Decision 2013

Rick Sarro Thursday, August 1, 2013 0
Decision 2013

Sounds like a national news media hype slogan for another make-or-break campaign or election coverage.  Hyperbole or not, Decision 2013 is what’s facing McNeese State University and the selection of its next athletic director.

It will be the most important personnel decision university president Dr. Phillip Williams will have made since he took over the reins back in 2010.  There’s no experienced assistant A.D. waiting in the wings at the Jack Doland Fieldhouse — one who already knows the key figures, the politics, the challenges and history. The next athletic director will come from outside the confines of McNeese, and the job will draw vast interest and candidates from across the country.

The athletic director search committee and Dr. Williams can’t afford to get it wrong.

When former A.D. Tommy McClelland accepted the same position at Louisiana Tech back on July 16, it left an important corner office open with the fall school semester about to commence and a football season just five weeks away.

The timing and decision of McClelland’s departure was like a quick left jab. But the powers in charge couldn’t have been totally shocked. It was known in certain circles that McClelland had interest in the U.L.-Monroe athletic director’s position and he let it be known he was on the market. The detour to Ruston came into play on June 27 after athletic director Bruce Van De Velde abruptly resigned and, according to McClelland, Louisiana Tech came calling.

The Louisiana Tech search, interview and offer came together at a breakneck pace (two weeks to be exact) and had McClelland donning a red and blue Bulldog cap before the ink was dry on McNeese’s various 2013 media guides containing his updated bio.

You can’t blame Tommy Mac for pursuing and accepting the Tech job. It’s a great career move to an improving FBS school and the state’s second largest public university, behind you know who. It exposes him to the workings of a bigger conference with national bowl implications. And then there’s the salary issue: it’s safe to say it’s nearly triple what McClelland was pulling down at McNeese.

He paid some dues as an assistant A.D. at McNeese, and then interim athletic director for a few years, before being named to the position full-time in March, 2008. During those five years, he was tireless in improving McNeese’s football and basketball scheduling against larger FBS teams, and guided numerous facility improvements in baseball, softball and soccer.

McClelland also played a role in the hiring of basketball coaches Dave Simmons and Brooks Donald Williams, along with two baseball coaches in Terry Burrows and recently hired head coach Justin Hill.

He pushed the right buttons on coaching hires, and to his credit, displayed patience and confidence in both Williams and Simmons during some difficult patches. It takes a bit of fortitude and instinct to stay the course with coaches you believe in as opposed to adopting the win-now-or-you’re gone philosophy.

Those major field house and football stadium improvements were already well underway during McClelland’s tenure, with private fundraising efforts and massive underwriting by local businessman Robert Noland, who funded the new turf at Cowboy Stadium.

McClelland was able to increase fundraising for the athletic department amid constant cutbacks in state money that will no doubt continue in some form or fashion. While accepting the Louisiana Tech job, he expressed immense pride in the conference championships won while he was A.D., and the marked improvements in various programs’ academic performance ratings (APR).

There are a number of things McClelland can hang his Cowboys hat on when it comes to his legacy as athletic director: a legacy I didn’t think would end as well as it has. It was well documented in this column and on TV shows that I wasn’t a supporter of McClelland as A.D. in 2008.  I thought his age, interpersonal skills and lack of direct job experience meant that he wasn’t yet suited for the job at the time.

McClelland proved me wrong in some respects. He obviously worked on his weaknesses, built on his strengths and bridged some political gaps to keep the athletic department in the black and in the race against some of the larger, better-funded Texas-based Southland Conference schools.

I recall that after his appointment, then university president Dr. Robert Hebert told me “we would be lucky to keep McClelland for five years” before he was lured away by a larger program. I didn’t think Hebert was that good of a prognosticator.

I give credit where credit is due.

The job of the search committee and Williams in finding a successor, and the importance of the hire, can’t be overstated.  They don’t need to jump in with both feet and rush the process. Associate A.D. and compliance coordinator Bridget Martin is quite capable of manning the fort in the interim while chairing the search committee.

The committee’s search must locate, identify and lure the right mix of experience, character, leadership, business acumen, keen understanding of athletics, regional and national contacts, fundraising skills and skills at media and public relations — all packaged in one man or woman.

Athletic directors and their role in governing and policymaking has garnered national attention in recent months with the troubles and controversies at much larger schools, such as Rutgers, Penn State, Miami, Oregon and USC. Dealing with the ever-changing NCAA on any level will test the strong-willed. Couple that with conference realignments, shrinking budgets, Title 9, TV contracts, the growing pressure to pay student athletes (an FBS issue) and keeping your players off of police blotters and out of jail.

You tell me how important the A.D. job is to any program of any size.

McNeese athletics are at a critical juncture. Despite being in one of the more industrialized regions with one of the strongest rates of economic growth McNeese ranks No. 7 among the current 8 football-playing schools in terms of athletic revenues. That shortfall can be traced to the fact that McNeese receives the lowest percentage of its athletic budget from student fees of any school in the Southland Conference.

And speaking of the SLC, it too has had to deal with the turmoil of recent defections (Texas State and U.T.-Arlington) and the ensuing addition of football-playing Houston Baptist, Abilene Christian and Incarnate Word, who will officially join the league’s schedule in 2014. The Southland enlarged its spring sports programs with Oral Roberts, U.T.-Corpus Christi and, most recently, the University of New Orleans.

Williams will publicly support the Southland Conference’s landscape and the addition of larger markets, such as  Houston, San Antonio (Incarnate Word), Tulsa (Oral Roberts) and New Orleans. But there has to be concern that further Texas defections will dilute the power base in football and McNeese will lose worthy rivalries.

Athletic facilities in most of the sports on campus have turned the corner and are comparable to their SLC rivals. The costs of scholarships, equipment and travel will continue to increase, along with the pressure to increase game attendance and season ticket sales.

It’s no secret football rules the roost and runs the bank. If there’s a significant attendance decline in football Saturday nights at Cowboy Stadium, the overall athletic budget will be thrown out of whack. That’s why those guaranteed money road games against LSU, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, and this year’s season opener at South Florida, are necessary to the bottom line.

Average attendance at  home football games is not where it needs to be. A 17,000-plus sellout is unrealistic (unless the Cowboys can get U.L.-Lafayette or Southern to travel west), but 13,000 to 14,000 is not. Total gate at men’s basketball is woefully low, and I’m growing tired of the jibber jabber that a “run-down and outdated”  Burton Coliseum is the primary reason for the lousy turnout. The pull at Lake Charles Civic Center games isn’t much better.

Burton Coliseum isn’t as dingy and decrepit as critics make it out to be.  It’s no P-Mac or CajunDome by any means, but it’s a workable basketball arena with good sightlines. It’s guilty of  needing some exterior upgrades, and yes, it’s not perfectly located, but what location would be?

There’s growing chatter from university officials and supporters that an on-campus basketball arena will solve all attendance woes, and they expect a parting of the Red Sea scenario for a huge influx of students at games.

I don’t buy it.

Cowboy Stadium is on campus and student attendance for football is woefully low.

McNeese is still largely a commuter school, with a healthy percentage of students over 25 years old. You have to trigger fan loyalty (versus LSU), interest (versus LSU) and engage fans enough to lure them off the couch and away from their flat screens (versus LSU) and part with their entertainment dollars.

The new A.D. will have some fence-mending to do with legacy large corporate sponsors, building new relationships with untapped industries and improving strained relations with the hard-working and often under-appreciated booster clubs and certain sectors of the fan base.

It comes down to good old-fashioned handshakes, back slapping, listening, face-to-face communication, community involvement and sincere appreciation of the past, present and future.

These are a few of the more pressing issues and challenges facing the new athletic director.

McNeese has officially posted the position. One of the first applicants will be former Wyoming asst. athletic director Bruce Hemphill. The Sulphur native and former Golden Tor star athlete recently relocated to Southwest Louisiana after a long and successful career in sports administration.

Hemphill has held various administrative posts, beginning at LSU, where he played receiver in the early 1970’s, along with an eight-year stay at North Carolina before his appointment at Wyoming.

“The McNeese A.D. job is one that I have coveted for many years and it would be my dream job,” Hemphill told me recently.

His strong resume, name equity, local ties and a support base from West Calcasieu will make him an intriguing candidate.

He won’t be the only one, though, as Williams and the search committee begin the task that will ultimately anoint the athletic department’s next CEO.

One thing is for certain. Change is coming in more ways than one.