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Mark Hollis, the Michigan State athletic director, generates so many big and bold ideas that most of them end up on the cutting-room floor. In fact, Hollis’ notion of playing a basketball game on an aircraft carrier was one of those ideas that initially was discarded.
It was more than eight years ago that Hollis first pushed the concept of the Carrier Classic across the U.S. Navy’s desk.
“There was no interest back then,” Hollis said. “I mean, how do you get a $1 billion ship secured?”
Eight years later, as Hollis surveyed the scene before Michigan State played North Carolina on the USS Carl Vinson in San Diego Bay, he could hardly believe one of the year’s most memorable and distinctive sports events was actually happening.
Mark Hollis is the SportsBusiness Journal / SportsBusiness Daily Athletic Director of the Year.
Photo by:Roxee Ireland
If there was ever going to be a college basketball game on an aircraft carrier, Hollis was the guy to get it done and Michigan State was the team to play in it.
Hollis, who fittingly counts Walt Disney as one of his greatest inspirations, has become synonymous with innovative events that shine a unique light on college athletics.
As an associate AD for marketing at Michigan State, he helped engineer the 2001 Cold War, the outdoor hockey game between Michigan State and Michigan seven years before the NHL started its own outdoor event, the Winter Classic.
Hollis also oversaw the 2003 Basketbowl at Ford Field between the Spartans and Kentucky, the first game that put the basketball court in the center of the football field rather than the sideline. The design later became the floor model for the Final Four.
In nearly five years as the Spartans’ AD, Hollis has cemented his reputation for coloring outside the lines, most recently with the 2011 Carrier Classic. Just as those earlier events established trends, a handful of copycat events are emerging this season in Jacksonville, Charleston, S.C., and possibly San Diego again.
It’s that ingenuity and creativity that made Hollis, who last week was rewarded with a new contract that bumped his base salary up from $395,000 to $600,000, the SportsBusiness Journal/SportsBusiness Daily Athletic Director of the Year.
“He’s an incredibly creative guy who isn’t afraid to try things,” said North Carolina AD and friend Bubba Cunningham. “It’s become his trademark.”
“I’m glad I’m not going to be here forever because we’ll probably be playing on the moon,” Izzo said with a laugh.
Hollis sat in the Annapolis Chart House two years ago fidgeting with a pack of crackers that were in a red, white and blue wrapper. As he twirled them in his hands, he drifted away in thought.
Hollis had been called to the restaurant to meet an old friend, CBS Sports producer Steve Scheer, who wanted to introduce him to Mike Whalen, a former Marine whose nonprofit agency, Morale Entertainment, puts on events for the military.
Hollis had shared a radical idea with Scheer years ago that involved playing a basketball game on an aircraft carrier. As
Hollis waited more than eight years for the Carrier Classic to become a reality.
Photo by:Getty Images
All of a sudden, Hollis looked up and said, “11, 11, 11.” The two men sitting with him at first weren’t sure what Hollis was talking about.
“11-11-11! That’s when we’ll play the game,” Hollis said, providing the eureka moment in deciding the Carrier Classic’s date — Veterans Day, 2011.
With Hollis, inspiration comes in any form, even the patriotic colors wrapping a pack of crackers.
“Sometimes you come across a guy who is always thinking, whose mind is always on go,” Whalen said. “That’s Mark.”
“It was one of the greatest nights ever for basketball,” Hollis said. “From a business standpoint, both institutions lost out on revenue by participating [because both schools gave up a home game], but it was the cause.”
Inside the Spartans’ athletic department, Hollis has carefully cultivated a culture of free thinking, where the concept of “There’s no such thing as a bad idea” has been taken to new extremes.
While UNC’s Cunningham and Hollis were walking around London one day, Hollis out of nowhere suggested that the two schools should play a basketball game in London, with one team dressed in Oxford colors and the other in Trinity colors.
He’s also endorsed a football game between Michigan State and Southern California played in Greece.
Get it? Trojans vs. Spartans in Greece.
“What a great idea,” Cunningham said. “Nobody thinks of things like that.”
Whether or not those events — or Izzo’s basketball game on the moon — come to pass isn’t the point. Hollis just wants his staff thinking of ways to make college sports fun, just as Disney would if he were an athletic director.
That kind of creativity has become more than Hollis’ calling card; it’s become part of Michigan State’s brand.
“We make a good team. He’s innovative enough to think of these ideas and I’m crazy enough to do it,” Izzo said. “I’ve worked for ADs who had no vision and couldn’t put together a game plan. Now we’ve got somebody who has tremendous vision.”
The idea of putting the basketball court in the middle of Ford Field “was the easy part,” Hollis said. “But what about putting the court on a stage? How do we improve the sight lines? How can we make it the grandest stage possible? … I’m somebody who just never stops thinking and I know it frustrates the heck out of my staff.”
Finding the spotlight for the Spartans
Doing more with less has driven Hollis ever since he played football for Croswell-Lexington High School in the small harbor town of Lexington, Mich., on Lake Huron.
“I came from a small high school where we had to battle the bigger schools,” Hollis said. “You had to work a little harder to achieve what you wanted.”
Operating in the considerable shadow cast by the University of Michigan, whose annual budget is about $30 million
Hollis oversaw the 2003 Basketbowl at Ford Field, the first game that put the court in the center of the football field instead of the sideline.
Photo by:AP Images
“We have to do things that other people don’t have to do,” Izzo said. “We’re not a destination stop for most people. We don’t have a hundred years of winning tradition. So we’re in a building stage to try to keep up with the Dukes, Carolinas and Kentuckys, and Mark is the visionary that’s giving us a chance.”
Hollis has applied that same pattern of going against the grain on the business side, where Michigan State markets its multimedia rights in-house rather than outsourcing, which is the overwhelming trend now.
From the Hollis file
MASTER-FUL? Mark Hollis is wellknown among his peers as an innovator, but he wasn’t trying to be a trendsetter at Augusta National last year when he took aim at the ninth green — while standing in the 18th fairway.
No, that was just Hollis shooting at the wrong flag in the distance. But playing Augusta National last November was a dream conclusion to a dream weekend for Michigan State’s athletic director.
Hollis so admires Augusta National that his daughter Katy’s middle name is Augusta. He also has the CBS Masters theme as the ring tone for his cell phone.
His opportunity to play the fabled course came on the same weekend as the Carrier Classic in mid-November. Michigan State played North Carolina on the USS Carl Vinson that Friday night, Hollis flew to the Spartans football game against Iowa that Saturday, and then played Augusta National on that Sunday.
A FATHER-SON MOMENT: When Hollis was a fledgling athletic administrator, one of his first jobs came at the Western Athletic Conference. As a treat for his dad, a Methodist minister, educator and musician, Hollis flew him to Salt Lake City for the WAC basketball tournament.
During the visit, Hollis arranged for his father to tour the Mormon Tabernacle, where he was surprised by a performance from the choir. Hollis’ father, described by Hollis as an “unbelievable musician,” then played the majestic Tabernacle pipe organ with the choir.
“He was never a big sports guy and I could never carry a tune,” Hollis said. “But that was one way for sports and music to come together for us.”
— Michael Smith
“We’ve just found that having face-to-face conversations between Michigan State and CEOs or key VPs brings value to the relationship,” Hollis said. “Sure, you need resources, but it’s not always about the money. It’s about understanding the needs of the corporations so you can react without being tied down to a contract with a third party.”
When General Motors was hurting in 2009, Hollis said, the school didn’t walk away when GM couldn’t make its payments.
“We sat down with them and said, ‘OK, where are you?’ And for the next two years we continued to celebrate everything GM means to the state without them paying cash. It was more of a grassroots relationship. They brought folks to the games from their plants. We tried to make them feel good about what they do. With a third-party contract, that would have been hard to do.”
That’s the personal touch that women’s basketball coach Suzy Merchant has seen Hollis apply to every aspect of his job, whether it’s dealing with a coach, a sponsor or an athlete.
“Leadership comes in a lot of forms,” Merchant said. “He’s really an inspiring person because he does have that tremendous vision, and he lets you know as a department where we’re going.”
He might not be following the conventional path, but Hollis has led Michigan State into a level of stability and renown that the school hasn’t had before.
“We teach innovation in our classrooms every day,” Hollis said. “Why should we be any different in athletics? Every event we’ve done has been without a blueprint, just our staff sitting around contemplating an idea. That’s what we should be about.”
The Under Armour Athletic Director of the Year Award program, administered by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics, honors athletic directors for their commitment and administrative excellence. The awards span seven divisions and annually honor four athletic directors from each region of those divisions. This year, an AD from the international division was chosen as well. The awards will be presented at the annual NACDA convention this week in Dallas.
Football Bowl Subdivision
University of Toledo
Now in his 10th year as Toledo’s AD, O’Brien has been instrumental in initiating one of the most comprehensive construction schedules in school history, completing more than five major projects during his tenure, totaling more than $40 million. He has led the Rockets to 17 Mid-American Conference Championships in seven sports, bowl game victories and the 2011 WNIT National Championship.
University of Southern Mississippi
Giannini, who announced his retirement in December, transformed the face and landscape of Southern Miss athletics. In his time with the Golden Eagles, Giannini’s administration raised more money for athletics collectively than all prior Southern Miss athletic directors. He created the Southern Miss Athletic Foundation, raising more than $67 million for capital projects.
Phillips is in his fifth year as Northwestern AD. Under his guidance, the school’s football and men’s basketball programs have reached postseason play in each of the last four seasons. Women’s lacrosse (six NCAA titles), women’s tennis (13 straight Big Ten titles), men’s soccer, softball, men’s golf, fencing and wrestling all have won team or individual conference championships. Ticket sales, sponsorship and development revenues are at all-time highs.
Since McCaw’s tenure as Baylor’s AD began in 2003, the school has won three NCAA team championships and 35 Big 12 Conference titles. Baylor led the Big 12 in graduation rates for three consecutive years and student athletes recorded their highest cumulative grade-point average on record during 2010-11 at 3.12. McCaw spearheaded a strategic plan that led to a successful $95 million development campaign.
Football Championship Subdivision
Stony Brook University
Now in his ninth year as AD, Fiore has restructured the program with the hiring of new coaching and administrative staffs, implemented facility upgrades, celebrated record philanthropic achievements, and overseen budget growth from $9 million to $20 million. He now is overseeing nearly $80 million in facility upgrades, highlighted by a new basketball arena and new baseball stadium.
Barber was named AD in 2006 and immediately began efforts to improve every athletic venue. Liberty is building a 2,500-seat baseball stadium, a new basketball practice facility and new golf facilities. In 2010, Liberty expanded Williams Stadium, increasing the seating capacity to 19,200, and adding an 11,000-square-foot Flames Club Pavilion and 18 luxury suites.
North Dakota State University
Since Taylor joined North Dakota State in 2001, the school’s athletic budget has tripled from $5 million to $15 million, while the scholarship endowment has grown to $11.2 million. On the field, the Bison football team won the 2011 FCS National Championship in its second playoff appearance. Meanwhile, the athletic program is raising $32 million to build the Sanford Health Athletic Complex.
Montana State University
Fields, now in his 10th year as AD, led the athletic department to its first Sterling Bank Presidents’ Cup for being the top program in the Big Sky Conference for academic and athletic achievement. For 20 consecutive semesters, MSU athletes have combined for a cumulative team grade point average of 3.0 or higher. Outside the classroom, Fields has initiated a feasibility study for a major capital campaign to reshape facilities.
Now finishing his 12th year as AD, Bobinski has led Xavier to athletic and academic success. Xavier’s latest graduation success rate was 94 percent and the NCAA recognized eight of the school’s athletic programs for their academic excellence. Also under Bobinski’s watch, nine Xavier teams have earned 39 team or individual spots in NCAA championship competition, and won 25 Atlantic 10 championships.
Virginia Commonwealth University*
Teague arrived as AD in 2006 and has overseen a $4 million upgrade to the Siegel Center multipurpose facility, as well as a $10 million practice facility. He helped build the men’s basketball program into national prominence after hiring Shaka Smart to lead the team. The Rams established attendance records, while season-ticket revenue doubled.
* Shortly after being named a NACDA award winner, Teague was hired to become AD at Minnesota.
Oral Roberts University
Carter accepted the AD position more than 17 years ago and has since turned his vision for Oral Roberts into a reality, choosing coaches and administrators to lead the Golden Eagle athletic programs and making improvements to all facilities. Since joining the Summit League, the Golden Eagles have won nine Commissioner’s Cups in 14 years and have made 75 NCAA tournament appearances.
University of Denver
Bradley-Doppes was appointed director of athletics and recreation six years ago and since then has been promoted to vice chancellor of athletics and recreation. Most recently, she led Denver’s conference realignment efforts, as the Pioneers will join the Western Athletic Conference in 2012-13 for 10 sports, and the National Collegiate Hockey Conference for hockey in 2013-14.
The 2011-12 academic year marked Goldring’s 14th year as Ashland’s AD and his 34th year in collegiate athletics administration. Last year, 13 of the school’s 20 teams advanced to NCAA postseason play. Goldring’s tenure has been marked by major improvements to Ashland’s athletic facilities including the football/track/soccer facility, and the baseball complex.
Saint Leo University
Reidy has led the Saint Leo athletic department for more than a decade. During that time, the school has added nine sports, with the most recent, women’s lacrosse, beginning this past spring. Reidy has overseen facility improvements that include a new softball stadium, fitness center, sports medicine area and the SLU Tennis Center.
Concordia University, St. Paul
Rubbelke has presided over Concordia athletics since 2005, guiding the department to 26 NCAA tournament appearances, including five consecutive NCAA Division II national championships in volleyball. He has led the way to bring football, soccer and track and field their own on-campus stadium. Sea Foam Stadium will be a multipurpose facility that will be utilized year-round.
Abilene Christian University
Now in his eighth year as AD at Abilene Christian, Mosley has seen his teams win 10 national championships, 17 NCAA regional championships and more than 40 conference championships. He has secured $1.3 million in new athletic endowments, bringing ACU’s total athletic endowment to $9.5 million. He has overseen approximately $3.5 million in facility improvements.
Nelson has been a part of Suffolk athletics for four decades, beginning his tenure in 1966 as an assistant director of athletics and men’s assistant basketball coach before being named AD in 1975. From 1976-95, he was head coach of the men’s basketball team, guiding the Rams to appearances in the NCAA Division III regional tournament.
Fairleigh Dickinson University, College at Florham
Klika has been AD at Fairleigh Dickinson’s College at Florham for 24 years. Seventeen percent of the school’s full-time undergraduates participate in varsity athletics. Klika has added seven new athletic teams, bringing the total to 19. He established the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame and Student Advisory Board, and oversaw the construction of the Ferguson Recreation Center and Robert T. Shields Field.
Wilmington (Ohio) College
Rupert has been the AD at Wilmington since 1996 and was named vice president for athletics administration in 2007. During Rupert’s tenure, the school has added men’s and women’s swimming, and in 2012-13 will add varsity men’s and women’s lacrosse teams. New turf and lighting were added to Williams Stadium in 2008 to illuminate football, soccer, lacrosse and track and field events.
University of Redlands
Martinez became the director of athletics and physical education at Redlands in 2000, and has been a member of the Bulldog staff since 1983. Under his direction, the Bulldogs have won three Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference All-Sports trophies and finished second in the remaining years of his tenure.
Junior College/Community College
Mohawk Valley Community College
Broadhurst has spent the last 33 years working with Mohawk Valley athletics. During that time, the Hawks have captured 16 NJCAA national championships and 47 regional championships. Broadhurst played a key role in the planning and development of the school’s Robert R. Jorgensen Athletic/Events Center. In addition to his role as associate dean of athletics and physical education, Broadhurst is a professor.
Harford Community College
Krsolovic has expanded the athletic program to 14 teams since his hiring five years ago. He shaped the direction of a $28 million addition and renovation of the college’s indoor athletic facilities to include Northeastern Maryland’s largest arena. He also drove the school’s branding and licensing efforts, including a new logo.
Iowa Western Community College
Now in her 10th year as Iowa Western’s AD, Hampton has increased revenue, rejuvenated fundraising and expanded the department throughout her term. Hampton has added 15 sports, including football, and now leads a staff of more than 50. She has overseen the addition of football facilities and an outdoor track and field complex, and the expansion of other facilities.
Tyler Junior College
Drain is in his 13th year in athletics administration at the college, and his 10th as the school’s AD. Tyler Junior College has won 18 NJCAA national championships during Drain’s tenure. Outside of his school duties, Drain has been the tournament director for a number of NJCAA national championships.
Sliman has been the face of Carlow athletics since 1999, previously serving in part-time capacity as a volleyball coach. He revitalized the Student-Athlete Association and implemented “Champions of Character” training for all coaches and student athletes. He worked with university administrators to increase Carlow’s athletics budget threefold and created a dedicated fitness center strictly for student athletes.
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
At the helm of Embry-Riddle athletics since 1993, Ridder has increased the school’s number of varsity sports from five to 17, and has grown the full-time staff from five to 41. In 2010-11, the Eagles won their 12th consecutive Sun Conference Commissioner’s Cup. In addition to his AD duties, Ridder is in his 23rd year as head basketball coach and has led the Eagles to the NAIA national tournament 12 times.
Nebraska Wesleyan University
In 13 years as AD, Zeff has built Nebraska Wesleyan into one of the top athletic programs in the Great Plains Athletic Conference. He has overseen the completion of the Woody Greeno Track at Abel Stadium, a new video replay board installation at Abel Stadium, and a floor resurfacing project at Knight Fieldhouse.
Parker is in his ninth year guiding Carroll College athletics. The college recently won its sixth NAIA national football championship and 12th straight Frontier Conference title. Parker has added four sports to the athletic program in the past three years, and has initiated enhancements to athletic facilities on campus.
University of Windsor
As AD at Windsor for nearly 10 years, Grace has helped bring the university to the forefront of Canadian university athletics. In 2011 alone, the Lancers won three Canadian Interuniversity Sport national championships, which was the most of any university in Canada. Gold has developed a strategic plan for improved athletic facilities that has seen millions of dollars spent on improvements, including a multimillion-dollar multiuse outdoor stadium.
■ What is one trend in college athletics you’d like to see stop?
Ian McCaw, Baylor University: A trend that I would like to see changed is the increasing responsibility placed upon athletics departments, and more specifically compliance offices, to monitor every aspect of NCAA rules. The NCAA rule book, which is 438 pages, has become layered with far too many rules, including many that do not make sense in today’s intercollegiate athletics environment. We need to stop debating whether a bagel represents a meal or a snack, and focus our energies on the core values of higher education. In a recent case involving the University of North Carolina, the NCAA placed an expectation on the institution that it should have monitored social media communication from its staff and student athletes. This standard seems unreasonable in today’s culture and puts all NCAA members at risk. With that, I applaud the efforts of the NCAA Rules Working Group that is focused on deregulation and developing rules that are sensible, enforceable and able to be monitored.
Richard Giannini, University of Southern Mississippi [Editor’s note: Giannini retired at the end of 2011]: It would be extremely helpful to the future of collegiate athletics if all the institutions and conferences in the various divisions of the NCAA look at what’s in the best interest of its division of universities. It seems the majority of the institutions only look out for themselves or their small conference entity and do not care about the whole. The professional organizational model, with the exception of playing for pay, does a much better job in making sure it works for all and is competitively balanced.
ADs would like to see a rules change on “one and dones” in college basketball, when top players such as Kentucky’s Anthony Davis play only one season before going pro.
Photo by:Getty Images
Gene Taylor, North Dakota State University: I would like to see the trend of the one-and-done (or two-and-done) student athlete to stop. I realize this is primarily a men’s basketball issue and somewhat limited when you take into account all of the Division I men’s basketball programs and athletes compared to those that are leaving after one year. I feel the image of this hurts college athletics and has the perception of our programs being a training ground for professionals. Since it is only a few athletes that are done after a year or two, it seems like there would be a solution to this without affecting programs significantly. I think the sense with the general public is we have lost our mission as Division I athletic programs when they see schools lose athletes after only one or two years to pursue professional opportunities.
Peter Fields, Montana State University: The voice of the athletic director is becoming more and more silent, except during crisis situations. The expectation is that athletic directors oversee and manage perhaps the university’s most visible and highly scrutinized department, but whether it is in the NCAA manual, conference realignment, or hiring of a high-profile coach, external forces and pressures limit their role. When programs are running well, the AD voice is seldom heard, but when the bus starts hitting bumps in the road and all hell breaks loose with the media and public,
Peg Bradley-Doppes, University of Denver: The fundamental purpose of collegiate athletics is to provide a unique forum for the intellectual, athletic and personal growth of student athletes. The well-being of these young men and women must always be our foremost priority. To this end, the NCAA and its member institutions have done an admirable job in using GSR (Graduation Success Rates) and APR (Academic Progress Rate) scores to encourage matriculation and academic achievement. Preparing student athletes for life beyond college and transitioning them into roles where they can use what they have learned as they launch their careers seem to be two inseparable objectives. I believe our collective progress in the former area has been significant. While there may not necessarily be a negative trend in the latter goal, I believe there are a growing number of opportunities for us to proactively move student athletes into successful careers after graduation. I hope that the coming years will witness measurable progress in this regard. If we make more concerted efforts to streamline young men and women into appropriate professions conducive to further growth and success, we can fulfill the mission of collegiate athletics in exciting new ways.
■ What is your favorite technology that’s having an impact in collegiate athletics?
McCaw: This is an exciting time for college athletics since technology allows athletic departments to develop and implement new ideas and concepts every day. We have focused most of our technology improvements on fan interaction and engagement, so that they feel like they’re part of the athletic department. Facebook, Twitter, Google+ (we did “hangouts” during NCAA basketball where select fans got to video chat with players and coaches) and Crowd Cameo (fans can send in photos that appear on the video board at games) are all interactive programs that utilize this. We have also developed a Baylor Bold Rewards program that gives prizes and rewards those fans that not only attend games, but those who are active in social media.
Giannini: Social media is completely changing the communications and media strategy of college athletics. A majority of social media is good; however, some of it is extremely harmful. Anonymous posters are not good for anyone. A law should be passed that you have to sign your name. This would stop totally incorrect rumors that run rampant on the social network outlets. Computers, the Internet, iPhones, iPads, Facebook, Twitter and other technology devices are becoming the quickest way of communication. Print media is at a real crossroads, with several outlets starting to reduce the number of days they publish. You better get up to speed with social media or your institution will be left behind.
O’Brien: Video streaming for all of our sports has become extremely beneficial on many different levels. There is no secret some sports receive more attention and publicity than others. However, for those that may not appear as often on the front page, this vehicle has assisted with recruiting and the overall promotion of all of our sports. We want to have a model of a total sports program at Toledo, and that includes doing all we can to ensure the student athletes have a superior overall experience while at Toledo.
Schools say that social media sites such as Facebook have enhanced their ability to communicate with constituents.
Fields: Twitter is good and bad. When used correctly for information, it is a great tool (scores, bits of information, answering questions). When used incorrectly (posting inappropriate information), it is your worst nightmare.
Bradley-Doppes: The advent of social media has enhanced communication in ways few could have imagined a decade ago. Naturally, this budding societal phenomenon has had a significant impact on the world of collegiate athletics. Among the many ways social media has transformed the industry, I believe two results are of critical importance. First, these avenues provide new ways to disseminate the positive message of collegiate sports. Student athletes and coaches can be powerful role models with inspirational stories that can truly have an impact on society. The various platforms of social media provide dynamic and efficient means to communicate these positive messages for the benefit of others. Second, social media has yielded new possibilities to engage fans and various internal and external communities. There are now a number of robust ways to share the excitement of college athletics with people in forums that are entertaining and easily accessible. Additionally, these interactive tools have the capability to actually involve others. This is an extraordinary change from the traditional one-way communication of the past.