Top 10 Athletic Directors in College Basketball

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Top 10 Athletic Directors in College Basketball
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Quick, name the new men’s basketball coach at the University of Kentucky.

Not too hard, right? 

In the era of 24-7 sports news, the average fan has heard all about John Calipari’s enormous new contract with the Wildcats by now. In fact, you probably could also tell me about his former job (at Memphis), his salary, and his stubborn decision not to foul Kansas with a three-point lead and three seconds remaining in the 2008 championship game.

(Sorry for the rabbit trail—I tend to hold a grudge when it comes to the shocking devastation of my bracket. But I digress...)

So now that we’ve established the identity of UK’s newest bench boss, humor me for a moment with the second part of this trivia quiz:

Name the man who hired the new men’s basketball coach at the University of Kentucky.

Not so simple, is it?   

In our minds, the coach is the real star. Who cares about his boss? Perhaps because we live in the era of $30 million coaching contracts—and exorbitant buyouts that dwarf the GNP of small countries—many fans pay so much attention to who’s being hired that they know next to nothing about who’s actually doing the hiring. 

I’d be curious what percentage of fans even know the name of the AD at their favorite school—until it’s time to complain about the coach’s win-loss record, that is. 

Take away the glitz and glamour of the coach’s press conference and radio interviews, and the truth remains: In good times and bad, no one (including “insert-your-star-coach-here”) shapes the identity of your favorite school’s basketball program more than the athletic director. 

Which brings me to my project today: compiling a list of the top 10 athletic directors in college basketball. 

Obviously, an AD is responsible for much more than just the hoops program. However, for our purposes, we’ll focus specifically on the hardwood-related aspects of the job. 

That raises the obvious $30 million question: What makes a great athletic director? 

Steering a program clear of NCAA infractions? Hiring the biggest-name coaches? Winning national championships? Building the latest, greatest facilities? Finding the unknown rising star coaching prospect? Selling out arenas?

Raising money? Dominating a league? Involvement in national organizations? Retaining a hot shot coach before he can jump ship?

Or as you’ve probably guessed by now—all of the above. For this article, I tried to put myself in the shoes of a Division I basketball coach. What would I want in a boss? Who would be the perfect athletic director?

Feel free to comment and add your own submissions, but here, in alphabetical order, are my Top 10.

 

Dick Baddour, North Carolina

Baddour has been wearing Tar Heel blue in various forms since 1967, when he began his career at UNC as the assistant dean of men. Tasked with overseeing one of the most dominant programs in college basketball history, Baddour has delivered—and then some. 

The last three coaches he hired were all named National Coach of the Year: Bill Guthridge, Matt Doherty, and Roy Williams. 

Baddour gets special credit for signing Williams away from Kansas shortly after the Jayhawks’ trip to the 2003 national title game. This important hire has been worth at least two national titles for Carolina...and counting.

Baddour has obviously experienced a great deal of success at UNC, and the school recently rewarded him with a three-year extension. Of course, I did find a bit of humor in one of the dazzling lines on his bio: “He negotiated partnerships with Nike to outfit the athletic program.”

I admire what Baddour has done and all, but is that really a career highlight? Michael Jordan WENT to North Carolina, for crying out loud! Pardon me if getting the Jordan logo on the current UNC uniforms doesn’t exactly strike me as “deal-of-the-century” material.

 

Morgan Burke, Purdue

One of several administrators on my list that is currently employed at their alma mater, Burke has led the Boilermakers’ athletic programs since 1992. 

Purdue boasts more Big Ten men’s basketball championships than any other school (21 so far), including a three-peat under Burke’s direction in 1994, 1995, and 1996. Burke is also credited with popularizing the “succession plan” nationally after using it to hire the school’s latest basketball and football coaches. 

Most notably, Burke lured away former guard Matt Painter after only one year as the Southern Illinois head coach to serve as coach-in-waiting during Gene Keady’s final season in West Lafayette. 

Painter’s early arrival to Purdue allowed him to get a jump start on the recruiting trail, and Burke’s creative and unorthodox hiring process paved the way for Painter to sign a star-studded class that included eventual All-Big Ten performers Robbie Hummel, JaJuan Johnson, and E’Twaun Moore.

As a Boilermaker alum, Burke seems to recognize the importance of keeping Purdue-grown talent close to home. In addition to snagging Painter after his 25-5 debut at SIU, Burke brought back another former player, Sharon Versyp, to head up the women’s program. 

Versyp had just completed her first year at rival Indiana when her alma mater called, and the results have been spectacular. Versyp has delivered back-to-back Big Ten Tournament championships and a pair of Elite Eight trips in her first three seasons under Burke.

 

Jeremy Foley, Florida

Foley has experienced more than his share of success at the helm of Gator Nation, especially in the past few years. It’s hard to argue with two NCAA titles for Billy Donovan and two BCS crowns for Urban Meyer, both of whom were hired by the Gators' current AD. 

Throw in Donovan’s trip to the 2000 championship game and Steve Spurrier’s title in 1996, and Foley has done as well as any athletic director in the country with the two big-money sports.

If it seems like Foley’s been a Gator forever, that’s not really too far off: He started out as a ticket office employee way back in 1976. 

The 11-year contract extension Foley signed in 2007 made him the highest paid public-university athletic director in the country, but according to university president Bernie Machen, that was a small price to pay. “Simply put, Jeremy’s contract is what you would expect for the best athletic director in the nation,” Machen said after signing the deal. 

Big bucks. Big wins. Big hires.

Any list of successful athletic directors would be woefully incomplete without Jeremy Foley.

 

Daniel Guerrero, UCLA

If you think running an athletics program at a major university is difficult, try it at the greatest school in college hoops history sometime. That’s the job description facing UCLA athletic director Daniel Guerrero—and he’s holding up his end of the bargain quite nicely, thank you very much.

Guerrero, a former baseball player for the Bruins, took over at UCLA in 2002 and hired Ben Howland as his new basketball coach soon after. Howland rewarded Guerrero’s decision with not one, not two, but THREE consecutive Final Four trips, a rarity in today’s era of parity (pardon the corny rhyme).

Howland simultaneously led his squad to three straight Pac-10 titles, the first UCLA coach to accomplish that since some guy named Wooden patrolled the sidelines.

One of the hardest things for an athletic director to do is hire a truly exceptional coach away from another school, and Guerrero was able to pull it off: Howland had taken Pitt to the Sweet 16 two years in a row when the Bruins came calling.

Under Guerrero’s competent leadership, UCLA seems sure to continue to add to its trophy case, and not just in basketball. 

The Bruins have won over 100 team national titles in a variety of sports, and no, it only SEEMS like those all belong to Mr. Wooden.

 

Mark Hollis, Michigan State

Unlike most of the others, Hollis didn’t make my list for his skill in hiring coaches; in fact, he’s only been at his current post for a couple of years. However, the MSU graduate had 12 years of experience in the Spartan athletic offices before he became athletic director, and his creativity has had a remarkable impact on Michigan State sports.

Hollis is credited with helping brainstorm the “Basketbowl,” an event that pitted the MSU hoops team against Kentucky in the middle of a football stadium. One world-record crowd later (78,129 if you’re scoring at home), and Hollis’s reputation as an outside-the-box thinker was cemented.

It’s safe to say the idea caught on: The NCAA used the same configuration at Ford Field for the basketball Final Four this spring.

Believe it or not, that isn’t the only world-record crowd to Hollis’s credit. He also moved a Spartan hockey game against Michigan to the school’s football stadium and merely drew over 74,000 fans for a college hockey game.

Hollis’s resourcefulness figures to be tested in the future years as a variety of schools (and NBA teams) pursue the services of ultra-successful hoops coach Tom Izzo. Hollis is on the record as saying, “Nobody’s going to touch [Izzo]. He’s a Spartan. He’ll always be a Spartan. We’ll make sure of that.” 

Hollis should know: Although he didn’t actually hire Izzo, the two go way, way back: they actually roomed together in the mid-'80s. In this case, the AD’s effectiveness will be measured not by who he hires next, but if he can keep the star he has now. 

And according to an article by SI.com’s Andy Staples, Hollis has a top-secret plan: “Being his old roommate, I’ve got a few pictures of him,” Hollis confessed in the article. “He’s not going anywhere.”

 

Tom Jurich, Louisville

How can I explain the amazing job Tom Jurich has done as the Louisville athletic director? Let’s try this: Jurich signed a mind-blowing 13-year extension—after being on the job a grand total of 15 months! 

As you might expect, Jurich’s crowning hoops achievement is signing up former Kentucky boss Rick Pitino to roam the Cardinals’ sideline. What better way to improve your program and tick off your in-state rival at the same time? 

Pitino is a threat to make the Final Four every season, and Jurich’s sensational hire has quickly returned Louisville to elite status nationally. 

In his spare time, Jurich managed to help the Cards upgrade leagues (from C-USA to the Big East), plan a new downtown arena (scheduled to open in 2010), and sign yet another insanely long extension (the school has locked Jurich up through at least 2023).   

Let’s not forget the women’s basketball side of things as well. You may have noticed the Cardinal ladies (led by recent hire Jeff Walz) in the national title game against Connecticut this month: not bad for only Walz’s second season with the program.

The athletic director also did his part to raise the awareness for women’s basketball by moving games to Freedom Hall, and attendance has spiked sharply over the past few years as a result.

How can I explain the amazing job Tom Jurich has done as the Louisville athletic director? I’ll try one more time: the Lexington Herald-Leader referred to the day Jurich was hired (Oct. 21, 1997), as “the most significant day in the recent history of college sports in Kentucky.”

So much for anonymous athletic directors.

 

Tom O’Connor, George Mason

A list like this one wouldn’t be complete without some mid-major representation, and what better place to look than 2006 tournament darling George Mason? Athletic director Tom O’Connor is a hoops lifer, starting out as a college basketball head coach at the ripe old age of 25 (Dartmouth)!

O’Connor has been at Mason since 1994, and as everyone knows, his school's hoops team shocked the world and advanced to the 2006 Final Four.

That’s not O’Connor’s only Final Four experience, though. He’s also a member of the NCAA tournament selection committee and chaired that group during the 2007-'08 season.

O’Connor’s hoops knowledge must have rubbed off on the other members at seeding time: His committee saw all four No. 1 seeds advance to the Final Four for the first time ever.

O’Connor ‘s involvement with the NCAA isn’t limited to his own school or the selection process; the George Mason AD did a recent interview with USA Today to help explain the administration details that go into a school’s Final Four trips. 

O’Connor’s behind-the-scenes information could be invaluable to future generations of university staff, especially when it comes to the sport’s biggest stage. As he said in the USA Today article, “The Final Four is the epitome of athletic administration.” 

And Tom O’Connor is the epitome of an athletic administrator.

 

Lew Perkins, Kansas

Before moving to Kansas, athletic director Lew Perkins built a successful résumé at several institutions, including Wichita State, Maryland, and Connecticut. He is known for both NCAA compliance and NCAA championships, a perfect blend for any AD. When Perkins took over at Wichita State, the program had recently been on NCAA probation; two years later, the NCAA cited WSU’s athletics as “an exemplary program.” 

During Perkins’ time at Connecticut, the women’s basketball team produced national titles in 1995, 2000, 2002, and 2003. He also was a key figure in the Huskies’ transition to Division I-A (now FBS) football.

When Perkins came to Kansas, new coach Bill Self had just been hired, and the Jayhawks’ tradition of national success has since continued under the two men, resulting in a 2008 championship victory over Memphis (if only Calipari had foule...oh, never mind.)  

Perkins didn’t get much time to celebrate, however: While the confetti was still coming down, Oklahoma State and deep-pocketed booster T. Boone Pickens were licking their chops at the possibility of bringing Bill Self from one Big 12 town to another...namely, Stillwater, Oklahoma. 

Faced with losing his championship-winning coach before the crystal trophy even made it back to Lawrence, Perkins acted quickly, and the school announced a new contract for Self days after the final buzzer.

The athletic director’s willingness to replace an extension that was less than a year old with a newer, better contract has positioned KU for continued success in March (evidenced by the Jayhawks’ Sweet 16 trip with this year’s “rebuilding” squad).

 

Mike Roth, Gonzaga

There are a couple hundred schools in Division I basketball that want to replicate exactly what Gonzaga has accomplished over the past decade—and it’s all happened under the watchful eye of Mike Roth. 

Roth, a former assistant coach himself, became the Bulldogs’ athletic director in 1998 and has seen his school’s national profile grow exponentially with each consecutive trip to the Big Dance. 

The Cinderella Zags that sports fans remember took March Madness by storm with an Elite Eight appearance in 1999, but the small school from Spokane was no one-and-done fluke. Instead, the Bulldogs have continued to cement their place as one of the few mid-majors (along with Xavier, perhaps) who can be found perennially in the hoops Top 25. 

To be honest, I had never heard Mike Roth’s name before writing this article, but who knows where Gonzaga hoops (or Gonzaga University as a whole) would be without him? When Dan Monson left for big money at Minnesota, Roth hired Mark Few as the next head coach. I would say that move’s worked out pretty well for everyone involved.

In addition to the string of NCAA appearances, the Bulldogs have also opened a new 6,000-seat arena, signed a deal with international marketing firm IMG, and become a fixture on national television under Roth’s leadership. 

For the Zags to continue to be a national power, it will be important for Roth to keep Few around despite the annual “Mark Few Sweepstakes” he jokes about each spring. 

So far, Few has turned down every bigger school’s head-coaching offer; the longer the athletic director can continue that string, the better chance Roth and Gonzaga have of continuing the other string (showing up somewhere on your bracket in mid-March each year).

 

Ron Wellman, Wake Forest

Last, but not least, our list concludes with Ron Wellman, better known as the reigning Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal “College Athletic Director of the Year.” (Be honest—you didn’t even know that award existed, did you?)

Wellman has worked his magic at the tiny ACC school (only 4,500 undergraduate students) since way back in 1992. Without question, his most difficult assignment came in the summer of 2007, when men’s basketball coach Skip Prosser passed away suddenly.

Wellman’s unifying leadership ushered his school's athletics program through the devastating tragedy, and the assistant he hired to replace Prosser (Dino Gaudio) eventually led the Deacons to a midseason No. 1 ranking this past winter.

The pressure of hiring your university’s next basketball coach must be overwhelming. The pressure of replacing a successful coach who passed away suddenly has to be even harder, due to the emotional ramifications. 

Wellman’s graceful handling of an extremely sad situation makes him a worthy recipient of the Athletic Director of the Year award, and a fitting conclusion to my list of the Top 10 Athletic Directors in College Basketball.

 

Disagree with some of my picks? Have your own names to nominate? I’d like to hear about them: Leave me a comment and explain why your school’s athletic director is one of the greatest in college basketball. 

Only one condition: You have to know their name.

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