A dozen years ago, the athletic director at Syracuse was a gray-haired, cardigan-wearing, Winston-smoking man named Jake Crouthamel. The job he held immediately prior was head football coach at Dartmouth. Crouthamel’s tenure ended in 2005, which doesn’t seem that long ago. In the realm of college sports, it might as well be eons. That was when sports people ran athletic departments, because the most prominent feature of college sports was sports.
Since Crouthamel’s retirement in 2005, Syracuse employed two athletic directors, both of whom had climbed sports administration rungs. The man they chose to succeed them aptly reflects the state of college sports: Until Wednesday afternoon, John Wildhack was ESPN’s Executive Vice President for Production and Programming.
Wildhack had worked at ESPN since 1980, becoming one of the company’s top executives and rights negotiators. He has no prior experience in athletic administration, which makes him both a wild-card choice and a perfectly logical hire. Businesspeople run athletic departments now, because the most prominent feature of college sports is business.
Professor Dan Rascher, the director of the sport management program at the University of San Francisco, described the trend as temporary in a unique way. The professionalization of college sports is moving faster than the rate at which traditional administrators can be trained in the new expertise required to run the small corporations athletic departments have become. But in time, perhaps the span of a few years, traditional administrators will be people like Wildhack, or at least they will have been trained up through the ranks to develop his business-forward skill-set.
So the trend of businesspeople becoming athletic department leaders will be temporary, but only because big-time college sports administration and business will grow inseparable. And if college sports continue to bring in more revenue, it will compete on more equal footing to attract middle managers. A business executive on his way up the ladder could cross over to become an associate athletic director, then move up the chain.
“We won’t even notice it,” Rascher said. “They’ll just become athletic directors.”
It feels obligatory to note that those primarily responsible for generating the “content” athletic programs profit from – the athletes – will receive none of the financial benefit from its sale. It’s why Wildhack’s hire, even though it makes perfect sense for Syracuse, is damning for the industry. It’s a clear statement when a television executive is better suited to run an athletic department than, say, a former football coach.
Schools can claim athletics plays a vital role in the educational environment of a multi-faceted institution, or they can claim they’re entertainment vehicles used to extend their brands. One position can justify not compensating players; one can’t. Schools can’t viably claim both. By turning its athletic department over to a television executive, a school is essentially saying, “Our athletic department is a corporate entity whose product is entertainment. It is not an extension of our educational mission.”
Big-time college athletic departments profit as producers of media content, and they’re increasingly giving up the charade of anything else. Outside of Wisconsin, the days of the beloved football coach golden-parachuting his way into the athletic director’s chair are as quaint as stadiums without luxury suites. Even career administrators with a knack in fundraising are in the process of becoming relics.
Wildhack makes sense for Syracuse, specifically. His connections run deep. He grew up in Buffalo and graduated from the school. Rascher said the key to an AD’s success can sometimes hinge on how well he understands a school’s culture. “To say this is a dream job would be a significant understatement,” Wildhack said in a statement.
He also makes sense given the current landscape. In a memo to ESPN employees, ESPN chief John Skipper said Wildhack “has had a direct hand in virtually every major content milestone ESPN has achieved.” Ostensibly, Wildhack will be working with coaches and athletes. What makes him attractive is how intimate he is with media rights and the value of content. If the Atlantic Coast Conference wants to start its own network, Wildhack will know how to position Syracuse. While the Orange’s football and basketball contracts are tied up, he’ll know how to position Syracuse’s online and radio programming.
Other schools who plucked businesspeople to run athletic departments have seen a mixed bag. Dave Brandon, a former Michigan football player, took over as Michigan’s athletic director from his position as the chairman of Domino’s Pizza, and his tenure was a disaster. Texas hired Mike Perrin, a Houston trial lawyer, last year to clean up the mess Steve Patterson, a former Portland Trail Blazers executive, left behind.
Before Jack Swarbrick became one of the most powerful figures in college sports as Notre Dame’s athletic director, he was a partner at an Indianapolis law firm. Tim Pernetti took over at Rutgers after a career as a television executive at ABC and CBS College Sports Network. He ushered Rutgers’ surprising, lucrative transition to the Big Ten, and he’d probably still be there if not for Mike Rice chucking basketballs at his players.
Those hires show the benefits and risks of hiring a business specialist and sports administration neophyte. At Michigan, Brandon’s failure owed in part to an inability to deal with angry fans. Pernetti navigated conference realignment brilliantly, but he couldn’t withstand a coaching scandal.
It’s not just a recent phenomenon. Morgan Burke jumped from a vice president position at Inland Steel to become Purdue’s athletic director in 1993; he plans on retiring in 2017.
“Do I think it’s a trend? Absolutely not,” said Bob Vecchione, executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics. “We have a lot of bright young administrators coming up the chain. There are always going to be a certain percentage [athletic directors] who don’t have administrative backgrounds.”
Still, Vecchione acknowledged, the job has changed.
“Every case is different,” he said. “The world has changed a little bit. You do need a great business acumen to succeed in those positions.”
Syracuse decided the potential reward of handing its athletic department to an ESPN executive outweighed the risks. The line between college sports and big media is not blurry; it has disappeared. Skipper, the top executive at ESPN, tacitly recognized that in his message to employees. He wished Wildhack “a splendid next chapter in a distinguished career in sports media,” but he noted that Wildhack will not be too far away. “The good news,” Skipper wrote, “is that John will remain a member of our extended business circle.”