The Ever-Expanding Role of College Athletic Directors

When Ross Bjork — athletic director at the University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss — first got into college athletics about two decades ago, things were simple.

“You had marketing plans, ticket prices, a scoreboard, and you opened the gates, and that was about it,” Bjork recalls.

Above: Former University of Missouri-Columbia Athletic Director Mike Alden (left) and UMCP Athletic Director Kevin Anderson (photo courtesy of NACDA)

The primary focus was on internal operations, or, as Bjork puts it, “making sure that the house was in order.” But now, athletic departments have expanded, exacting more from those who head university athletic programs.

Ole Miss Athletic Director Ross Bjork (photo courtesy of Ole Miss)
Ole Miss Athletic Director Ross Bjork (photo courtesy of Ole Miss)

“I don’t necessarily like to use this word, but there’s more money at stake, and so the business side of it has definitely evolved,” Bjork says, rattling off a list of tasks that athletic directors must now handle: “Negotiating contracts, looking at facilities enhancements, keeping up with the coaching salary escalation and trying to pay for it, [and staying] competitive, while at the same time balancing the budget.”

And those things don’t even begin to reflect the changing landscape of rules and regulations regarding student-athletes.

“Twenty years ago, there was no NCAA rule on 20 hours a week,” Bjork says, referring to the limit placed on how much time student-athletes can spend participating in intercollegiate athletics. “You could practice 40 hours a week.”

Now, the 20-hour-per-week rule itself is being rethought.

Welcome to the constantly evolving world of college athletics.

“Intercollegiate athletics changes like the sands of the Sahara Desert,” says Dan Guerrero, athletic director at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). “It is a dynamic and ever-changing enterprise. If you go back five, 10 years, the changes have been dramatic.”

While the core responsibility of an athletic program is to provide resources for coaches and student-athletes to attain their goals, athletic directors are under more pressure to manage buildings and operations, as well as hire the right people to help them execute those duties, according to Guerrero.

UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero talking to a group of fellow athletic directors (photo courtesy of NACDA)
UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero talking to a group of fellow athletic directors (photo courtesy of NACDA)

The demands are such that some universities have tried tapping individuals from outside of college athletics who have some business experience to bring to the position of athletic director.

But that hasn’t always worked.

Two cases that are often cited as being good examples of a bad example are the hires of former Domino’s Pizza executive Dave Brandon and former NBA executive Steve Patterson.

Brandon left his post as athletic director at the University of Michigan after what one sports writer called 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.”

The following year, Patterson resigned from his post as athletic director for the University of Texas after what was described as a “dysfunctional stretch that included the alienation of big-time donors, nickel and diming everyone he possibly could, and strained relationships with coaches.”

However, many athletic directors themselves say there is no magic formula for who will make a good athletic director.

“Sometimes the fit is the right fit,” says Guerrero, who brings to his position both experience as a former executive director of a community development corporation in his native Wilmington, Calif., and as a former athlete at UCLA.

As examples of “good fits” from outside the field, Guerrero cites the University of Notre Dame’s John B. “Jack” Swarbrick Jr., a former law firm partner; Arizona State University’s Ray Anderson, who co-founded a sports law practice and later his own sports agency; and the University of Southern California’s Pat Haden, also an attorney and a former partner and managing director of a private equity firm.

“Those are individuals who have come from the private sector and are managing their programs successfully,” Guerrero says. “Sometimes a person can come from that world and make a very positive difference, and sometimes it just doesn’t work.”

Bob Vecchione, executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA), says that since many jobs are going toward specialization, it’s important for a college athletic director to “be more of a generalist than a specialist” as well as a “good talent evaluator.”

Kevin Anderson, athletic director at the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP), agrees.

“Collegiate athletics encompasses such a diverse array of fields that it is unfeasible for a director of athletics to be an expert across the board,” Anderson says. “With that being said, it is critical to surround yourself with staff [members] who are experts in their specific fields.”

Anderson says it is also important for athletic directors to maintain the “all-important balance of upholding academic expectations while achieving success in the win column.”

While Anderson has helped lead some exciting projects at UMCP — such as a major deal with apparel company Under Armour to provide the university up to $32.9 million in cash and gear over a 10-year period — he takes pride in seeing students succeed at all levels.

“There are few things more exciting than seeing a Maryland student-athlete walk across the stage on graduation day in their cap and gown,” he says.

And sometimes there are symbolic events that straddle the worlds of both academia and athletics.

Guerrero recalls when UCLA renamed its athletic complex after Jackie Robinson, a former UCLA Bruin who is credited with breaking the color barrier in American Major League Baseball and retiring the No. 42 jersey. Robinson’s widow, Rachel Robinson, attended the event.

Guerrero says one of the reasons he chose to attend UCLA is that Robinson went there, and Guerrero’s father always told him that “UCLA was a university for the people.”

Other times, it’s about convincing skeptics about the value proposition that college sports pose for an institution.

Bjork says applications, enrollment, and private giving at Ole Miss are at record highs — in part, he says, because of how sports elevates a university’s profile.

“There’s no way you can quantify it,” Bjork says. “Athletics, if done correctly, is not the most important thing, but the most visible, and utilizing that visibility to highlight the university is a great asset in many ways. We shouldn’t be ashamed of that.”●

Jamaal Abdul-Alim is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.