What Makes a College Athletic Director Successful?

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What Makes a College Athletic Director Successful?
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Florida AD Jeremy Foley

The high-pressure stakes associated with being an athletic director at the major college level have grown over the last few years thanks to skyrocketing revenues, conference realignment and the "win now" mentality prevalent across the country.

So what makes a successful college athletic director? From a football perspective, it's all about winning. It's more than that, though. If we've learned anything from the events that have transpired over the last decade, it's that college football is big business. A healthy bottom line is job No. 1.

In most cases, the two foundations of success are intertwined, with the path being anything but uniform.

 

Accurate Sense of Self

Not all jobs are created equal. The athletic director role at juggernauts like Alabama, Notre Dame and Ohio State differs from that at Boise State, SMU and Rutgers.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Different contracts, sponsored sports and media rights deals create varying concerns, challenges and headaches at any potential spot.

If you don't know yourself, it's almost impossible to make reasonable decisions. In this day and age of conference expansion, you don't want to make the wrong one.

Once you have an accurate view of who you are, what you are and where you are, you can figure out where you're going.

 

Accurate Sense of the Landscape

Division I athletics is a constantly evolving business, and that evolution has only accelerated since the SEC signed what was then a landmark $2.25 billion media rights deal with ESPN and $825 million deal with CBS that went into effect in 2009.

That got outdated in a hurry, with deals in the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 exceeding that figure. The media rights gold rush accelerated realignment to a point where teams jumped from Bowl Championship Series (BCS) Automatic Qualifier (AQ) conferences to other BCS AQ conferences, while other programs banged down the door at conferences with openings so they could get a piece of what rapidly became a large pie.

One problem, though: As stated above, all jobs aren't created equal. Neither are conferences.

TCU planned to join the Big East (soon-to-be American Athletic Conference) before a spot in the Big 12 opened up.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Boise State was once bound for the Big East / American Athletic Conference in football

The Big East will essentially lose its AQ status in the new four-team playoff format that has six existing bowl games tied to its rotation.

In a two-year span Boise State jumped from the WAC to the Mountain West to the Big East in football. When all the realignment dust settled, the Broncos decided to stay in the Mountain West Conference.

The new American Athletic Conference will have a distinct Conference USA flavor, where those programs will likely generate more revenue than they have in the past but still won't have that automatic-qualifier designation.

To be a successful athletic director, you can't think three steps ahead; you have to think seven or eight.

 

Coaches and Recruiting Budget

Hiring the right coach is one thing, but giving him the resources to compete at the highest level is something totally different. That means an appropriate recruiting budget, appropriate budget for assistant coaches' salaries and the freedom to run the football program as he/she sees fit in order to compete for conference and/or national titles.

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema

That varies from school to school.

Take Wisconsin, for example. Bret Bielema made no bones about the fact that the increased budget for assistant coaches at Arkansas was a big reason he chose to make the jump from Madison to Fayetteville this offseason, according to WholeHogSports.com.

"It's nearly two-and-a-half times in some areas," Bielema said. "I've lost a lot of coaches the last couple of years. It was an opportunity for me to have some resources to hire assistant coaches and keep them to build something that has never been done here."

The Big Ten is a major college football conference, but Wisconsin didn't do enough to allow Bielema to hire and maintain a nationally competitive coaching staff. It's no wonder that it got picked clean by Arkansas this winter.

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Alabama DC Kirby Smart makes $950,000 per year

It goes beyond the coaches' budget, though. Assistant coaches are typically the primary day-to-day contacts for high school prospects. A good AD also has to provide the appropriate recruiting budget for its coaches to go find the proper talent.

In 2011 six of the eight public Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams that had recruiting budgets over $600,000 were SEC schools, according to ESPN.com. Those six schools? Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. Combined, those programs have six of the last seven BCS National Championships and 11 division titles over the last seven seasons.

You have to spend money to find the talent, and the elite college football programs do just that.

 

Scheduling

Out-of-conference scheduling is tricky, because oftentimes schools sign contracts for games five or more years into the future. It's incredibly difficult to ensure that the game makes sense from a competitive standpoint that far into the future, but the ebbs and flows of conference power typically is a bit slower.

The SEC gets criticized for scheduling cupcakes, but if you're an SEC athletic director, why wouldn't you? Perception is reality in the SEC, and one tough out-of-conference game is adequate given the treacherous nature of the conference schedule.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Florida beat Florida State 37-26 in 2012

In the ACC, however, things are different.

Florida State has its annual non-conference rivalry with Florida, and in 2014 it will play Oklahoma State in the Cowboys Classic and be part of Notre Dame's ACC rotation. That's the kind of out-of-conference schedule that an ACC team needs. Put an 12-1 or 13-0 resume with that schedule up against teams from other conferences, and you get the benefit of the doubt regardless of conference affiliation.

 

Facilities

They may seem extravagant, but top-notch athletic facilities are important in building a quality on-the-field product and an integral part of the recruiting process.

Most people go to college in order to get the job they want as a professional. For football players—yes, even the second- and third-stringers—playing at the next level is a primary goal. Getting the best training at facilities comparable to those that exist at the NFL level is important.

From workout rooms to practice facilities to sports medicine departments to film rooms, getting better isn't just about practice; it's about preparation.

Virtual Tour of Tennessee's new football facility

So yes, Alabama's $9 million weight room and Tennessee's 145,000 sq. ft. Anderson Training Center make a difference. A big difference.

Players want to work in top-notch facilities because, ideally, that's what they'll do during their professional careers.

 

Uniforms

Creative uniform combinations have become all the rage during recent years, but the impact of those uniforms are hit or miss depending on the player.

"The kids like it," Boise State head coach Chris Petersen told Rivals.com in 2011. "When we get them here on visits and we show them the different looks we have they're very intrigued by it. Some are more into it than others but I think it has an effect and it all matters."

Rob Carr/Getty Images

Some programs—like Maryland—take the creative uniforms to an extreme. But it creates an identity for the program, and that's what's important.

Will Alabama, Penn State or Auburn get creative with its uniforms at some point? They may, but they don't really have to. Tradition-rich programs with iconic uniforms don't really need to establish an identity because the program is the identity.

The important thing for athletic directors to do is affiliate with an apparel company that shares the same vision for the program. Under Armour and Nike both have proven that that they have the ability to get creative with programs like Maryland and Oregon, respectively, but also can stay traditional with other partners like Auburn and Alabama.

 

Student Body Involvement

Keeping the attention of the students is sometimes tricky and oftentimes requires creative methods from the athletic department.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Arizona State had a "blackout" vs. Missouri in 2011

Time-tested methods like "blackouts," "whiteouts," pregame tailgate activities and other initiatives designed to promote school spirit have become commonplace. Arizona State set student attendance records in back-to-back weeks using those methods, according to the Tempe (Ariz.) State Press.

Those methods are fairly cheap, but certainly effective.

Winning always helps more than anything else, but sometimes there's more to it.

Georgia had a hard time selling its allotment of student tickets over the last few years and created a "Young Alumni Program" with 2,000 of its student ticket allotment.

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According to the Athens (Ga.) Banner-Herald, recent Georgia graduates—many still establishing themselves in the professional world—can pay $40 per ticket and avoid meeting a minimum donation threshold in the first year. In the second year graduates can donate at a reduced amount and then have access to the seats for up to five years after graduation.

The hope is that the 2,000 young alumni seats will increase attendance in the student section. Of the 17,910 available student tickets, an average of 11,802 tickets were scanned per game since 2009.

 

The definition of a good athletic director changes from school to school and conference to conference. Properly addressing each of the above points appropriately will help a program thrive. It's not about wins and losses; it's about properly positioning the athletic department for long-term success.

That's no easy task.

 

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