Randy Eaton to keep Maryland athletic department on its toes during AD search

Randy Eaton moves from chief financial officer to interim athletic director at Maryland, replacing Debbie Yow, who is leaving for N.C. State.
Randy Eaton moves from chief financial officer to interim athletic director at Maryland, replacing Debbie Yow, who is leaving for N.C. State. (Juana Arias For The Washington Post)
By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 7, 2010

There still are days -- such as those when the NCAA offers a faulty interpretation of the color wheel -- when the old Randy Eaton rears his obstinate, ear-steaming head. For the most part, though, that man has been replaced by a 49-year-old with a more enlightened approach, one that earned him unanimous description as a sound choice to direct Maryland's athletic department while the school seeks someone to fill the role full-time.

This spring, Debbie Yow recommended Eaton -- the department's chief financial officer -- read "The Speed of Trust" by Stephen M.R. Covey, and when Eaton was named interim athletic director on June 28 after Yow left to take over the athletic program at North Carolina State, he realized some of the book's themes applied to the task he suddenly faced.

Regardless of whether Eaton ends up a candidate for the permanent position -- he said he has not yet made that decision -- three of the primary subjects he must address in the coming months stem from questions posed in Covey's book, which stresses the importance of building trust: What's the one thing the Maryland athletic department does that it should stop doing? What's the one thing Maryland does that it should continue doing? What's the one thing Maryland is not doing that it should start?

Eaton said he doesn't have the answers yet, but as he reaches out to Maryland boosters and followers over the next few weeks, those are the feelers he'll be extending -- the kind he believes will help his successor develop a vision and a direction for a $55 million operation.

"I don't think we need to re-invent the wheel here, in the interim, but I think it's vital that when the next AD comes in, they have this information from the people who support our programs," Eaton said. "Give him or her some ideas when they step in the door."

Last week, Maryland assembled a 17-person search committee to vet athletic director candidates, though the process will not gather steam until a new school president is named. Current president C.D. Mote is retiring Aug. 31, and Chancellor William E. Kirwan said he expects Mote's successor to be named sometime in August. Kirwan also said he expects the school's athletic director search to take three to four months.

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From the time Eaton first assumed an interim athletic director role -- in November 1997 at East Tennessee State -- he's always been the interrogatory type. Back then, though, he didn't yet understand the delicate link between message and delivery. When there was a challenge to be met, Eaton did so in a manner that would make a Fourth of July celebration seem subtle.

He knew no other way. When Eaton, then 25, was a medical technologist preparing to enter dental school in San Antonio, he decided he instead wanted to pursue a career in college athletics. His wife, Jeannette, told Eaton he had five years to receive all the schooling and training he needed. At that point, he had to have attained "a real job." Within five years, the Eatons had moved to Johnson City, Tenn., where Randy found work as ETSU's ticket manager.

When he became interim AD six years later, ETSU faced a $400,000 deficit. For a program not in the upper echelon of college athletics, that was a significant hole. So Eaton made clear to his staff that temporary sacrifices would have to be made until a solution could be found, and then he worked to finalize dates at Miami (Fla.) and Mississippi State team the following football season, so-called guarantee games that netted ETSU enough payoff to close its financial gap.

"That's what you appreciate, when an athletic director comes in and closes the door and tells you like it is," said Paul Hamilton, who was the ETSU football coach from 1997 to 2003 and now is the coach at Brevard (N.C.) College. "There were no gray areas as far as what we needed to do from a standpoint of not only the football program, but the athletic department itself. And that's what you want in an athletic director. You want somebody that's going to shoot straight with you and that you can talk to and solve problems with."

The ability to simultaneously give bad news and engender respect has been one of Eaton's most invaluable traits throughout his career. When he moved to the University of Houston and took over an in-house ticket operation in need of considerable restructuring, Eaton accomplished the task efficiently, according to Chet Gladchuk, Houston's athletic director from 1997 to 2001.

"I don't think anyone walks into a job and all of the sudden you say, 'Hey, they have all the answers,' " said Gladchuk, now the athletic director at the Naval Academy. "But what you look for in leadership is people that can grow into positions and instill confidence in the people around them."

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When Eaton met with the Maryland staff on June 29, he expressed two initiatives: To not screw anything up and to re-double the department's focus on its student-athletes. Then the man who pursued the vacant athletic director position at Coastal Carolina in 2009 but was told he did not have enough external experience set out to determine how best to meet those objectives.

He already had established solid relationships with football coach Ralph Friedgen and men's basketball coach Gary Williams, who guide Maryland's two revenue-generating sports. ("I like straight shooters," Friedgen said, "so that's not a problem.") But Eaton knew he had to extend himself further into the Maryland community to get the answers he desired.

Via e-mails and a phone call, Eaton picked the brain of one of his first cousins, Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione, but the maturity he'd developed over the past decade already had equipped him with the mind-set necessary to face his tasks.

"Being honest with people, not spinning things, laying it out as briefly and as concisely as I know how to present something leaves no room for me having to think six months later: 'What did I tell this person? How did I tell them something?' " Eaton said. "It gets me in trouble at times. And I've tried to work on not changing the message, but maybe altering how the message is presented.

"Earlier in my career I had a tendency to beat people over the head with the truth, rather than maybe sharing the truth. And I think there's a difference. The message doesn't change at all."

There are times, though, when his old habit comes in handy. At the NCAA tournament in Spokane, Wash., in March, the men's basketball team was told it could not wear its preferred gold jerseys against its first-round opponent, Houston, because color-blind television viewers might not be able to differentiate between gold and red, Houston's jersey color. The Terrapins also were told they could wear gold if they advanced to play Michigan State in the second round because gold and green -- the Spartans' color -- were far enough apart on the color wheel.

But after watching Marquette (gold jerseys) play Washington (purple jerseys) on TV, Eaton became curious. He pulled up a digital color wheel on his cellphone and then stormed over to the nearest NCAA representative to show off his findings: Gold was at 12 o'clock, green was at 10 o'clock and red was at 5 o'clock. Eaton demanded an explanation in a tone loud enough to be heard across the arena, and though his appeal was denied, his action was not lost on the team.

"It was a big deal for the kids," Eaton said. "Honestly, and I tell this to our coaches, if you don't get your way, eh. We're adults. Get over it. If it really impacts the kids and we can do it, why don't we?"

Add that to the list of questions Eaton will attempt to answer over the next few months.

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