Officially, George Washington Athletic Director Patrick Nero has been on the job a little more than two months, but Nero’s tenure actually began well before his July 1 start date.
By making his first act as athletic director a coaching change in GW’s most high-profile sport, the former America East commissioner not only put his immediate stamp on the athletic program but also tied his fate to Lonergan’s.
The moves appear to signal Nero’s intention to propel GW athletics to a level equal to the university’s profile.
“Most important to me would be to match the excellence that is everywhere on campus,” Nero said.
In an extensive interview at his office this summer, Nero talked about why he made a change in men’s basketball, the challenges of making GW competitive in the Atlantic 10 Conference, the findings of the university’s athletic review committee and what he believes the mission of GW’s athletic department should be.
“I want to see us win championships,” Nero said. “I want us to win Atlantic 10 championships. I want us to begin to compete in certain sports where it is possible for national championships. I really do. I mean, I’m okay with saying winning is important.”
But Nero knows that winning takes resources, something that has been in short supply at GW. One of the first things he did after taking the job was to look at where GW stood in terms of athletic spending in relation to other Atlantic 10 teams.
“Typically, our funding is the bottom third of the conference,” he said, noting that GW’s fundraising was “very far behind.”
“We don’t have a traditional athletic fundraising unit right now,” he said.
Unlike just about every other athletic program in the Atlantic 10, GW does not have a stand-alone development office in its athletic department. Most conference schools have from three to six people dedicated to raising money for athletics. GW has one full-time athletic fundraiser who is housed in the university’s development office.
Because fundraising tends to be the primary revenue stream for athletic programs at private universities, GW has been hampered by its lack of staffing in this area.
In addition, GW’s situation is unusual in that intercollegiate athletics, recreation sports (intramurals, club teams), and student health and wellness are all funded out of the athletics budget, with more than 50 percent of those funds being spent on recreation and the Lerner Health and Wellness Center, the on-campus fitness facility for staff and students. This is one of the concerns being addressed by the university’s athletic review committee.
The committee, which was formed this year, put together a 1,200-page report on its initial findings. It has now split into two groups — one for intercollegiate athletics, one for recreation sports and health and wellness — that will put forward recommendations based on those findings later this year.
“We formed a Board of Trustee committee that is looking specifically at the intercollegiate piece,” Nero said. “We have 22 sports. How do we make them successful? Is it the right number of sports? Is it the right grouping of sports? We want to fund our sports to the level where they can be competitive, and if we can’t, then maybe they belong better in this club sports program.”
Nero already has addressed some of the findings. A new turf field was installed at the school’s Mount Vernon campus in Northwest Washington. The school hired an architect to begin renovations to the school’s baseball field at Barcroft Park in Arlington. Student-athletes will receive a boost in their meal money this year.
Of all the items being discussed, none involve GW leaving the Atlantic 10. Nero stated he believes the league is the best fit for GW. However, given the rapidly changing landscape of college sports, the Colonials could find themselves in search of a new conference home in the future.
“The most important thing that GW can do for itself — and we have to look at our own interests — the most important thing that we can do is make ourselves attractive,” Nero said. “We can make ourselves attractive by making ourselves strong. . . . We’ve got to be more aggressive. We’ve got to do a lot more in the media. You will see increased television exposure for men’s and women’s basketball. We have to increase our presence. We have to become attractive. We’ve got to win.
“Our goal right now, because we don’t have football, our goal is always to be among the top non-football-playing schools in the country. We’re in the conference that houses that right now and so I have to position us to always remain there.”
To that end, Nero felt he needed to strengthen the men’s basketball program, which is why he made a coaching change so soon after taking the job.
“After having a lot of conversations with university leadership, the feeling was this wasn’t going to be a long-term relationship,” Nero said. “The feeling was GW, between the strategic plan and the changing of leadership, was at a point where it was just time to start fresh and start new. And the feeling was we weren’t going to be able to do that unless we made a move.”