This is the first of a two-part series on the athletic directors at Michigan State and Michigan. Coming Friday: Michiganís Dave Brandon.
East Lansing ó Outdoor hockey, basketball on aircraft carriers and in an overseas U.S. military base airplane hangar, and maybe even football at the Colosseum in Rome.
All are the brainchild of Mark Hollis, and offer proof he isnít your average athletic director.
But itís the moment the 51-year-old head of Michigan State sports climbs over the table in a less-than desirable bathroom of a popular fraternity house, avoiding spilled beer cups along the way, just to get out on the roof and take pictures with alums and active members, that you realize there truly are few ó if any ó athletic directors like Hollis.
Maybe itís because he, himself, is an Michigan State alum. Maybe itís just because heís still a big kid at heart.
But one thing that canít be denied is his devotion to his school. Sure, he probably could cash a bigger paycheck somewhere else, but this is home. This is where he met his wife, Nancy. This is where he was a manager for Jud Heathcoteís basketball team and he first met a young, unknown assistant named Tom Izzo. This is where he succeeded Ron Mason as athletic director and landed the job of his dreams.
This place is Mark Hollis, and he proves it every day.
But football Saturdays can be more interesting than most, as Hollis plays ambassador, cheerleader and even lost-and-found coordinator.
The Detroit News spent the day with Hollis last Saturday as Michigan State hosted Indiana. It was a day filled with handshakes, pictures, jabs at a few folks wearing Michigan gear, suppressing nerves about the game, checking football scores on his phone, wondering if the Tigers could win their American League Championship Series opener against the Red Sox, and capping it watching one of the best volleyball teams in the country.
Itís busy for most, but for Hollis, itís just another day at the office.
Hollis is at it before the sun rises, as he is on most days, especially football game days. The docket is full, and includes appearances, quick speeches, radio spots and just enough time to watch some football.
At 8:30 a.m., heís outside his office at Jenison Field House, sipping on a cup of coffee and talking with the fans making their way to pregame celebrations. He pulls out his itinerary to see where heís headed next and if he has any chance at being on time. This proves to be a theme for the day ó pull out the folded piece of paper, find whatís next and contemplate his move.
For now, itís off to the Kellogg Center and the Alumni Association breakfast. On the way, he makes the scenic walk over the Red Cedar River, coffee in hand and acknowledging several students decked out in Spartans gear. They offer him a doughnut, but he politely declines and keeps on moving.
Inside the Kellogg Center, the room is packed. Former Gov. Jim Blanchard is there, as are former Michigan State presidents Gordon Guyer and Cecil Mackey. Part of the marching band is also there, as are a group of cheerleaders, and of course, Sparty.
Itís a lively crowd. Alumni Association director Scott Westerman is dancing to the fight song.
In the meantime, Hollis stops greeting folks long enough to get a refill on his coffee.
He is here to introduce football coach Mark Dantonio. He steps to the podium and boasts about Michigan Stateís menís soccer team and the womenís volleyball team. It wonít be the first time he brags about those teams, but for the time being, heís looking over his shoulder and not seeing his football coach. No worries, Hollis fills like a pro before Dantonio is there and joins Hollis to address the large room packed with former Spartans.
Dantonio moves quickly and Hollis is off again, this time to a waiting golf cart that will take him to the broadcast location for WJRís ďTailgate Show.Ē Itís the only time Hollis doesnít walk.
The overloaded cart moves slowly past tents, grills, flying footballs and plenty of green and white. Several fans shout to Hollis and he waves back. In a few minutes, heís on set with Steve Courtney, another coffee in hand, once again pumping up the success of menís soccer, womenís volleyball and preparing for the football showdown ďat high noon.Ē
After that, Hollis is walking again, this time to swing by a few corporate tents where fans are tailgating. Along the way, he plans to grab Nancy, though heís certain sheíll be deep in conversation with someone ó ďShe talks to everyone,Ē he says with a quick smile.
On the way ó walking along the east side of Spartan Stadium ó Hollis talks about his vision for more expansion. Thatís all it is right now ó a vision ó but considering what Hollis has accomplished in his more than 18 years with the athletic department, odds are it soon will be reality.
He moves briskly and finds Nancy at a tent just along the river and across the street from where the current renovations are taking place at Spartan Stadium. And yes, sheís busy chatting. Hollis decides itís best to leave her be and he pulls out the white piece of paper, checks which tents he hopes to get to, and heís moving again. Along the river, he stops at one, then another near Demonstration Hall before deciding itís time to head into the stadium. He needs to grab Nancy, so he doubles back to find her.
Along the way, heís waving to fans, taking pictures and chatting with folks as if heís known them for years.
Itís about 10:45 a.m., and heís found Nancy. He hollers across the street, pulling her from yet another conversation.
She runs across the street and the couple make their way through the construction at the north end of the stadium. As they walk, Hollis reaches his hand back and Nancy grabs it. Itís easy to picture them doing the same thing as young students, basking in the joy of their school ó their home ó on game day.
Keeping nerves at bay
Hollis walks onto the sun-drenched field, which looks immaculate considering the buckets and buckets of rain that were dumped on it the first two weeks of the season. Nancy heads upstairs to the athletic directorís box while Hollis roams the sidelines, talking with former players, stadium staff and even the Indiana state trooper who accompanied the Hoosiers.
Itís the first time Hollis stops and admits this is when he is trying to suppress his nerves. Heís certain this game will be a nail-biter.
By 11:30, the place is getting packed and Hollis is taking note of the crowd. He hopes for a packed house, especially in the student section. He takes about 10 minutes to join the pregame show at the on-field set and even offers his prediction for the game. Shockingly, he likes the Green and White.
Hollis then heads to the student section, walking through, greeting students ó his daughter, Katy, included ó and stands near the top of the lower bowl to take it all in. He does this at every home game to connect with the student body.
The clockís ticking and heís headed back to the field. The 1988 Rose Bowl team has gathered in the corner of the end zone and thatís where Hollis stops, ready to watch. A stadium worker hands him a driverís license that was found on the sidelines and Hollis does a quick check to see if anyone knows the young lady. Shortly after, heís got people on the case.
The plan is to introduce the Rose Bowl team at the second timeout of the first quarter. Lorenzo White is there, so is Tony Mandarich. The mood is light until Indiana scores on its fourth play of the game.
ďSo much for my prognostication,Ē Hollis says.
But he soldiers on and joins the 1988 team on the field during a timeout. Heís got one more presentation to make late in the first quarter before he can head up to his box. As he waits, Michigan State goes three-and-out and the exasperating look on his face grows.
He takes a quick moment to confer with university president Lou Anna Simon, goes through the presentation and is on his way upstairs. On the eighth floor, he steps in to greet Indiana athletic director Fred Glass before heading to his box.
Nancy is there along with many of Michigan Stateís other coaches ó baseball coach Jake Boss and softball coach Jacquie Joseph included. Also there is former Tigers great Dave Bergman, and a few minutes later, thereís Kirk Gibson. The Spartans have moved ahead now and Hollis is breathing easier, grabbing a bottle of water and talking to everyone in the room, though his eyes are never off the action for long.
By mid-fourth quarter, the Spartans have all but locked the game up and Hollis heads down to the field. He waits in the tunnel and high-fives players and coaches as they leave the field. Many of the players stop to give ďMr. HollisĒ a quick hug. Two wins to open the Big Ten and there is no sign of the nervousness that was present before the game and he heads back to his office, a smile on his face and a spring in his step.
Raise the roof
While the game is over, his evening is just getting started. Hollis has agreed to greet alumni and students at the Sigma Chi house. He and Nancy jump in his SUV and make the drive over. Hollis admits heís not sure what to expect.
He parks the car and he and Nancy are hand-in-hand again. Before long, Hollis is the center of attention, taking pictures with everyone in attendance and sitting on a giant bench that sits in the front yard the members have just completed. But Hollis has his eyes on the roof. Thatís where heís headed.
Heís led through the house, up the stairs and into the bathroom. Itís about what youíd expect for a house full of college guys. But Hollis is fired up, heís headed out to the roof.
The cameras start clicking and heís joined by a dozen other Sigma Chi members as the traffic on Grand River Avenue slows to take it in. Hollis beams.
He comes downstairs and addresses the crowd, talking about what a great day it has been for Michigan State. For him, too, since he said heís always wanted to step out on that roof.
Hollis and his wife take a few more pictures and head back to the car, happy ó and relieved ó everything went so well. Their hands are clasped once more.
A quick trip to Case Hall to see Katy and they are back at Jenison Field House. The place is loud as Michigan State and Nebraska prepare for a battle of volleyball supremacy in the Big Ten. Hollis takes a few minutes to catch part of the Michigan-Penn State game in his office before he and Nancy head downstairs for the game.
The excitement is high and Michigan State is rolling, winning the first two sets. Hollis admits he doesnít know all the ins and outs of the game, but loves the excitement, nonetheless. He allows himself a minute or two to check the Michigan-Penn State score, but the match is getting tight with the Cornhuskers.
The Spartans go through a lull and lose the third set but storm back to win the fourth. They are unbeaten in the Big Ten. He and Nancy stand and cheer with the rest of the crowd, the capper to one heck of a day for Michigan State sports.
As the crowd files out, the man in charge of it all is in his element. Heís strolling out of the arena where he was once a basketball manager, hand in hand with the love of his life he met on the very same campus.
Nope, heís not your ordinary athletic director.