There have been numerous examples of groups of three that have been wildly successful. From the Three Musketeers to the Three Tenors to the Marx Brothers to the Jonas Brothers. Well, forget that last one.
Groups of three can and have been dynamic and resourceful, and have created successful results in a range of fields. But how about on a college campus? What happens when you take, arguably, the three most prominent people in an athletic department and their union creates success beyond anyone's expectation.
That hasn't happened at Rutgers in....well, maybe ever. Even in 1976, when both the football and basketball teams were undefeated, the athletic director was Fred Grunninger who had a checkered record as the leader of Rutgers' sports teams. Frank Burns made magic with very little and Tom Young recruited players to a 3,000 seat gym. Pretty much without the AD's help.
Last December, BTN's Sean Merriman and Tom Dienhart put together a post about the best current combinations of athletic director, football, and basketball (men's) coaches in the Big Ten. I was going to do a post on that back then, but never got to it. But today, perhaps more than before, it seems appropriate to look at those three positions at the five schools highlighted, along with Rutgers. With the recent changes at Rutgers in two of those positions, and the discussion about whether the third should also change, we thought we'd take a look at what the two writers saw in their selections and where this might go at Rutgers........
The schools highlighted are, despite being in the Big Ten, a diverse lot. The list includes private Northwestern along with Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin, and the 800-pound gorilla in the room, Ohio State.
Who hired who?
Let's get this out right away: not every duo of coaches was hired by the same AD. None of the athletic directors hired both of their top coaches. And one, Michigan State's Mark Hollis, is the junior member of his trio. He inherited both his basketball and football coach from prior administrations.
What makes them good?
Obviously with the coaches, it's wins and losses. Along with the public perception of the type of program that is being run. For the athletic directors, it may be a bit less obvious to see what makes them successful. Let's look at two here. Ohio State is in its own universe: big, powerful, wealthy. As the BTN piece says regarding AD Gene Smith:
He oversees a behemoth, an absurdly wealthy department that sets the bar from a facilities and competitive standpoint. And Smith maintains harmony amid the cauldron of pressure and big expectations at a school with 36 sports and over 1,000 athletes. To who much is given, much is expected. And, Smith delivers.
But even those more human - let's say a Rutgers-aspiration like Michigan State - do things the right way if not necessarily in an over-the-top manner. On the Spartans' Mark Hollis:
He is a master P.R. man whose genius in scheduling off-beat and innovative events (a hoops game on an aircraft carrier?) has helped elevate the program. And Hollis knows how to keep his house happy and in order. Hollis has been especially influential in basketball. He has been a member of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee since 2012, was named vice chair for the 2015-16 season and chair of the committee for the 2016-17. He also was a former chair of the NCAA Division I Amateurism Cabinet and a former member of the NCAA's Men's Basketball Issues Committee.
When you look at both of those programs, there is a common thread: keep peace and order among the varied interests that you need to oversee and serve. Set high expectations and make things work.
Hiring for the sake of continuity may not always be the best route (see our Rutgers notes below). Not that other ADs haven't been around for long periods, but each of these five has been on the job for at least seven years, and in the case of Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez, since 2004, the longest tenure of the five. Coaches are a mixed bag on longevity. Iowa has Fran McCaffery in hoops, who is in his ninth year with the Hawkeyes, and Kirk Ferentz in football who just completed year 17. A similar pattern exists at Michigan State where Tom Izzo and Mark Dantonio have lengthy resumes at the school along with their boss, Mark Hollis.
Getting things done...the right way
In comments on this site, it has often been cited that an athletic director's job is to raise funds and make sure that the programs under your direction are run well. You want to lead and, if possible, wield some clout and influence. From the BTN piece on Northwestern's Tom Phillips:
The quintessential "smartest man in the room," Phillips is a rising star who is the chair of the NCAA Division 1 Council. He also is the only representative athletic director on the NCAA Division 1 Board of Directors, the first-ever sitting athletic director to serve on the board.
On Iowa's Barta:
He has augmented facilities, highlighted by the recent completion of the Hansen Performance for football. And he finally got Carver-Hawkeye Arena renovated. He also oversees the top ranked Big Ten football team in the nation currently.
His wrestling team ain't so bad either.
And on Alvarez:
The godfather of Wisconsin athletics who literally and figuratively has built this into one of the top departments in America....The Badger programs continue to excel - especially in the high-profile sports - and academics remain excellent, too.
Bringing it back to Piscataway
Continuity: Since I first stepped foot on the Rutgers campus 45 years ago - yes, I'm really that old - the school has had six athletic directors, including Pat Hobbs. As noted, Gruninger was on the job for 25 years, meaning (without Hobbs) the others only averaged about five years in the position.
Gruninger was AD for 25 years at Rutgers (1973-1998). In that time, he hired four football coaches and four basketball coaches. Except for Tom Young, coaches left not because they found better jobs but because they failed to achieve success.
Tim Pernetti had the opportunity to hire both a basketball coach and, in a pressured situation, a football coach. On one, he took a chance, hiring a fiery and volatile coach with a decent track record. On the other, he went with a safe, if not experienced, choice in order to maintain continuity. Neither worked out; one cost him his job and the other, in a somewhat indirect way, cost his successor her's.
Fundraising: It wasn't until Bob Mulcahy got the job that fundraising was really considered a critical part of running the program at a high level. The expectation was always that the University/state would pay for whatever was needed. And while Mulcahy's role was to raise money to fund the vision, it didn't always go well. His biggest goal was expanding the football stadium, a $100 million idea that had no funding behind it. The University ended up bonding for the construction and in a round-about way, led to Mulcahy's demise. And that brings us to.....
Oversight: When Mulcahy was hired, Rutgers had no significant fund-raising for athletics. It had a dismal football program under Terry Shea. And Mulcahy intended to build Rutgers athletics on the back of football. But that meant spending money - a lot of it - that he didn't really have. The aforementioned bonding for the stadium, cutting six sports in order to finance football expenses, and the apparent lack of transparency in what was spent and how it was spent all showed a lack of oversight. And led to his firing in 2008.
There has been no shortage of criticism of University President Robert Barchi around here - including from me. But when it became clear that a change in the leadership of both the football team and the athletic department was needed, he acted swiftly and decisively. And to a lot of us, it has completely changed the tone around athletics and is trending towards a wholesale change in the culture as well.
Pat Hobbs, as well, has acted decisively in his first 45 days on the job. He has hired his football coach and has seemingly over night created a new energy about Rutgers athletics. The long awaited facilities construction suddenly seems to be no longer a back burner issue; he is going after it aggressively.
And then there's basketball. Eddie Jordan was hired by then-interim athletic director Carl Kirshner. It was a popular and pretty safe hire. The loyal son returning home as savior. So far, though, it hasn't gone real well.
Will Pat Hobbs want his own basketball coach? Will he create his own triumvirate? And if so, when?
The ADs and coaches at Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan State, Northwestern, and Wisconsin have created a strong meshing of skill, talent, harmony, and intelligence that has led to continued success at those schools. Can a Hobbs-Ash-Jordan combination, given the right support and direction, do the kind of things -- create the same high level of success -- that have occurred at those five schools? Or will one of those names change, and will that new combination raise the level of success "on the banks"?
Could a successful trio of sports leaders at Rutgers change the financial future of Rutgers? Could successful football and basketball programs lead to fundraising success and the balancing of the athletic budget? And will that lead to a faster reduction of the largest athletic subsidy in the country?
Could those same successful Rutgers programs provide the opportunity for Pat Hobbs to gain significant and influential positions within the Big Ten and/or the NCAA? And what impact could that have on Rutgers in all areas of athletics?
A lot of questions looking for answers. A lot of fans waiting for answers. Three amigos....waiting to be finalized.