A Look At College Athletic Directors In Today’s Society

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Being the athletic director at a university may sound glamorous, but it is a job with responsibilities that are not a match for everyone, especially in today’s constantly changing college sports landscape. Collegiate athletic directors are responsible for every part of a university’s sports program, and the overall health of a school’s athletic department. Not every athletic director will have the same primary concerns, as some universities may be more invested in football while others place a higher value on hockey or basketball, but there are still aspects of the job that remain universal. All athletic directors will handle responsibilities stemming from budgeting, traveling, scheduling and making personnel decisions. In addition, athletic directors cannot focus solely on the logistics of managing the athletics department. As the ultimate leader of the department, the athletic director must be mindful of and cautious about the school’s overall image and public relations.

The entire scope of a university’s athletic program is the ultimate responsibility of the athletic director, but the actual job duties can be broken down into smaller segments. An athletic director is responsible for overseeing the program’s budget, making personnel decisions (i.e. hiring and firing coaches), scheduling for a variety of different sports, providing guidance to coaches, maintaining and, when applicable, updating athletic facilities, and serving as a liaison between the conference and the school. For example, when the University of Wisconsin’s football coach had a complaint about the Badgers’ controversial last-second loss to Arizona State University, it was athletic director Barry Alvarez who brought the school’s concerns to Big Ten Conference officials (Polzin). It is one responsibility among many for the athletic director at

Perhaps one of the most important, if not the most important, responsibility of the athletic director is to handle the university’s sports budget. Ultimately, the athletic director must look at the financial state of the university, and determine the best way for the school to move forward. If the athletic director finds the school is lacking in funds, he or she will be responsible for figuring out the best course of action: slashing costs, fundraising, or encouraging the university’s alumni and boosters to donate to the school’s coffers to help ease any possible cuts to programs or even render them unnecessary. Should cuts be the only option, however, the athletic director will have the difficult and likely unpopular job of determining exactly which ones are expendable.

Budget decisions are not the only difficult choice the athletic director is responsible for. Typically, he or she has the final say when it comes to hiring and firing coaches, and making personnel decisions that will impact the school’s athletics on the field in the future. While there are many managers across the country who must make similarly difficult decisions about employees everyday, it can often be more challenging for athletic directors to navigate these waters because of the intense scrutiny college sports programs are often placed under. This is especially true for those who run athletic departments at schools with large, passionate fan bases who are accustomed to a history of success. There are several relevant examples of this at work today. While the Nebraska Cornhuskers finished the season with an 8-4 record, it marked the sixth season in a row that head coach Bo Pelini lost at least four games. Following a loss in the regular season finale, Pelini said at his post game press conference, “If they want to fire me, go ahead.” Pelini’s comments come as Nebraska fans are growing weary of the head coach’s performance, and put athletic director Shawn Eichorst in a difficult situation as calls for Pelini’s firing intensify. Eichorst must decide whether to continue to believe in Pelini (his recent statement of support suggests he will remain on this course, at least for now), or if it is time to make a switch at the helm of the school’s most lucrative machine. It is a decision that many people in Nebraska feel strongly about one way or another, adding extra public pressure to the athletic director job not felt by most corporate decision-makers. Eichorst, and all athletic directors alike, must also consider that the wrong decision could come back and cost them their jobs in the future (Schroeder and Wolken).

The good news is that college athletic directors are typically well-educated college graduate themselves who are theoretically equipped to handle these responsibilities and make the difficult decisions the job requires them to make. An athletic director should, at the very least, possess a Bachelor’s Degree. A study published by The United States Sports Academy found that the majority of school presidents, who are often responsible for hiring athletic directors, believe the right education is paramount for success in the field. According to the research, about 81 percent of Division I school presidents view a Bachelor’s Degree as the most important educational indicator of success, while 94 percent found the master’s degree to be the least important (Schneider and Stier). Presidents also tended to look more favorably upon athletic director candidates with traditional education in budgeting and finance, while not lending much credence to legal sports training. Considering how critical successful finances are to the health of the athletic department, the results of this study should not present much of a surprise. The study can act as a barometer for those interested in the field as they consider what is important to the majority of people making hiring decisions about athletic directors.

Furthermore, choosing the correct athletic director can be imperative to a school’s success in sports both on and off the field. A study in the Journal of Sport Management shows that effective leaders often resulted in more successful athletic departments. The research went one step further and found that athletic directors who were more concerned with accomplishing specific goals were more effective than leaders who spent more time on developing good working relationships with those in the department (Branch 161). That means those tasked with selecting an athletic director have a lot to consider as they make their decision. An athletic director is typically chosen by the president of the college, who will also consider the opinions of the university’s board of regents. Candidates can expect to be checked out by an independent firm, and will then go through a fairly standard interview process. As mentioned earlier, a Bachelor’s degree is typically a requirement, as is experience either in coaching or sports management, sometimes at a lower level.

Historically, athletic director salaries have taken a back seat to those of the country’s top collegiate coaches. According to Business Insider, as of March of this year, the highest paid athletic director is David Williams, who guides Vanderbilt University’s sports programs. Williams earned well over three million dollars, though it is imperative to note he holds other positions with the school outside of athletic director. Meanwhile, Chris Del Conte of Texas Christian University rounded out the top 20 with an annual salary of $695,769. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lumps athletic directors in with postsecondary education administrators, noting an average annual salary in 2010 of $83,710. In comparison, USA Today published a database earlier this year detailing the salaries of NCAA college football coaches. Seventeen coaches will earn more than three million dollars annually, with Nick Saban of the University of Alabama claiming the top spot with $5,545,852 in earnings. Mack Brown of Texas ($5,453,750) and Bret Bielema of Arkansas ($5,158,863) round out the top three. Of those three, according to the same Business Insider article, only two schools also pay their athletic directors within the top-20 salary range for the position. Arkansas’ Jeff Long earns $900,000 annually, with around $650,000 in potential bonus money, while DeLoss Dodds of Texas earned $1,107,391. (Dodds is set to retire in 2014.) These numbers are in stark contrast to the earnings of athletic directors around the country.

While there is a huge range in salary for athletic directors, many do not consider one of the most important aspects of a collegiate athletic director’s job: managing the department’s image as the public sees it. A recent string of controversies such as compensation for athletes has highlighted how critical it is to hire a leader who not only is financially competent and well-versed in NCAA regulations, but who is also conscientious of his or her position as one of the top faces of the school’s sports programs.

Rutgers University offers an excellent current example illustrating the importance of a strong hire, and the ever-changing role of an athletic director in today’s college sports landscape. Rutgers’ athletic department has been rocked by several scandals in recent years, most notably men’s basketball coach Mike Rice was fired for bullying allegations. Those accusations cost the current athletic director at the time his job. Julie Hermann was hired to clean up the school’s deteriorating public image, but was also accused of past abuses while working with student-athletes at a different school. The allegations became the focal point of her introductory press conference and have overshadowed her brief tenure as athletic director. It was a controversy that rocked New Jersey and the college sports world so much so that the governor of New Jersey was compelled to comment. The national perception of Rutgers, already struggling after one scandal, took a significant step back with the initial hiring of Hermann, which had the opposite effect of what was intended. It is a case study that highlights the importance of doing due diligence when hiring athletic directors (and for athletic directors who must hire coaches), and also shows how public relations have become a critical responsibility for athletic directors. It is an example of the consequences that are possible for athletic directors who have not yet mastered the art of developing a strong relationship with the public, and local media, and who cannot handle potential scandals that may crop up during their tenure.

Ultimately, the role of the collegiate athletic director continues to evolve as society changes. Public relations are more important than ever in today’s culture of instant news available on social media sites. Scandals have a tendency to snowball before school officials are able to grasp and control the situation as tidbits of information are shared virtually. These responsibilities are compounded by the traditional job duties that have always belonged to athletic directors at nearly every level of competition, ranging from scheduling to hiring and firing and managing travel for a handful of different teams.

Being able to perform these basic job functions are no longer enough to make a candidate a successful athletic director today. In order to be effective now, an athletic director is likely to be someone who is well educated and can bring real world experience at lower levels (high school coach or athletic director, for example) before transitioning to a role in the college ranks. Today’s athletic director is strong with numbers and financially responsible, goal-oriented and adept at working well with others. But perhaps the most important quality for a successful athletic director today is that he or she is a person who understands how to best adapt to the unpredictable nature of the job.

Works Cited

Branch, D. "Athletic director leader behaviour as a predictor of intercollegiate athletic organizational effectiveness.." Journal of Sport Management 4.2 (1990): 161-173. Cab Direct. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.

Gaines, Cork . "The 20 Highest-Paid Athletic Directors In College Sports." Business Insider. N.p., 7 Mar. 2013. Web. 1 Dec. 2013. <http://www.businessinsider.com/the-20-highest-paid-athletic-directors-in-college-sports-2013-3?op=1>.

Polzin, Jim. "Barry Alvarez: 'I Can't Wait To See That Official Again.'" Wisconsin State Journal [Madison] 17 Sept. 2013: n. pag. Madison.com. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.

Schneider, Robert C., and William F. Stier Jr. "Necessary education for the success of athletics directors: NCAA presidents' perceptions." The Sport Journal 8.1 (2005): n. pag. United States Sports Academy. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.

Schroeder, George, and Dan Wolken. "Nebraska athletic director offers support to Bo Pelini." USA Today [Lincoln] 30 Nov. 2013: n. pag. USA Today. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.

"Summary." U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, n.d. Web. 1 Dec. 2013. <http://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/postsecondary-education-administrators.htm>.