A generation ago, athletic directors at universities where football drove the athletic department budget tended to be — not surprisingly — football coaches.
Sometimes it was the football coach himself — Paul “Bear” Bryant at Alabama, Pat Dye at Auburn, Knute Rockne at Notre Dame, Frank Broyles at Arkansas, Bob Devaney at Nebraska (where he, like Broyles, stayed on as AD long after he retired from coaching) and Joe Paterno for a short span at Penn State are some examples.
Barry Alvarez, the athletic director at Wisconsin, is about the last active example, although he stepped down as football coach shortly after becoming AD (and, occasionally, making himself the interim coach of the Badgers when needed.) Phil Fulmer at Tennessee is another, although he didn’t take the AD job until years after he was fired as head coach, a fairly unusual path to the big office.
There were also ADs who started out as football coaches, then moved into administration and actually became ADs later — Mal Moore, Cecil “Hootie” Ingram at Florida State and Alabama, Doug Dickey at Tennessee and others. While that probably eased the workload for coaches who wore both hats, the underlying idea was the same.
College athletics have changed, though. Football is still a huge economic driver at many programs but athletic directors today usually have backgrounds in administration and function as the CEO of a diverse enterprise. There are different revenue streams, complex NCAA compliance issues, gender equity and a dozen other issues that have to be dealt with on a daily basis.
That’s why the demand (and compensation) for good athletic directors is high, the market is competitive and universities who have an accomplished AD will fight to keep him (or her, although it is still a male-dominated field.) For many fans, the main factor that determines whether an AD is “doing a good job” is his track record at hiring coaches. That usually encompasses the necessity of firing coaches as well.
Alabama’s athletic director, Greg Byrne, is well-regarded and his hiring, after stints at Mississippi State and Arizona, was generally considered a coup. That is also why he would be considered a possibility by other well-funded schools. On Thursday, he said he had not been contacted by Texas A&M and was happy at Alabama and UA hopes it stays that way.
The vacancy at Texas A&M came up because the Aggies’ Scott Woodward, another well-regarded AD, is taking the job at his alma mater, LSU. Joe Alleva is stepping aside after what can best be described as a contentious tenure.
Hiring an alum isn’t a necessity, but it makes sense at LSU, a somewhat sensitive and fragmented fan base at the moment. Tiger fans have grievances, lots of grievances. In general, they blame the entire universe for those grievances, but Alleva took a lot of specific heat. Perhaps some of it was deserved. One former LSU trustee said Alleva “spent a lot of money but didn’t raise a lot,” which is not an endorsement.
But LSU fans also didn’t like a lot of things. They generally felt like LSU gets a raw deal from the Southeastern Conference and that Alleva didn’t fix matters. He wasn’t able to hire Jimbo Fisher at the end of a long and mishandled exit by Les Miles. Woodward and his mighty Aggie checkbook ultimately did hire Fisher. Alleva took tremendous heat for suspending basketball coach Will Wade when there wasn’t really much choice. The recent reinstatement of Wade came when Alleva probably knew he was out and would be free of any future NCAA consequences.
The point isn’t to dissect the mystifying maze that is LSU. But an athletic director can be a thunderous success one day and a lightning rod the next — and that’s why the good ones are worth a fight, if it comes to it.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.
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