March 4, 2011

College Athletics and Administrative Transition

It was a tough week for two of my favorite Athletic Directors; they each lost their jobs. What makes it so disheartening for me is that these two people got fired because of university administration politics, not for running poor athletic departments.

I have spent a long time being closely involved with collegiate athletics. From being a PSA to writing this article, it is now over 25 years. As a grown up (as opposed to the fun days of my college years - by the way, remember how stressed we would get at stuff when we were in college when it was nothing important compared to what we face as adults?), I have worked in more athletic departments, for more athletic directors, than I care to mention. Maybe I have just had bad luck in working for athletic directors who were egotistical and viewed all matters as how it affected their security and earning status, but after visiting with a number of my fellow coaches, I am afraid this is more the norm than the exception.

This article was prompted by a late night call from a good athletic director friend, who was fired after 24 years at the school. After hearing the emotion in his voice and the hurt he was trying to manage, I felt sick to my stomach. His call came immediately after having my All Time Favorite Athletic Director get sacked earlier in the week. These are two individuals for which any Volleyball coach would love to work for, any student-athlete would love to play for and any parent would be relieved to have running the athletic department. What I found refreshing and inspiring about these two athletic directors is they had great balance and leadership. They did not sell the athletic department soul to football/basketball, but provided equitable support to each sport. If you were a coach or student-athlete and made a mistake, they gave you a direction and a second chance to do better. They did not say that the budgets were being cut and no raises, only to provide these improvements to other sports surreptitiously.

Both individuals were terminated because of political conflicts with university administration. New presidents wants their own athletic director who will mimic the new president's philosophy about athletics. If you have a president who does not really support athletics (there is a huge difference between what a president says in public and what they allocate in their office) and as an athletic director, you are pushing to win championships, then you are in a precarious position. Many university administrators, especially those who are privy to the university budgets, see athletics as nothing more than a waste of precious resources. Each of these great athletic directors paid the price because a university administrator who moved into a position of power over athletics exacted revenge upon those very individuals who had been fighting for years to improve the funding of the athletic department (when AD's have to fight for support and resources, they will easily make enemies of high level administrators).

These two great athletic directors losing their jobs, combined with athletic directors who have lied to my face about support and departmental resources to secure their own raises and bonuses, has exposed the hypocrisy of what all too many universities and athletic departments try to sell; the 'family' mantra of athletics. Schools and the athletic department really want people on the inside and outside to believe that they are one big supportive family, and being a part of College Nation is something special. The propaganda which is put out there by presidents and athletic directors, and ultimately parroted by coaches, always reinforces this illusion. I have learned through unfortunate personal experience and by my friendships, that those individuals who are in elite positions of power will destroy careers and emotionally crush families to gain nothing more than a raise or slightly better job security.

Presidents will eliminate Athletic Directors who do not dance to the tune; Athletic Directors will eliminate Senior Women's Administrators (SWA's) who dare cause turbulence in the department; Athletic Department Administrators will terminate any coach who is high maintenance. The trickle down effect is just to promote the security and thus financial gain of those above.

I understand this is the way of life in business and collegiate athletics is a multi million dollar business for even the smallest of athletic departments and universities. But, IBM is not talking about family values, Ford Motor Company is not shouting about Ford Nation and the lifelong pride of association. I guess the hypocrisy of athletics, when I see great people (coaches and administrators) having their life turned up side down by school politics, has gotten to me.

Other than venting, I am also trying to communicate the potential for turmoil to reach all the way down to the student athletes. In the hierarchy of collegiate athletics, the student-athlete is at the bottom. I have written before about the One and Done trend with College Volleyball players, but I believe this is more to do with the competitive ego of college coaches than university politics. What I am expressing now is my concern that the trickle down effect of job security and financial gain will eventually end with the players.

If a coach feels they are under pressure, then they will relieve this pressure via those under them (assistant coaches and athletes), just like those administrators act above them. Players and budget are the only two things coaches have control over, and each influences each other. If a coach is feeling the weight of administrative scrutiny, they will not be supportive of second chances for athlete's mistakes, they will not take time to develop talent if they can recruit it quicker and they will not allow anything to exist which can potentially reflect negatively upon them.

As for the budget, a coach will not expend all of it and can look good by returning funds to the general accounts at the end of the fiscal year. This affects Volleyball players because it translates into taking vans instead of buses, eating fast food instead of healthy food, staying at a Super 8 instead of a Courtyard and getting one set of shoes instead of two.

I don't have a solution for this trend affecting Volleyball players, and it is a trend I am starting to see in a number of fellow head coaches; save your job by not doing anything to bring negative attention to the program even if that means the players have to suffer. I believe this current climate will result in more scholarships actually being one year scholarships (as they technically are under NCAA rules), a larger number of transfers than we have ever seen before, and student-athletes being negatively impacted because of the selfish egos of those very people who are supposed to be admired leaders of higher education.

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