An open letter to the VT AD search committee

Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, on January 21, 2014
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This is an open letter to the Virginia Tech athletic director search committee as they look for a  new AD … and it’s an open letter to whomever they pick, once the decision is made and their candidate is ready to start work.

I’m a little late with this, and the AD search process is well underway, but these are my thoughts on the particular skill set the new AD needs, and what the highest-priority tasks will be once he takes over the Virginia Tech athletic department. (To make the article easier to read, I’m going to refer to the future AD as “he,” even though it could just as easily be a woman.)

I freely admit that this article is written with an outsider’s perspective, with little detailed knowledge of the inner workings of an athletic department, and I also freely admit that it’s written from the perspective of the fans. In short, it’s what I think is needed by the fans from the next athletic director.

First, an appraisal of where we are.

The Weaver Legacy

Jim Weaver was Virginia Tech’s athletic director for almost 16 and a half years, and I can sum his tenure up in one paragraph – and no, I’m not going to mention Beamer-to-UNC:

Jim Weaver architected a massive expansion of Virginia Tech’s athletic facilities, athletics budget and athletics department. He placed emphasis on academic support for student-athletes, improved the academic profile of Virginia Tech athletics, and ran a department free of major scandal and corruption. He positioned Virginia Tech to compete in the 21st century, and he did it in a fiscally responsible manner. He connected well with donors and employees on a personal level, but he failed to inspire the fan base with a vision for achieving great things on the field of play, and over time, his efforts to control the fan base and to maximize revenue achieved from them caused the fan base’s personal connection to the athletes and their achievements to erode.

You can say a lot more about Jim Weaver’s tenure than that, but this isn’t an article about Jim Weaver. I already wrote that article. In it, I essentially said that Jim Weaver was the right man for the job at the time, but now something else is needed. And this article is about what is needed now, and what the next AD can do to provide that.

What is Needed from the Next AD

Some of the attributes/talents of the next AD are obvious. He will have to hire the next football coach, so he’ll need to be someone with a history of making those types of decisions, and making them well. He’ll have to continue to run the athletic department responsibly ($$), to provide academic support for athletes, to avoid scandal and NCAA violations, and to take care of infrastructure needs as they present themselves.

The final part of my summation of Jim Weaver’s tenure above holds the key to how the next AD can move Virginia Tech athletics forward and re-ignite the fan base. In short, the fan base needs to know what the next AD’s vision for Virginia Tech athletics is, and needs to be inspired to play an active part in that vision.

Fans at all levels — not just the big-donor level — need to know that they are important, and need to be made to feel that they’re a critical component to athletic success. And the fan experience when attending games needs to be fun again.

I’ll get to all that in a minute, but let’s lay out what I think are the major requirements, in bullet form:

  • Be a strong caretaker of the football program and move it forward, post-Frank Beamer.
  • Be a fund-raising rainmaker.
  • Build enthusiasm among the alumni base.
  • Establish a strong relationship with students and cultivate them as future supporters of athletics.
  • Have a vision for fixing basketball and making it competitive in the ACC.
  • Recognize the importance of the gameday experience.

Let’s go over these things one by one.

Be a strong caretaker of the football program

Do I really need to explain this one in any detail? The next AD is going to have to make one of the most important decisions in the history of Virginia Tech athletics: who replaces Frank Beamer?

If you make the wrong choice, you can do a lot of damage in a short period of time. In 1990, Georgia Tech went 11-0-1 and won a share of the national championship. Bobby Ross was their head coach, and after leading GT to an 8-5 season in 1991, he left. He was replaced by Bill Lewis, who ran the program into the ground, and by 1994, Georgia Tech was a 1-10 football team. Lewis was fired after just three years at the helm. (To be fair, it looked like a good hire; Lewis had guided ECU to an 11-1 record and a Peach Bowl win in 1991.)

Virginia experienced unprecedented success under George Welsh, and he created a large football fan base where none had previously existed, to the point where UVa could expand Scott Stadium to 60,000 seats and fill it up. His successor, Al Groh, wasn’t a complete disaster, but the coach after Groh, Mike London, has been. In London’s fourth year (2013), the Cavaliers went 2-10, and average attendance at Scott Stadium for 2013 was generously listed at 46,279. In a little over ten years, everything George Welsh built has been unraveled.

In the modern era, Virginia Tech has experienced extended success under one coach: Frank Beamer. His replacement must build on what he has done, not destroy it. It’s a challenge, and it goes without saying that it’s the most important thing the next AD will do.

If Virginia Tech, for example, hires an AD who has never worked at a Division 1-A school before, well then … they deserve what they’ll get. But of course, they won’t do that.

Be a fund-raising rainmaker

Let’s get one fact straight: the Hokie Club, Virginia Tech’s athletic fund-raising arm, is not under the control of the athletic department. It’s actually part of University Development, so the athletic director is not the Hokie Club’s “boss.” The AD cannot hire and fire Hokie Club employees, and he can’t set policy.

That caps what the AD can do, as far as reshaping and improving the Hokie Club’s performance. But what a new AD can do is schmooze corporate sponsors and make a personal connection with individual donors and inspire them to give more to help the Hokies succeed.

First, corporate sponsors: I remember when Weaver announced Lane Stadium’s West Side expansion plans in 2003, his plans for paying for it included a $10 million naming rights donation. (That’s loosely documented on our archived Lane Stadium Expansion Facts and Figures page.)

That donation never happened, and instead, the West side was paid for through debt, private donations, and suite and club seat sales. Why did the donation never occur? I don’t know. How much of a role does the AD play in securing corporate donations? I don’t know. But it appears to be an untapped source of revenue for Virginia Tech.

Secondly, individual donors: For years, the message has been “donate to the Hokie Club to get good seats in Lane Stadium and a parking spot for football games.” A new AD needs to change the message, to get the fan base to understand that donations enable the Hokies to compete with larger, better-funded schools. There’s a chance here to sell the vision of “we’re all in this together,” instead of “give money to try to get something for yourself.”

Build Enthusiasm Among the Fan Base

VT needs a magnetic personality at the helm. Jim Weaver was stiff when speaking to the public. Every statement that came out of his mouth seemed to be very carefully worded, almost robotic, as if he were treading very carefully across some sort of legal minefield, or making every possible attempt to be as politically correct and as bland as possible. Sometimes he said interesting things, yes, but he was always monotone and very careful in his word selection.

The next guy needs to have some oomph about him, some personality. I’ll never forget being in Cassell Coliseum way back in the mid-80s when Dutch Baughman was introduced as the athletic director at half time of a game. He stepped right up the mic with his handlebar mustache and cranked up a turkey-call noisemaker, to the delight of the crowd. The guy had pizzazz.

The next guy doesn’t need to be that charismatic. It’s probably impossible, in this day and age. But you get what I’m saying. Jim Weaver spoke like an accountant with a law degree. The next guy needs to be able to inspire the masses through words and salesmanship of a vision.

Establish a strong relationship with students

Students are the future of Virginia Tech athletics, and a long-lasting relationship with them must be cultivated. Most of the big donors to Virginia Tech athletics were, once upon a time, “mere” students at Virginia Tech.

Students are great. They’ve got the fire and enthusiasm for football and basketball that we old fogies (I’m 49) just don’t have. When I was a student, I stood in Cassell Coliseum and made noise non-stop, till my voice was ruined. I remember being angry at the paid alumni for sitting down so much, and making so little noise. (It seemed they only stood and clapped during timeouts, when the band played “Tech Triumph.”) Now I’m the one who sits there like a fogy, and I really appreciate the constant noise the students make, and the energy they bring.

As a group, students can be a little wild and immature. My buddies and I sure were, back in the ’80s. They’re kids. It’s how they are. They’re not going to act the same as alumni and older donors. They’re going to do weird things like cheer the horse on the treadmill (which appears to have been replaced by a dog, for reasons known only to science and research). But to try to control the students too much, and to try to get them to act like the adults they aren’t quite yet, is a mistake. Tap into their energy, make a connection, and carry that connection through after their graduation.

I don’t even know how, but I know it’s important. And yes, that’s a little hypocritical coming from us here at TSL, where we offer a discounted student subscription but do little more than that to connect with the students. Maybe the new AD can teach us a thing or two.

Have a Vision for Fixing Basketball

Here’s another subject that could become its own self-contained article.

There is no question that the men’s and women’s basketball programs are broken. You can’t argue it. You can argue about whether or not they’re getting better; the women’s program certainly appears to be, after bottoming out under Beth Dunkenberger.

Fan support has cratered, and both programs are hemorrhaging support, money, and pride. In 2004-05, VT’s first season in the ACC, the men finished fourth in the 11-team league and averaged 9,406 tickets sold per game. The women, in their first season under Dunkenberger, finished just seventh in the ACC, but they went to the NCAA Tournament, and they averaged 4,106 fans per game.

Nine years later, the men and women are both coming off seasons where they finished last in the ACC. The men are picked to finish last in the ACC again (and are headed in that direction), and the women haven’t been to postseason play since they went to the WNIT in 2006-07. The men are averaging 4,509 fans per game, and the women are averaging just 1,263.

Combined average attendance (tickets sold) has plunged from 13,512 in 2004-05 to 5,772 in 2013-14. Virginia Tech basketball is on life support, in a conference famous for basketball.

Virginia Tech needs an athletic director who knows basketball and can fix what has happened here. How? Again, I don’t know, or more accurately, I don’t have the space to go into detail. But it needs to be fixed, and here’s where a new AD can really make his mark.

I’d also like that AD to have a plan for replacing Cassell Coliseum. Gasp! Yes, I said it. Jim Weaver himself said Cassell has about ten years left of useful life, so why not get started now? There’s a lot of old VT money that remembers when Virginia Tech was good in basketball, and would love to pitch in and help VT be good in basketball again, including building a replacement for Cassell. Jim Weaver tapped into that money for about $10 million in donations to help build the basketball practice facility, so it’s out there. So is corporate money. The Carilion Center has a nice ring to it. Miami built a new arena about ten years ago for just $48 million. I think VT can do it today for around $50-$60 million, if they’re smart about it.

But I’m not just talking about a new building. Virginia Tech has plenty of new buildings. It takes a lot more than facilities. I’m talking about a vision for Virginia Tech basketball that includes a new building.

Recognize the importance of the gameday experience

That’s a fancy way of saying, “Put the fun back into going to a game.”

In 1997, a ticket to a Virginia Tech football game was $21. In 2013, it was $50, almost two and a half times more expensive. And the games now are about two and a half times less fun.

Fans are patted down and their belongings are rifled through before entering the stadium. This started as a reaction to 9/11, in the interests of “safety and security,” but it doesn’t sit well with fans to treat them like potential criminals before they even enter the stadium. It may be necessary, but it’s unpleasant.

Once inside, they’re treated to (usually) a former athlete reading a prepared “Hokies Respect” message that hasn’t changed in a decade, in a droning voice on a bad microphone. Hokie fans, previously revered as being among the best in the nation, are admonished to treat opposing fans, the opposing team, and “the game,” whatever that means, with respect, as if they ever did otherwise.

Fans aren’t allowed to go out during half time and re-enter the stadium after half time for various reasons, partly in response to 9/11, but also because of new ticket scanning devices that only allow a ticket to be “used” once. Whatever the reason(s), re-entry is a perk that isn’t available anymore.

“Stick it in” and “Na-na-na-na, hey-hey, goodbye” have been taken away. Booing the opposing team (horrors!) is frowned upon. Highlighter-yellow-garbed security personnel dot the stadium, and at the conclusion of the game, they rush the field and protect it from the hordes of oncoming fans. (At Clemson, they invite their fans down on the field after the game.)

The gameday experience is now all about controlling the gameday experience, or more precisely, the fans. Those awful, law-breaking, rude, drunk hordes of criminals.

Okay, I’m getting carried away. But you get my point. Fans are now treated as disruptive nuisances, instead of valued customers. This needs to be fixed, or attendance will continue to be an uphill battle.

Does this person exist?

Dear Athletic Director Search Committee: Do the best you can to find a person who can accomplish all these things, or even better, has a proven track record of accomplishing these things.

Dear New Virginia Tech Athletic Director: That’s your mandate. Keep doing well the things that Jim Weaver did well, and improve upon the things that fell into disrepair under his watch. He was good, but he wasn’t perfect. You need to be better. We’re counting on you.

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