Q&A With Director Luck
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia University Director of Athletics Oliver Luck has officially been on the job now for three months. In that short amount of time Luck has already presided over a number of issues that will have far-reaching effects on the WVU athletic program.
Earlier this week, we sat down with Luck to get his views on a variety of topics.
How have the three months gone for you so far spending time here, in Houston, and catching Stanford football games when you can?
OL: I have been busy, but every football season is busy. I’m starting to get settled a little bit.
What thing or things did you think you would have to address immediately that you haven’t so far? And conversely, what are some of the things that weren’t on your radar screen when you took the job that you’ve had to spend an inordinate amount of time with during these first few months?
OL: There were a couple personnel items that were critical, probably the most critical being the new CFO that we will be bringing on board shortly. The most important issue on the front burner was making sure we could get a solid, star kind of a guy to replace Russ (Sharp), which we have. We had two coaching issues and those were important for obvious reasons and they both happened shortly before the season that those respective sports started. You would like to do a two-month search but we had to compress two-month’s work into two weeks to get people on board at the right time. The notice of allegation was another issue that I had to deal with immediately.
Now as we move forward, the term I like to use is our ‘comprehensive review’ of what we’re doing. Some of that I wanted to wait until we got a new CFO on board because he is going to be a key player in helping us figure out what things can we do better, where can we improve and where can we become more efficient? That is an on-going process in terms of looking at things we think we need to do better.
Football scheduling seems to be a popular subject these days. What is your general philosophy regarding scheduling?
OL: My general philosophy on scheduling is that we want to have a schedule that is conducive to winning a national championship. Anybody who is not in this business to win a national championship is in the wrong business. Of course, how national championships are won and how you get there changes. Twenty years ago there was a different kind of set up than it is now. Look at the two opportunities we had in 1988 and 2007. How you get to a national championship changes as college football changes – and it’s probably about to change a whole lot more over the next 10 or 12 years. I think, ultimately, the goal is to create a schedule that allows you to win a national championship.
I think at this point - where we are in the Big East - our path to a national championship is going to be through the Big East, and you clearly have to win your conference, but that’s likely not enough to propel you to that level. I think we have got to schedule some teams like Auburn and LSU - and those are clearly games fans want to see: how do we stack up against great programs from the SEC or from other conferences? I think you have natural rivalries like Maryland that are important. I do think it is important to play schools like Marshall. They will be part of us going forward in some form or fashion, based on what we can work out with the Marshall folks.
I think it is important for us to be able to go into ‘hostile environments’ whether it is LSU or a packed house in Huntington and win games. That’s where you become a quality program. We shouldn’t bow to anybody. We should certainly have respect for all of our opponents but we shouldn’t be concerned about going anywhere to play if we want to win a national championship. That is our goal and must remain our goal.
There is also a huge financial component to scheduling. We need to play seven home games, but also be on the lookout for a game like BYU in Washington, D.C. Those are clearly important. We have an enormously important fiduciary responsibility to the University as an athletic department. In turn, what drives the athletic department is football revenue and as a result, it’s extraordinarily important for us that we maximize, monetarily, our football schedule. These one-off games are going to be more and more important. (Dallas Cowboys owner) Jerry Jones seems to be announcing one a week. I know the NFL economics well enough that they need to keep their buildings busy on Saturdays. Baltimore, D.C., Cincinnati and Cleveland – those are all markets where I wouldn’t be surprised if more and more of these offers didn’t start coming to us. We have to be smart about it, but when you can walk away with $2.25 million, that’s not a bad deal for a university.
Another topic that seems to be capturing a lot of attention is conference realignment. You have taken a proactive approach to this from day one. What are some of the things an athletic director and an institution can do to ensure that West Virginia University is in a strong position when the next round of movement takes place?
OL: We need to be proactive. We need to be talking to a lot of people and we need to sort of figure out what people think will happen, when it may happen, and all of it is speculation, of course. That makes it somewhat difficult. The most important things we can do is, No. 1, work with the Big East to make sure the Big East is as strong as it possibly can be. That’s very important because we are a proud member of the Big East and fought to keep the Big East together when three of the schools left in 2003.
I think we also need to understand some of the national trends and how people look at us. How do schools in the ACC look at us? We’ve got a long history of playing Maryland in football and playing basketball against ACC schools and in Olympic sports: how do they view us? How does the SEC view us? How do schools in the Big XII view us? Would they consider us to be an asset if something were to happen? What are our strengths and what are our weaknesses? I think those are all things you have to understand pretty well before you can even think about what response we may have. Who knows? The Big Ten very well might decide to add more teams. The Pac-10 could add more teams. We’ve seen over the last 20-30 years there has been a lot of movement in conference affiliations and I don’t think it’s going to stop. Again, I reiterate, our most important function is to make sure the Big East is as strong as it can possibly be.
Schools often talk about having a “total athletic program.” What is Oliver Luck’s definition of a total athletic program?
OL: My definition is three things: 25 – all of our programs ranked in the Top 25 in their respective sports; 75 – 75 percent of our student-athletes graduating from West Virginia because they are our best ambassadors going forward and we should do a good job in the class room just as we do on the field of competition, and then, winning national championships. We need to do that.
There is an arms race going on right now in college sports despite the continuation of a sluggish economy. Some people believe college athletic departments are close to reaching the precipice. What are your feelings about this?
OL: That reminds me of the story when I was down in Houston as a second-year player and the Oilers signed Warren Moon. He graduated from Washington, wasn’t drafted by an NFL team and played up in Canada for a long stretch of time and really developed into a great player. Well, the Oilers signed him to a six-year, $6 million dollar contract. He was the $6 Million Dollar Man from the old TV show in the 1970s. I remember people saying, “This is absurd. This can’t go on. How can they pay somebody that much money to play a sport?” They thought the world was going to collapse. What happened? Nothing. It kept going and now it’s almost beyond the pale of belief. I would acknowledge there is an arms race, no question about it, and some of the facilities around the country are spectacular, including our facilities. When people see our new basketball practice facility they are going to be blown away. But keep in mind all of these capital projects are being built for student-athletes – and they are really being built for generations of student-athletes.
Yes, there is an arms race and I think it is going to continue. College athletics to me is at an all-time high in terms of interest level and value that people place on it, not just on football and basketball, but all of the other sports as well. You can make a principled decision and say, well, I just don’t think we can compete and if that’s the case, then you’re not going to compete and you can just close up shop. Therefore, that means we have to continue to raise money and be aggressive in our thinking in terms of what do we need – not just five years from now - but what do we need 20 years from now? What other sports should we be looking at? While other schools like Cal are dropping sports, what other sports will be as competitive in 2040 as opposed to 2010 with our intercollegiate athletic department? That takes a lot of hard work, of course, but it also takes a little bit of creativity to think where things could possibly be that far from now. Skateboarding could be an NCAA sport by that time. I tell people all of the time: go back to the 1930s and tell me what were the two most popular spectator sports in America? Boxing and horse racing. Those sports are still around, but they are not nearly as prominent. My point is sports change.
Last week, Maryland coach Gary Williams said he believes the time has come for athletes in revenue generating sports to be paid. You were once an athlete, your son is helping bring in millions of dollars for the Stanford athletic department. What are your thoughts on this?
OL: I’m opposed to it. I think it would further devalue the perceived value of getting an education. I say further devalue because I think there is maybe less of an appreciation today for the value of four-five years of a college education than maybe there was 30-40 years ago. If all of a sudden we paid a kid $500 a month, just to make up a number, I think the message is very mixed. Why are you here? Is it for the $500 so you can become a pro or the four-five years of a great education? I respect Gary Williams, he’s been around a long time and has done a great job of coaching, but I think it’s a bad path to go down.
With the proliferation of talk radio, the Internet, social media, blogs and the like, fans have much more access to information and are much more informed than they have ever been. As an athletic director, as a parent of student-athletes and as a sports fan yourself, do you believe we are reaching a point where fans are getting too much information?
OL: I don’t think so. By and large the development of the Internet, blogs and enhanced communication vehicles that didn’t exist 35 years ago I think has been good for college athletics. For example, I think the biggest plus has been for student-athletes who have a whole new world opened up to them. If you are a football player and you think you’re good enough to play college football you can find a scholarship somewhere. Maybe it’s a school you never heard of but you can spend enough time on the Internet talking to people. Kids are going to schools in much different places than they were 30 years ago. It was very regional.
I’m convinced that back in the old days before there were scholarship limits there were great players stuck on rosters who could have been star players somewhere else. I think the talent then was ‘Democratized.’ That’s why you are seeing programs like Jacksonville State beating Ole Miss. You’re seeing James Madison beating Virginia Tech. I’m sure there are kids that Tech would have liked to have gotten that went to JMU because they can play four years at JMU and they would have to sit for three years at Tech before they became a starter.
So, I think those things have all been good. Is there potentially a bad side? Sure, with loss of privacy and all that. Passion is generally a good thing. Believe me, the worst problem any college sports program can have is apathy. Passion is good. Now do people go over the line? Sure. Did they go over the line 30 years ago? Sure. I think what people need to keep in mind with college athletes is these kids are trying to get an education, they are trying to play their sport, and they are still learning their sport. They are going to make mistakes. Now, coaches to me are fair game. They are professionals but I do think that people should keep in mind that student-athletes are just that – student-athletes.
In what ways can the athletic department continue to engage the WVU student population?
OL: We have actually done a couple of things I think that should end up helping us. I learned fairly early that our bus system wasn’t synched up with events. You can want to come to a volleyball game here at the Coliseum or a soccer match, but if you’re in Boreman Hall downtown you didn’t have a way to get out here unless you had a car. So we sat down with the transportation folks and figured out a way to allow the busses to run a little longer, whether it’s volleyball, soccer, or going forward with gymnastics, wrestling or whatever. It’s important that we make it easy for students to get out here. It’s a small development but I think it helped us get 600 fans in here to watch us beat Marshall in volleyball for the first time in many years. That matters. You bring 50 or 100 Mountaineer Maniacs out to anything and that will make a difference.
Also, we are encouraging all of our coaches to encourage their athletes to go watch the other sports. If you are a tennis player, go out and watch the volleyball team play. And when you are there, text five of your friends and say, ‘Hey, I’m at the volleyball match and we’re beating Pitt. Come on out, it’s kind of fun!’ That’s important. It’s important that we do all of the promotions to foster interest.
The reality is nobody wants to walk 25 minutes when it’s snowing outside so we have to move the busses around to make it easier for them. This includes non-student fans as well. We’ve got to work on our parking situation, but that’s a whole different kettle of fish. The key thing is to make it easier and simpler for students to attend. We forget there are a lot of kids here who play tennis. Are they good enough to play tennis for West Virginia University? No. But they might want to come out and watch some tennis. It’s a matter of reworking some logistical things so that it’s easier in helping promote all of the sports, including the Olympic sports.
Can you give us an update on the progress being made on the basketball practice facility?
OL: We are on schedule to open it at the beginning of basketball season next year, more or less a year from now. All of the architectural work has been finalized and we should be getting the guaranteed maximum price (GNP) from the contractor soon. I think we’re in pretty good shape. It is going to be an absolute state-of-the-art facility. It’s going to blow people away.
What challenges have you encountered so far working in a university setting as opposed to running a professional sports franchise? On the flip side, what are some of the benefits of working in a university setting as opposed to being in a professional sports environment?
OL: The big difference is there are more constituencies that I have to keep in mind. We are a state institution so immediately you have to consider state government. We’re here to serve the people of West Virginia and we’re really a creation of the state, so we have to kind of keep that constituency in mind. You have your donors and fans and obviously you have the university itself. You have the student-athletes and there are other factors there. You’ve got parents, which you don’t have to worry about when you are in the professional sports world.
To me, the biggest difference is if we were sitting here considering a decision or considering a certain course of action, there are maybe eight or so constituencies you have to consider. OK, how does this affect groups A, B, C, D, and E whereas on the professional side, it’s really driven by the dollar, No. 1. You have some constituencies but really it’s your fan base and the people that buy your tickets. You have to sort of worry how would they react to X, Y, or Z, but in a university setting it’s much more multi-faceted, and much more intellectually challenging than just, OK, let’s make a decision based on what does it mean for the bottom line? In professional sports, decisions are much less complex than decisions made in a university context.
I like to think of things in terms of, what is the ultimate decision as we move forward? And a lot of times the answer is no and for good reason. People want to do the right thing and people want to see progress. At the end of the day, people want to see the University and the department grow and continue to be competitive. It’s like anything else, if you’re not changing you’re probably decaying.
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