Jeremy Foley ’74 was recently featured in Athletic Management as one of the “most respected athletic directors in the nation,” whom they asked to reveal trade secrets. Foley is the University of Florida Director of Athletics.
“When your football and men’s basketball teams combine for four national titles in three years, many would say you’ve reached the pinnacle of your career as an athletic administrator. But for University of Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley, there is no pinnacle. One of his biggest concerns is complacency,” the article states.
It quotes him, “The biggest thing a leader needs to fear during successful times is complacency, and I worry about that every day. I don’t want to think I have the whole thing figured out. We fight complacency by pointing it out to people and paying attention to any slippage.”
Foley also discusses hiring and recruiting as well as effective leadership.
A psychology major during his undergraduate years, Foley was a three-time letterman in football and a two-time letterman in lacrosse. He went on to earn a master’s degree in sports administration from Ohio University.
The full article with Foley’s insights follows.
Dennis Read • Associate Editor • August/September 2009
Developing a prominent athletic department–at any level–takes savvy leadership skills, great hiring tactics, and an ability to change with the times. We asked some of the most respected athletic directors in the nation to reveal their secrets.
When your football and men’s basketball teams combine for four national titles in three years, many would say you’ve reached the pinnacle of your career as an athletic administrator. But for University of Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley, there is no pinnacle. One of his biggest concerns is complacency.
For Susan Robbins, Athletic Director at Yarmouth (Maine) High School, who has led her program to 16 state championships, success comes through continual input from parents and student-athletes. She seeks this out through both casual conversations and formal evaluations, carefully using their feedback to improve her program.
At Grand Valley State University, which has won the last six NCAA Division II Directors’ Cups, Athletic Director Tim Selgo has focused on developing a culture of achievement in his athletic department and works hard on maintaining it. “You have to repeat yourself over and over,” he says.
Success in high school and college athletics can be elusive. It is also defined by more than just winning titles. How do the best athletic directors attain it? Are there secrets to developing the right leadership skills? In this article, we talk with seven athletic directors, all of whom have a mountain of achievements next to their names, about their strategies and experiences.
AT THE TOP
Jeremy Foley has been Athletic Director at the University of Florida since 1992. In that time, Florida has won 12 national titles and in 2006-07 became the first NCAA school to win national championships in both football and men’s basketball in the same academic year. The school has ranked in the top 10 of the NACDA Directors’ Cup each year under Foley and has finished first in the Southeastern Conference all-sports standings 13 times.
What is the key to Florida’s continual success?
The biggest thing a leader needs to fear during successful times is complacency, and I worry about that every day. I don’t want to think I have the whole thing figured out. We fight complacency by pointing it out to people and paying attention to any slippage.
I’m not talking about wins and losses, but maybe a change in how coaches are recruiting. When I walk around our facilities, I need to notice if they don’t look quite as nice. We want to know if an event is not run as well as a year ago.
How does that relate to coaching changes?
If you care about people, anytime you make a coaching change, you’re stepping outside your comfort zone. But if you’re going to make your program successful, you have to make those tough decisions. To hesitate because it’s hard only hurts the program you’re responsible for.
In 2004, we made a football coaching change in the middle of the year, and that was difficult for a lot of people, especially our student-athletes. It also led to many weeks of Internet rumors. But it gave us some time in the hiring process that I would not trade for anything. We had a chance to talk to a lot of different people about a lot of different candidates, and that was essential to a great hire.
During the previous search in 2002, I think I was a little too hasty. I put false deadlines in place for reasons that I thought were legitimate–players who may go to the pros or worrying about a certain recruiting weekend. But you have to find the right person, even if it takes a little longer than you want.
I’ve also learned how to better keep the hiring process under the radar, which has become critical today. In 2002, people were tracing tail numbers on airplanes and showing up at airports before I even got there. I think it hindered the coach we hired because people formed opinions before he ever came in here.
What have you learned about effective leadership?
You have to constantly evaluate yourself and realize you have weaknesses. Early on in my career I found that I wasn’t very good at dealing with people and I didn’t always treat people very well. Somebody pointed that out to me, and I worked hard to overcome it.
I’ve also learned to recognize the importance of work-life balance, and that’s been an evolution for me. I can remember when I first became athletic director, it would bother me if staff members got to work after 8 a.m. We have since created an environment where if people take the afternoon off, it’s fine–as long as they get their work done.
How else have you changed as a leader?
I’ve become more dependent on the people who work with me. Early in my career I had a tendency to do a lot of things myself, especially when it came to hiring coaches. Now I lean on people more than I ever used to. My staff members are very talented, very loyal, and not afraid to tell me what I don’t want to hear, so they’re very involved in all key decisions.
Kevin Buisman is Director of Athletics at Minnesota State University, Mankato, which won the 2008-09 Northern Sun Intercollegiate All-Sports Trophy and was second in the NCAA Division II Directors’ Cup standings. The Mavericks women’s basketball team won the Division II national championship while the wrestling team finished third.
How do you celebrate success?
Our athletic achievements get a ton of attention in the media already, so any time I get a chance to give a stump speech, I highlight our student-athletes’ academic success and community service. For example, 35 to 40 percent of our student-athletes are on the Dean’s list, and I talk about that a lot. We also take out a full-page ad in our student newspaper and list those student-athletes. They take a lot of pride in being recognized for something other than how many points they scored or what their time was in a track event.
How do you continue to develop your leadership skills?
One thing I’m working on right now is using transformational leadership more than transactional leadership. Transactional leadership involves providing rewards as incentives or support. If an employee meets expectations, they’ll be rewarded through a promotion or contract extension or higher salary.
Transformational leadership is taking the organization to another level by sharing a vision with others. It entails challenging the way you’ve always operated and enabling others to be part of the change. By inspiring people and working together, you transform your organization.
One of the ways we’re doing this is by deemphasizing wins and losses as the only way we measure our department and individual coaches. We are asking our coaches to continually think about how they are preparing kids for the future, focusing on academics and community service.
What’s the most difficult situation you’ve faced as an athletic administrator?
Two years ago, a student-athlete was hit by a car at the end of a training run and died. You can share a lot of experiences with peers and go to the textbook for answers to many situations. But I don’t think there’s anything that can really prepare you to deal with the immediacy of that kind of event and the overwhelming grief people feel.
One thing I learned about leadership in that situation is to listen more than you talk. People really needed a sympathetic ear and an outlet for all their feelings and emotions. When I did talk, it was important to use words that focused on healing and hope.
PROACTIVE WITH PARENTS
Susan Robbins is the Athletic Director at Yarmouth (Maine) High School, named one of America’s top high schools by Newsweek magazine. The Clippers have won 16 state titles during her four-year tenure, including three of the last four boys’ lacrosse Class B state championships. A Certified Master Athletic Administrator, Robbins is also NIAAA Leadership Training Coordinator for the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association.
How important is working with parents to achieving success today?
I think it’s critical, and I try to be proactive about it. It starts with being visible on the sidelines, but that’s not always enough. I also approach people and start conversations. I may ask them, “Did you read that article in the newspaper?” or “How has your child’s experience in this particular sport been?” That’s a way for me to positively communicate rather than only talking to them in my office about a coach. Some of the best conversations I have with parents happen at games.
Do you ask parents for feedback on coaches?
I ask both student-athletes and their parents for input on coaches. We send them surveys and work very hard to make the responses as constructive as possible. I’ve found that if you don’t phrase the questions correctly, people either say they love everything the coach is doing or they want the coach gone.
Rather than asking for general comments about the program like “Do you feel your child is having a good experience?” we ask, “Can you describe an experience that your child had that has been a positive influence on their lives?’ Or, “Can you provide some examples of things the coach does really well?”
How do you stay positive on the tough days?
There are so many details to keep track of, and when you make one mistake everybody knows about it. But you can’t dwell on that. Sometimes I just take a walk around the halls and interact with student-athletes because that reminds me what it’s all about, which is helping kids.
We can get caught up in the paperwork and get stuck in the office all day, but that’s not going to help our student-athletes. Those interactions with student-athletes in the hallway or at lunch lets them know you’re human, which can make them more comfortable when you need to have a serious conversation with them.
How do you approach those serious conversations?
I always make sure I have a smile on my face and I think that goes a long way. If they come in the office and see I am stressed, they are immediately uncomfortable. So I’m always quick to step away from my computer, turn my cell phone off, and give them my full attention. That’s how I set people at ease and it works really well.
What are some solutions for finding work-life balance?
I’ve been able to get some help from the principal and assistant principal in covering games for me. The other piece is I usually don’t come to the office until 9 a.m., which gives me time with my kids (a three-year old daughter and one-year old twin boys) in the morning. And sometimes, I’m able to pop home for a little while after school ends and before the evening contests begin.
I also bring my kids to the games and that offers people a different perspective. They see one of my hands pushing the stroller and the other holding my daughter’s hand, and they realize, “She has her own family to be concerned about. She’s here supporting my kid every night, but she also has a life of her own.” I think it’s really important for people to see a different side of me.
FOCUS ON FUNDAMENTALS
Tim Selgo is Athletic Director at Grand Valley State University, which has won six straight Directors’ Cup awards as the top athletic department in NCAA Division II. He is Chair of the NCAA Division II Management Council and a member of the Division II Budget and Finance Committee. Selgo also served as President of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference for the 2008-09 school year.
How do you maintain success in so many programs?
We ask ourselves all the time, how do we effectively convey our culture to everyone on our staff? It may sound simple, but the main answer is that you have to repeat yourself over and over. Some fundamentals are vital in any successful organization, and some little disciplines should remain constant no matter how much the world around you changes. Everyone on our staff understands that they have to repeatedly do the little things well. Just like in sports, we focus on fundamentals and repetition.
How important is the hiring process to your operations?
I believe there is no more valuable time and energy spent in athletics than in the hiring process. You have to leave no stone unturned in order to find that coach who is the right fit for your school. We’re not afraid to spend a few extra dollars in the search process because we believe it’s going to pay off multiple times if we find the perfect person.
For example, we always interview our two or three finalists for a position a second time. In that first round of interviews, somebody can fool you. It’s a lot tougher to be fooled when you come face to face with a person a second time. We also have as many people as possible meet the candidates. The more information you uncover and the more eyes and ears you have working for you, the less chance you’ll make a mistake.
During interviews, we ask about their specific experiences in different areas. Anybody can give you their philosophy. I want to find out what they’ve actually done to improve, for example, the academic performance of their teams.
What are your thoughts on changing technology?
I don’t think changes in technology are going to slow down, so we have to continue to stay on top of them. However, there’s only so much information you can process well, and I think we have information overload right now. One skill set that athletic directors are going to need in the future is the ability to prioritize the information out there. Otherwise, you can end up spending all your time on your laptop or PDA, processing information instead of leading people.
Do you have a strategy for days filled with problems?
In administration, you’re always going to deal with problems–that’s part of the job. So whenever somebody sends me a thank you note or a complimentary e-mail, I place it in a stack in my desk drawer. Then when I’ve had a negative day, I’ll pull those out and start reviewing them. It helps me keep things in perspective and reminds me there are people who appreciate what I do.
Another solution for me is to do something with my family. When my kids were younger, I would help out at my son’s seventh-grade baseball practice for an hour and a half. That wore me out physically, but mentally it was absolutely the best thing I could do because I totally forgot about work and I had a blast with those young kids.
COLLABORATING WITH COACHES
Lisa Starks is Athletic Director at Booker T. Washington High School in Miami, Fla., which has won state championships in boys’ track and field and football since she took over the department in 2002. The football team was ranked among the top 10 in the nation going into the 2007 season.
How are you able to keep your program successful each year?
One of the most important things is making sure we have qualified coaches. A lot of our head coaches are teachers, but many of our assistant coaches are working in the community. So we help them get certified to coach at the high school level. Then, I do all I can to make sure they come back each year.
What is your strategy for working with coaches?
I use a collaborative approach. I tell them, “If you have something you need to get done, let’s do it together. As long as you do what you have to as a coach, I’ll have your back.” I didn’t always have that support when I was a coach, and it’s so important.
I also make sure I’m always around and available for them. In fact, I usually go to them before they come to me. I’m always asking them, “Are you okay? Do you have what you need?” If they need something, I do my best to get it.
How have you increased female participation?
When I first started as athletic director, not enough girls were coming out for sports. So I looked for teachers who had a good rapport with the girls and would be willing to coach. If I saw a whole bunch of girls flocking to a teacher, especially a female teacher, I focused on that person. That’s worked out well for us.
How involved are you in your student-athletes’ academic achievement?
Our goal is for all our student-athletes to have at least a 3.0 GPA, and I don’t settle for anything less. I don’t bite my tongue. I let them know, straight up, if you’re at a 2.0 in your junior year, you’re going to be in my office. And you don’t want to be in my office with a 2.0.
I also let our students know that college coaches today are looking at their academics. I tell them, “If a college coach comes here and they’re looking at your grades, it’s embarrassing to us if you’re still at a 2.0 as a junior. And it should be embarrassing to you, too.”
STRONGER AFTER ADVERSITY
Mike Alden is in his 12th year as Director of Athletics at the University of Missouri. The Tigers are coming off one of their most successful years, which included a bowl win in football, Big 12 tournament title in men’s basketball, and Women’s College World Series appearance in softball.
Has there been a turning point in your time at Missouri?
It may have been four or five years ago, when we were going through a major infractions case with men’s basketball, which I swore would never happen at any place I worked. Although I never would have believed so at the time, that experience was probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me in my career.
First, we got validation after we went through the investigation that the entire organization was sound and there were no institutional control issues. Second, I learned adversity really can help you become stronger. Going through that process, my personal integrity was attacked on a regular basis. And I questioned, many times, what I’d been doing, which is difficult. But because I was doing a lot of soul-searching and reflecting, I realized where I needed to do better.
How do you get staff to buy into a department philosophy?
I think you have to do it through the hiring process. When you have turnover and you’re recruiting people to be part of your organization, you need to be very up front with them about who you are and what your expectations are. Some people go into the hiring mode and then start to indoctrinate new employees into the organization’s culture once they come on board. We look at it as more of a recruiting process than a hiring process.
What’s the best way to determine the expectations for your department?
I believe it has to be done through a team concept. Folks who think they can set expectations while isolated in their own bubble are fooling themselves. But it’s also important to push the envelope a little. Many times, a group will establish goals that certainly are good, but too easily achievable. I think the athletic director’s role is to ascertain that and add a bit more to those expectations.
However, you have to make those decisions on goals from a data-driven standpoint. I look at how we measure up to our peer groups, which are the Big 12 members and the schools in the American Association of Universities. I also have to know where we’ve been over the last eight to 10 years and what we can realistically expect over the course of the next two to three years.
For example, we could sit here and say we want to have $14 million and 14,000 members in our annual fund, but that’s unrealistic. Why? Because the data shows that we’re at 6,100 members and $8 million. So we have to come up with a realistic expectation instead.
Has your leadership style changed in any ways?
When I first came here I was probably a little bit more autocratic than I am now. I was 39 years old, and I thought I had to prove myself. I felt the need to be tough and able to answer everyone’s questions. Over time I’ve found that was more management than leadership.
Management is making sure people are doing things right, while leadership is about making sure people are doing the right things. Instead of telling everybody how to get it done, I found it was more important to develop people by supporting them and giving them feedback–helping them grow as professionals.
I’ve also changed my attitude on working a lot of hours. Fifteen years ago, I felt my image was based on the fact that Mike Alden would work 24/7. But I finally found out that 24/6 was okay–life went on. So I started carving out Sundays for my family. Then I learned it was okay to leave the office at six-thirty or seven o’clock, and not take all my work home with me. That required me to be more organized–I put together more checklists and made sure I got through my e-mails in a certain amount of time. I think we’re now finding that those who have more of a balance with their families and personal lives while still doing the job right are respected the most.
What are some solutions to financial challenges?
The biggest thing I learned while working on the NCAA Dashboard Indicators project was to be transparent. People think it’s better to be private about financial matters, but even though we’re in competition on the field, the best thing is to share data.
Whether you’re operating at the high school level or at the highest level in college athletics, be open about your own financial information. Talk with other people about it, share ideas, and see what you can do to become more efficient. All of us like to think we can find the answers at our own schools, but 90 percent of us are facing the same issues, so we might as well share ideas.
LEADING THROUGH CHANGE
Debby De Angelis is Athletic Director at California State University-East Bay, which was formerly known as Cal State-Hayward. The dual-affiliated school (NAIA and NCAA Division III) won the 2008 Collegiate Division III Women’s Water Polo Championship. De Angelis was named the 2008 NAIA-ADA Athletic Director of the Year and also serves as Vice President of the NCAA Division III Independents Association.
How have you led your department through its recent changes?
It’s been an incredible time of change on our campus with a new president coming in two and a half years ago. Then a year ago, athletics moved out of the department of kinesiology and became our own department, reporting to the vice president for administration and finance instead of the provost. And now we’re beginning a move to NCAA Division II.
For the most part I welcome change, but it’s been important that I help others cope with it. That means figuring out when I need to encourage people and when I need to be quiet. Getting everybody to see it’s a good thing that we’re our own department hasn’t always been easy. I’ve had to do a lot of listening–figuring out why someone doesn’t think that moving their office, for example, is a good thing.
I’ve also had to be flexible. After saying we were moving lock, stock, and barrel into the administration building, we agreed that the coaches who coach in the gym could keep their offices there. So we found a way to compromise and keep everybody happy.
What is your strategy for dealing with parents?
I tell my staff I don’t like to be surprised by parents. If I get a call from a parent about something that happened with his or her child, I want to be ready. I want to be able to say, “I know. Coach so-and-so has already shared that with me and I need you to understand that the decision of who’s on the team is up to the coaches,” or “the disciplinary action is something I approve of.”
The other thing with parents is, as much as possible, I want to talk to them the first time they call. If I can get them before they go to voicemail and think I’m ducking them, that’s the ideal situation.
Do you keep up with technology?
When I look back at my career, I can’t help but notice how technology has incredibly changed what we do and how we do it. And I think technology is going to continue to be something we’ve got to stay on top of, especially in how we communicate with our community. Whether it’s Web streaming or something else that comes along in the future, we need to recognize how it impacts the number of people we expect to see in the gym or at the field.
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