. Dodds beams like a proud parent as he walks through campus sports venues, locker rooms, training areas and medical facilities. He knows where every dollar will go during the next seven years, from outdoor swimming to indoor tennis to baseball and, finally, to additions to Memorial Stadium that will boost football capacity by another 10,000 or so seats, to 91,000.

Underlying many of the advances made during Dodds’ tenure was a change that went well beyond the confines of the Texas campus — the formation of the Big 12 Conference. Dodds was one of the first to recognize that the days of the old Southwest Conference were numbered, with Texas’ top prospects increasingly leaving the state for schools that were getting more national attention.

Many people point to Arkansas pulling out of the Southwest Conference in 1992 as the event that finally forced other schools into action to save themselves. Dodds, though, points to the Southeastern Conference pulling out of the College Football Association to negotiate its own television deal. That left the Big Eight facing the task of trying to attract a deal for the sparsely populated, mostly small-market middle section of the country, and the Southwest Conference trying to draw national attention for a conference that had all of its remaining schools in one state.

Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione said Dodds’ business acumen and relationships were crucial to getting the new conference off the ground.

“He was a shrewd negotiator,” Castiglione said, “and he helped guide the group through some difficult situations, including navigating some tricky political waters.”

By the time the citizens of Texas, and, more important, its legislators, finally recognized that the Southwest Conference was no longer viable, Dodds had been working on contingency plans for years.

“DeLoss was prescient,” said Chris Plonsky, women’s AD at Texas. “He knowingly and quietly was prepared for what we now know as the Big 12.”

Being a mentor

Missouri athletic director Mike Alden met Dodds in 1996, shortly after Alden became AD at Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University) in San Marcos, just 30 miles down the road from Austin. “I cold-called him,” Alden said. “He didn’t know me from Adam.”

Alden hoped that, at the very least, he could spend a little time with Dodds and kept his fingers crossed that Dodds might become a mentor. “And he has done that,” Alden said, “in so many ways.”

Dodds’ survival philosophy is simple. “Every minute of every day, you do the best you can.”
Dodds’ willingness to spend time nurturing relationships is mentioned often as one of his most enduring — and endearing — traits. “He’s a mentor to a lot of people,” Castiglione said, “many of whom are doing exceedingly well in the business.”

The skills that have helped him build a wide-ranging web of relationships also help when it comes to shaping debate, whether over the future of a conference or, as recently, over whether to add a 12th game to the Division I-A football schedule.

“With his reputation and the respect he has nationally, he has the ability to change policy,” Alden said. “When he speaks, everyone in our profession listens.”

The key, perhaps, is how he speaks, said Stanford athletic director Ted Leland, who consults with Dodds when hiring coaches and dealing with other tricky issues.

“He doesn’t wield the power of Texas,” Leland said, “and I think that’s one of his strengths. He uses the power of persuasion.”

At 67, Dodds has no plans to slow down, and he still makes time for that golf habit, which these days, he said, includes regular whippings by his talented high school-age grandson, Steffan.

Most of the people he runs into on campus call him “Coach,” and Plonsky, who has worked closely with Dodds since 1993, said that one of his strengths is that he still thinks like one.

“The best ADs are people who think like coaches,” she said, “because they think about the people we serve. The students are central to everything we do. DeLoss loves the kids, and I think that’s significant in a time when most people think that all we worry about are big contracts, revenue generation and how many people we can put into a stadium.”

Keeping the good of the school and its students in mind has helped Dodds weather some tough times. Alden said Dodds’ steady leadership was most evident to him when Texas’ football program was struggling in the mid- to late ’90s, and the pressure to win — from fans, alumni and the media — was reaching “unbelievable levels.”

“He showed such grace under fire in being able to manage,” Alden said, “and to manage in a systematic way and calmly go out and hire someone like Mack Brown.”

Dodds’ survival philosophy is simple.

“Every minute of every day, you do the best you can,” he said, “and you cannot worry about what other people think.”

Reflecting over 24 years, Dodds is happy, at the moment, with the state of his program.

“We’ve put all the pieces together,” he said. “The money, the facilities, the foundation, the coaches. I think you could say it’s not been this good in a long time.”

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