College athletics has undergone a slow transformation from quaint extracurricular activity to moneymaking behemoth. Schools now compete for market share with multi-million dollar facility upgrades, sponsorships, and intricate broadcasting strategies. To compete in today’s climate, some schools have embraced a new breed of athletic director, one who brings business acumen as well as sport savvy. West Virginia University (WVU) recently made the leap to committing to this new pedigree of hybrid athletic exec by hiring Oliver Luck, an alumnus whose prowess as athlete and businessman puts him in an elite pool.
With his salt and pepper hair, the 6’3” Luck stands slim and sinewy, a much fitter version of most men his age. Articulate and thoughtful, Luck is not afraid to offer an opinion, and he’s as comfortable talking about the Spanish Inquisition as he is college sports. As a celebrated quarterback at WVU, he was a Rhodes Scholar finalist and Academic All-American. And during his five-year stint in the NFL, he attained a law degree from the University of Texas. After his playing days were behind him, he focused on business—serving in a variety of corporate-meets-athletic roles, including the president of NFL Europe, the president and CEO of the Houston Sport Authority, and the president and GM of the Houston Dynamo of Major League Soccer.
Forget the Ivy League
As a prep school kid in Cleveland, Luck explains that he was encouraged to “pursue the path you want to pursue and don’t worry about the rest.” Putting this early lesson to the test, he surprised his Ohio academic community by shunning an offer to play football for Harvard in favor of West Virginia University. Wide-eyed with the challenge of quarterbacking a big-time team, Luck was also attracted to the diversity of people and spirit WVU offered. He smiles widely recalling his decision and his former teammates, a diverse group of guys who “normally would have nothing to do with one another,” yet played and achieved together on the same team.
With each new path that Luck has charted, he seems to hold a single inspiration pretty close: immigrants. His mother was a German immigrant who displayed a distinct “strength of character to pack up and go” that was “pretty bold.” The spirit needed to leave everything behind in the name of starting anew is one that continues to amaze Luck. “The more I read,” he says, “what you tend to find is that they made it work.”
Luck too has played the part of immigrant throughout his career and made it work with a skilled fluidity. Not only was he asked to grow American football in Europe, where soccer is king, but he was also asked to help foster the growth of soccer in the U.S., where football, baseball and basketball rule.
As the GM of NFL Europe’s Rhein Fire, Luck was tasked with getting 50,000 Germans to attend a game they’ve never seen. No one knew how to get Europeans in the stands for football, but once again Luck drew on those Cleveland Jesuits from his early education, saying that they “drilled into me the idea that if you’re not questioning everything, you’re not doing your job as a human being.”
And so he questioned. In five weeks, a plan formed. Catering to the European, especially German, passion for massive parties (see Oktoberfest), Luck transformed football games into Europe’s “first open-aired disco.” Famous DJs were signed on as announcers, the events were billed as a “Power Party”, the music was turned up and locals came out in droves.
A quarterback’s mentality
As the athletic director at West Virginia University, Luck entered an environment where things had been done a certain way for a long time. “We always assume that what we do is the way it should be done – that’s not always the case,” he says. As an NFL quarterback, Luck says he “had average skills, and was still able to compete against the best.” To do this he relied on his mind, his inquisitive nature and a willingness to embrace challenges. Over the years he’s trained himself to see the next play, stay ahead of the competition. “If you can’t envision where you’re going, you’ll have a hard time getting there.”
When Luck examined his own football program, he saw a team that had peaked; and he decisively hired a highly sought-after head coaching prospect, Dana Holgersen, to take the helm beginning in 2012. He now envisions a full stadium, and a football program that will continue to grow and regularly compete for national championships. Luck looks into the future of WVU athletics and sees every one of his athletic teams in the top 25, and 75 percent of his student athletes graduating.
The next generation
As Luck becomes more comfortable in his role at WVU, he’s begun to decorate his office with mementos from past teams he’s worked and played for. An Oilers cap sits on a cabinet, a WVU football photo adorns a shelf and a framed article of his son, Andrew—the star quarterback at Stanford University who shocked the nation when he turned down the opportunity to be the consensus No. 1 pick in this year’s NFL draft—sits on his floor waiting to be hung. While tens of millions of dollars would have accompanied that selection, it seems the younger Luck hasn’t fallen far from the tree. When academic experiences are on the table and when an unchartered road is ahead, you go for it. And if your path conflicts with convention, so what.