The New Athletics Director

Greg Santore discusses the changing role of the sports CEO and what colleges should be looking for when they hire for the important job.

July 12, 2013

Since Robert M. Hutchins pulled the plug on football at the University of Chicago in 1939, the role of athletics within higher education has been hotly and endlessly contested. When the legitimacy of athletes’ grades are questioned at the University of North Carolina, or when an Ohio State football player tweets that he’s not on campus to “play school,” these are only the latest triggers in a century-old debate.

What has changed, of course, is that the contentiousness of the quarrel has escalated with the dollars in recent years. Smaller, cash-strapped schools must justify the expense and educational relevance of each activity -- should we fly the lacrosse team across two time zones for a weekend tourney? At major Division I universities football (with an assist from men’s basketball) is generating unprecedented revenue and supporting entire teams and club sports through ticket sales, merchandising and, increasingly, creative TV contracts.

Athletics directors today are central figures in the debate. They wield more influence and receive more scrutiny and criticism than ever before. The rigors of their work have ballooned, while their departments have become complex matrices of skilled professionals doing specialized work. They are in essence sports CEOs -- still beholden to the proprieties and standards of the academy but with responsibilities and pressures that would overwhelm most of us.  

Justify expenses and the value of what you do? For a CEO, no problem -- it’s part of the daily routine.

Nontraditional Candidates

Some universities have gone so far as to hire corporate CEOs and executives to head up their athletics departments. Dave Brandon, former big cheese at Domino’s Pizza, is the most notable example and has been largely praised for revitalizing the University of Michigan’s sports programs and keeping coffers full to overflowing. His budget for the upcoming fiscal year is just shy of $140 million. Steve Patterson spent nearly 25 years as a top executive in the NFL, NBA and elsewhere; he now oversees athletics at Arizona State University, and has had success there.

At the University of Southern California, Pat Haden was a former star quarterback but spent more than a decade as a practicing lawyer before taking the AD job. Though Haden is an alum, he, like Brandon and Patterson, is still a “nontraditional” hire and stands in contrast to the days when universities almost always promoted ADs from within, usually from their own coaching ranks (think Michigan’s Bo Schembechler or, more recently, Wisconsin’s Barry Alvarez), or recruited athletics directors from other schools.

Skills and Self-Awareness

Wherever they cut their teeth, ADs need to be different today. Few need to be ex-execs, as Alvarez and other successful leaders from traditional channels amply prove. But more than ever they need to have some of the skills of a CEO, combined with the extreme tact and diplomacy demanded within the academy. What qualities do they need?

  • A bottom-line mentality: This might seem callous within the context of higher learning, but even college presidents today are being asked to be more fiscally conscious and financially astute.
  • An entrepreneurial spirit: Correlative to the above, ADs are asked to be visionary in rethinking old practices and generating new revenue streams.
  • A mission-driven approach: Cynicism aside, the new AD has to understand the department’s own mission, which usually trumpets ethics, integrity, and compliance; and be passionate about student-athletes’ experience and welfare. He or she must also take to heart a school’s core values and educational objectives. Given the transparency that goes along with modern media and communications, every move an AD makes is viewed through the institutional lens. Increasingly, ADs and their presidents make decisions in tandem for the good of the school.
  • Coachability: Corporate executives are used to being mentored by peers or advised by consultants. One might think that sports leaders would similarly appreciate the value of coaching but, in some cases, athletics directors have not warmly embraced mentoring and pragmatic career development and, as is even more common, have not been offered the opportunity. This needs to change as the responsibilities of the position require truly enlightened individuals who seek and accept counsel from others.
  • Self-awareness: Like great CEOs, ADs need to understand their weaknesses and skills gaps. They can then strive to overcome them or, failing that, surround themselves with others whose strengths compensate for their own inexperience in certain areas. Part of being self-aware is a willingness to take part in modern assessment activities -- these tools and methodologies can reveal how an individual will perform when confronted with specific leadership challenges or suggest a lack of “cultural fit” that may inhibit success as an AD within a given institution.

Vet, Don't Regret

In leadership searches within the academic side of higher education, we use a process characterized by progressive interviewing techniques and candidate assessment methodologies. University stakeholders demand fairness and rigor more than ever. Therefore, as AD search committees are faced with the prospect of finding a sports CEO who can be a winner while also being all things to all people, they, too, need to go beyond what they’ve done before:

  • Exhibit patience. Alums and major donors often want someone in place to make sure the fundraising and student-athlete recruiting trains keeps chugging along, but the fact of the matter is that the risk of selecting the wrong AD candidate in haste far outweighs the benefits. Colleges can take a cue from corporate management experts, who know full well the damage and expense of making a poor hire.
  • Get to know candidates better. This is tricky since it’s sometimes hard to convince high-profile candidates to subject themselves to campus interviews and public meetings. Most top AD prospects are concerned that their current institutions and fan bases will discover they would dare look elsewhere. Nevertheless, away from the public eye and often online, candidates can still be subjected to rigorous evaluation and assessment processes that delve into personality, behavior, leadership skills and, importantly, whether a potential AD is a good cultural fit. Interviews can be conducted in stealth mode and be more “deep dive” affairs in which candidates are asked to explain at length major career decisions and potential red flags from their pasts.
  • Think outside the candidate box. Nontraditional candidates are increasingly viable as options for athletics director positions. They need not be captains of industry. Nonprofit associations and sports foundations are also good breeding grounds for leaders who can handle vast responsibilities with diplomacy and dexterity. At minimum, search committees can always learn something by meeting varied candidates.
  • Develop leaders. Academe is not highly focused on career development and succession planning since it has not traditionally been a hierarchical, ladder-climbing environment. Yet for today’s more expansive athletics departments, it makes sense to help up-and-comers plot their next career moves. “High-potentials” can be put in positions to grow and charged with initiatives that challenge them. Ideally, an assistant AD can be groomed to eventually take over the department’s top spot. Assistants usually have great passion for student athletics and their universities, which are critical factors for AD success.

It’s a common lament that college athletics have become big business, and the school/sports debate will continue ad infinitum. The new AD doesn’t have to win the debate, only appreciate its nuances and acknowledge the skeptics.

ADs are different today -- they are fundamentally sports CEOs. As such, search committees can adopt new and different approaches to hiring them.


Greg Santore heads the Sports Leadership practice at the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer.


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