Another year, another high-profile athletic director lacking a strong college athletics background ousted.
Last October, Michigan cut ties with Dave Brandon after a tumultuous three and a half years that included an unsuccessful coaching hire (Brady Hoke) and a series of unpopular decisions involving fans, increased ticket prices and scheduling.
Tuesday, Texas accepted Steve Patterson’s resignation after just two years, an even more dysfunctional stretch that included the alienation of big-time donors, nickel-and-diming everyone he possibly could and strained relationships with coaches.
Perhaps school presidents should think twice about hiring athletic directors with non-traditional college athletic backgrounds. In conversations Tuesday with multiple college athletic directors and athletic officials, that thought came up quickly. And school presidents certainly should make sure their hires, regardless of background, understand the unique nature of the college athletic business.
College athletics has become more and more about the money in recent years, but it’s not ALL about the money. It never will be when the customer base is motivated by deep feelings and longtime allegiances that are based on ideas and tradition that do not fit on a balance sheet.
Brandon’s background was in the business of pizza, spending more than a decade as the CEO of Domino’s. Patterson’s was in the business of professional sports, most notably as the president of the Portland Trail Blazers before a short stint as the athletic director at Arizona State prior to being hired at Texas.
Neither Brandon or Patterson understood — or adapted to — the unique challenges of running a college athletic program. In a corporate setting, you only have to answer to your board and shareholders, who are happy as long as there are profits. In a pro sports setting, you only have to answer to your owner(s), and if you’re making money, you’re generally fine.
Big-time college athletics is a different beast; it’s a balancing act. You must make good hires in your revenue-driving sports to be successful, appease fans and fill seats. You must keep multiple constituencies happy — most notably, the biggest donors and the head coaches. You’ve got to be able to look people in the eye when you talk to them to build relationships and a sense of loyalty.
You need to understand the environment to do the job effectively.
Some of the most successful athletic directors in the nation — Michigan State’s Mark Hollis, Arizona’s Greg Byrne, Louisville’s Tom Jurich, for example — have spent their entire careers working in college athletic administration.
They understand how an athletic department operates. They value tradition. They have strong relationships with the media, so they can get their messages to the public clearly and quickly. They know how to navigate tricky situations and potential potholes. They don’t arrive at a school and completely overhaul everything with an eye on the profit margin only.
Now these two bottom-line bosses are costing their former employers millions of dollars in buyouts/settlements — not to mention the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on search firms to hire them in the first place.
Now, after two of the most successful athletic departments in the nation failed so spectacularly, it would be wise for those making hires to avoid this blueprint, if possible.
Just my two cents. Patterson would probably charge me a buck for it.