Ron Kantowski:

Do we even need an AD?

Six years ago Vanderbilt got rid of its athletic director and rethought its athletic department. It’s worked out pretty well so far. With Hamrick gone, Ron Kantowski thinks it’s a great opportunity

Click to enlarge photo

Mike Hamrick announces at a Monday news conference in Huntington, W.Va., his decision to step down as UNLV's athletic director so he could assume the same job at his alma mater, Marshall University.

Click to enlarge photo

To show how important an athletic director is to winning and losing at the NCAA level, Vanderbilt of the Southeastern Conference eliminated the position six years ago.

Last year, a feature story in USA Today proclaimed that Vanderbilt is “enjoying unprecedented on-field success” in both high- and low-profile sports. It even won the national bowling championship.

Vanderbilt eliminated not only the position of athletic director (a savings of about $300,000 per year and who knows how many rounds of golf on the school’s nickel), but also the athletic department, per se. A law professor and vice chancellor of university affairs was put in charge of athletics.

The reason for the radical restructuring was twofold. First, the president and athletic director didn’t see eye to eye. Second, the president thought Vanderbilt athletes were being insulated from the rest of the student body and were missing out on the college experience.

So, one might ask, does UNLV even need a traditional athletic director or should it follow a new business model for athletics?

Should the lawyers and bean counters run things?

Vanderbilt doesn’t have an athletic director and it’s doing fine. Colleges now teach athletic administration as part of business school. And the UNLV athletic department already is getting a huge chunk of its budget from the group that runs its facilities — and brings in rodeos, monster trucks, the Wiggles and U2.

It would seem that if UNLV were ever going to restructure or at least rethink its athletic department, now would be the time. If not the Vanderbilt model, then try something else, something better than the same old way of doing things.

The same old way is the 1970s way, when college sports still were considered physical education. Today, they are big business, where a successful major college football program can on any given Saturday generate revenue streams that would make Bill Gates raise an eyebrow.

And yet, most colleges and universities continue to adhere to the 1970s way of hiring athletic administrators. They tap former players, coaches or administrators to these crucial (or not so, in the case of Vanderbilt) positions, instead of people with backgrounds in business, law, finance or marketing.

Then every five years or so, a lot of them are forced to start the process all over again.

Jim Weaver. Charlie Cavagnaro. John Robinson. Mike Hamrick.

Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat.

Two of the past four UNLV athletic directors were former linebackers. Robinson was an old end who chose to finish his illustrious coaching career here. Cavagnaro was an ex-sports writer. I rest my case.

Haven’t the past 15 years shown that the old approach to hiring athletic directors might not be the best one for UNLV?

UNLV is in a unique position because of the arena situation mentioned above. The Thomas & Mack Center is second only to Madison Square Garden in annual gross revenue; Sam Boyd Stadium will host U2 in October; and Cox Pavilion, even in its smaller-than-the-blueprint specification, was still adequate enough to attract one of the Democratic presidential debates.

Even in a flagging economy, they bring in the cash.

The facilities are such an integral part of the revenue stream at UNLV that they once were a separate entity, with a mandate to do as they pleased — as long as it resulted in a big, fat, black number on the bottom line. That’s what paid for the press tower and luxury suites at Sam Boyd Stadium, the refurbishment of the Thomas & Mack Center and the building of Cox Pavilion.

But the athletic directors mentioned above were shrewd enough to bring the facilities back under their umbrella. Then, when it started to rain red ink, they simply had the Thomas & Mack Center write them a check to balance their budgets. The facilities are the cash cow, the rainy day fallback that lets lazy athletic directors play golf when they could be out in the community raising money.

The encouraging thing about the local names popping up as potential (but as of yet unofficial) candidates for the athletic director’s job that opened when Hamrick accepted the AD assignment at Marshall this week is that many of them have marketing and fundraising experience. That’s a start.

I will defer to one of the posters on the Sun’s message boards who said what UNLV needs is “someone who understands that you lose more than you gain when you switch from ESPN to College Sports TV in exchange for an extra $500,000 — and lose untold millions by rendering your major sports programs invisible to all but their most dedicated fans.”

Newyorkrebel, it’s not too late to get your resume together.

If Provost Neal Smatresk is named the new president at UNLV, as many expect, he will have a fresh slate and the power to reshape the athletic program, if he so chooses.

If he can find a guy with a law degree from Harvard who might be interested, for whatever crazy reason, in taking a college athletic program at the crossroads to the next level, however you define it, at least there won’t be an outside linebacker occupying his chair.

At UNLV, that’s something you can build upon.

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  1. good stuff

  2. Interesting idea.

  3. I enjoyed that Ron. In my opinion i dont know how UNLV athletics would benifit without having some one full time at the helm. Didnt JR already try to do that one. And can some one tell me how the last or the outgoing AD let ROCKY LONG get away, we are going to regret that in the near future.......

  4. @ Ron

    One word, two letters: RU.

  5. With the budget tight we should give it a try with the existing staff. They can step up and run the department as well without an AD. This will save money and help the budget overall without increasing anyone work much if the load is spread out.

  6. Gee, thanks for the shout out, homie!

    Not sure it would be a wise course of action to apply for a position you think the University would be better off without ... ;)

    I'm not a Hah-vard guy, but if the job was not already filled after the bigwigs meeting in Idaho a few days ago, maybe I'll fill out an application and see what happens.

    In all seriousness, whoever steps into the position has to have more than marketing and fund raising experience.

    In our present economy, especially in Vegas, money is hard to come by, and no matter who the new AD is friends with, raising donations will be more difficult than ever.

    In order to sustain athletics at a manageable and solvent level, the new AD will have to do some cost controls and expense cutting, and then look for ways to raise more cash by getting better deals with existing partners.

    Or hope that BYU runs the table this fall and winds up in a BCS bowl!

  7. Yeah guys, something to think about at least. Vanderbilt model may not work here because that's a private school with a lot of tradition/benefactors with deep pockets. It might be time to try another approach, though, and finally go after somebody with more business savvy. Maybe even a guy/gal from one of those big-time management groups, like IMG, or something.

    Barring that, I'd like to see one of the locals finally get a shot. At least they know which doors to knock on.

  8. --- nyr: You (and a few others) always manage to raise the level of conversation on these boards. I think those working the levers behind the curtain need to listen to Dorothy and the Tin Man and the Scarecrow, et al. -- the guys who buy the tickets -- a lot more than they apparently do.

    You have any more good ideas, ship 'em my way. It's a long, hot summer and I'm still responsible for four columns a week. :)

  9. There is no way BYU runs the table. I doubt they will score 17 points against OK and the speed of FSU might be a little too much for the lackluster BYU defense. However, the FSU games is in Provo which gives them a slight leg up. If any team is going to run the table it will be TCU...and I fully expect them to.

    - a Mormon rebel fanatic

  10. There is some truth to not needing a new AD. Several years ago, the business operations of the Athletic Dept. were restructured to report to the Finance Dept. and since that time the increased accountability and controls put in place by the "Finance Dept" has led to the financial stability that Athletics is seeing today. It has yet to be mentioned how those measures to "create the $2 million or so surplus" were put in place by others not in the Athletic Dept.

  11. If the Thomas and Mack is making so much money where's it all going and why all the budget cuts at UNLV?

  12. Stallworth would be excelent as Athletic Director

    Tina Murphy no thanks

    Jerry K. would be fine aswell

  13. Just for the record...

    I was astonished by this statement:

    "The Thomas & Mack Center is second only to Madison Square Garden in annual gross revenue..."

    I've been looking into it and I'm not sure it's entirely accurate. I think the statement is in reference to the T&M's placement on the Nov. '06 to May '07 Venues Today list of top grossing arenas (the statistic that has been cited multiple times by both the Sun and the RJ).

    First, I think the T&M only placed second on the list once (back in 2007 when it was helped by the 2007 NBA All Star Game). And second, it is my understanding that the Venues Today top grossing venues list is only talking about concerts and special events and does not include regular sporting events (like the NY Knicks, or our Rebels, etc.).

    Still a big accomplishment, no doubt, but not what would be a mind-blowing "true second best in the world" stat.

    I'm sorry for being nitpicky but I was blown away by that stat reference!