A Bold Path For McNeese Athletics

Rick Sarro Thursday, February 20, 2020 Comments Off on A Bold Path For McNeese Athletics
A Bold Path For McNeese Athletics

By Rick Sarro

If things are not working as well as you think they should in your personal, professional or cocoon of life, you make changes.

It’s no different in business, where Apple, IBM, GE or Microsoft will clear out the CEO’s corner office to make room for new leadership.

The military will change generals.

Your local church may opt for a new minister or pastor.

Law enforcement brings in a new commissioner or police chief.

In politics, if there is gridlock, you … bad example.

In the business of sports, changes are plentiful at all levels, and necessary most of the time.

Bruce Hemphill

This holds true at McNeese, where change has been fast and furious with head coaches in the premier sports of football and basketball over the past two years. Women’s soccer and volleyball have seen facelifts, along with men’s golf.

New blood brings needed new energy, ideas and direction.

The same holds true at the biggest office at the Jack Doland Fieldhouse.

University President Dr. Daryl Burckel decided change was needed at the athletic director’s position, and essentially fired Bruce Hemphill after nearly six years on the job.

“We set a bold path of where we want to go and how we want to get there and what we want this institution to be. We are going to surround ourselves with folks that will help us get there. Whether that causes some disruption, so be it, but we are going to get where we want to go,” Burckel proclaimed during a recent press conference announcing the immediate national search for a new athletic director.

Burckel has been spending an inordinate amount of time dealing with coaching changes, academic problems in football and fundraising concerns.

He pulled the trigger to fire popular football coaching veteran Lance Guidry as head coach a few years ago. He hired Sterlin Gilbert out of South Florida only to see him leave after one season for Syracuse. (Burckel admitted to me that Gilbert did not give him advance notice; he was talking with Syracuse until Gilbert accepted the job.)

Tanner Stines

Burckel, with the help of a quickly assembled search committee, signed recently fired UT-San Antonio head coach Frank Wilson to be the Cowboys’ third new head coach in as many years.

In between the football comings and goings, Burckel approved the firing of long-time head basketball coach Dave Simmons and the hiring of new men’s head coach Heath Schroyer.

On top of that, Burckel oversaw the opening of the new $45 million dollar basketball/volleyball/human-health performance arena and juggled worries over a shrinking athletic fundraising budget.

Burckel, a New Orleans native and former McNeese football player, loves his sports. But he would be the first to admit he’s been on athletics overload the past three years.

That brings us to the AD dilemma.

“This decision was not made in haste. We have a vision, and that’s to be first choice. In order to continue to pursue excellence in all athletic programs, I decided we needed new leadership,” Burckel said.

Questions over Hemphill’s effectiveness have been percolating under the surface for several years now.  

McNeese supporters, politicos and media types wondered out loud or in veiled whispers about Hemphill’s fundraising prowess and his relationships with coaches and other McNeese athletic officials. They wondered about his ability to build said relationships, his rapport with regional business and industry leaders and his overall likeability factor with fans and the workaholic boosters.

Some of these were legitimate questions and concerns, some not.

Dr. Daryl Burckel

Hemphill, a Sulphur native and former LSU football player, came into the AD position in June, 2013, and immediately made changes in the department. Like any good administrator, he began to put his process and plans into place.

Sometimes change isn’t always greeted with cheers and support.

Hemphill probably rubbed some longtime employees the wrong way. It happens.

He had a chilly relationship with former head coaches Matt Viator and Lance Guidry. That happens too. But you hope your AD and head football coach can get along and see eye to eye.

Hemphill played a role in the new arena, improvements to the baseball complex and Joe Miller Ballpark, along with facility upgrades in football, softball and soccer. He was integral in scheduling the likes of LSU, UL-Lafayette and last year’s sell-out Southern game in football.

His prominent coaching hire was Schroyer in basketball and that has proved to be prescient.

The recent NCAA ban on post-season play for football in 2020 due to missing the Academic Progress Requirement (APR) was a major hit to Hemphill, the football program and the athletic department’s reputation.

The failure of meeting APR standards and the lack of an effective process and oversight by the AD’s office were a part of Hemphill’s evaluation and subsequent firing according to Burckel.

 A turning point in Hemphill’s tenure was his long battle with throat cancer. The extended hospital stay and treatments have taken a toll on his health as they would for anybody. Credit his will and drive to return to work.

Frank Wilson

Fundraising in FCS, FBS and in any other endeavor is difficult and requires tenacity, polished skills in communication, procedures, relationship building and selling.  

That’s where Hemphill ultimately fell short.

“Fundraising is a huge component for what we are needing at the institution. We are looking for someone who is dynamic, with good interpersonal skills that can connect with our boosters and donors. We are looking for someone with the whole package — both with the administrative side and fundraising,” explained Burckel.

Even though the word “fired” was never used, Burckel, with deft politeness, confirmed he fired Hemphill and reassigned him as a special advisor to the president’s office until his contract expires June 30.

Tanner Stines, a senior associate AD, will serve as interim athletic director until the position is filled and becomes effective July 1.

A search committee has been formed, and according to Burckel they will conduct a “thorough and careful search” with no strict timetable. He says the goal is to find a new athletic director “that can lead in fundraising and fan engagement.”

 Sagging attendance at home football games, the marquee and largest revenue source, is concerning and a drag on budgets. Every athletic director, from the smallest division III schools to Power 5 programs, must deal with decreasing gates and the hit to the bottom line.

Those Power 5 FBS schools have television money and huge private donations. Programs like McNeese and those across the Southland Conference worry constantly about falling game attendance, rising expenses and stretched budgets. “I don’t think our fundraising has been up to par or where it can be and really where it needs to be. That’s an area where we need improvement, and we will be hiring for that improvement,” says Burckel.

He added that the bulk of the athletic budget funds the day to day operations, not the upgrading of facilities, which he says is an attractive piece of the McNeese puzzle for any prospective AD candidate.  

Obviously the new arena is the shining star of the athletic complex. Cowboy Stadium is better than most in the SLC, but has dire needs for upgrades to concessions and restrooms. The renovations to the Fieldhouse and the addition of the End Zone Club can stack up against most in the FCS. 

Justin Hill has worked tirelessly and pulled some rabbits out of his baseball cap to complete marvelous upgrades to Joe Miller Park.

So, any facilities tour with an AD candidate should go very well.

The challenge will be finding the right experience and personality fit. It always helps when you know exactly what you’re needing and seeking.

“The next person will have to cast a vision for the department and the athletic programs that people can buy into. You don’t buy into something that you don’t have a vision for; that you don’t want to see come to fruition. So the next AD will have to be a strong person who can cast his vision and take the athletic department where we need to go,” Burckel said.

Newly hired head football coach Frank Wilson, who has been around the block in college football, admitted that Burckel’s football background and his passion for sports helped sell Wilson and convinced him to take the job.

I expect that same drive and desire for excellence from Burckel will attract some quality people. “The McNeese brand and the coaches that we have on staff today and how our teams have performed will be enough to attract very good candidates,” Burckel added, while deflecting his impact on selling the program and merits of the job. 

The change with the AD position was expected (there were those whispers again in many circles) and needed.

Hemphill, who Burckel described as a “consummate professional,” took athletics as far as he could over the last six years.

 The next athletic director must be a dynamo in fundraising, marketing, selling and communications; he must deftly manage a fluctuating budget and relationship building with coaches, boosters, fans, the community and, yes, the media.

He or she must be committed to the APR process, navigate NCAA rules and procedures, be well versed in the nuts and bolts of each sport they oversee and command a podium with room presence.  

Most of all, the person must lead with authority but possess a sense of understanding, compassion and humility.

I think Dr. Burckel can find someone else to help sell the popcorn.

Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 Monday through Sunday evenings at 9 pm on Suddenlink cable channel 4 and Saturday and Sunday on CBS Lake Charles/KSWL.  Check local listings.

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