This is the eighth in a series of Q&As with the state’s athletic directors.
East Lansing — In his 10 years as Michigan State’s athletic director, Mark Hollis has seen his share of success and difficulties.
Since he took over in 2008, MSU has won 30 Big Ten championships and one national title — the 2014 women’s cross country team. There have been three Final Fours in men’s basketball and eight bowl games for football. On top of that, Hollis just capped a run as chairman of the Men’s Basketball Committee.
But the past year has been especially challenging for the athletic department. Issues outside of competition have dominated recent news, including legal problems surrounding the football team and the gymnastics program’s association with Dr. Larry Nasar, who is facing multiple charges alleging he sexually assaulted female athletes.
Hollis sat down with The Detroit News to talk about navigating a department through those issues, as well as high expectations for the men’s basketball team, a new hire for hockey and even thoughts on his future.
■ Question: With the different issues around the department with the Larry Nassar case and off-field football problems, how have things changed for you? Is it more difficult? Do you change your focus? How challenging have these last few months been?
■ Answer: I think you’re probably more reserved in your approach to everything, but at the same time you understand the responsibility that you have moving forward. With 800 kids that are competing and studying here at any one point in time you’ve got to keep your energy and your focus on them and what they’re trying to accomplish. So, obviously aware of the issues that we’re managing as an institution and as an athletic department. I feel like we’re continuing to improve what I consider very good processes in the past and just continue to improve those in ways that deliver the safest environment possible for everybody that walks on this campus. But we really have to be focused on what’s happening in the future and that’s where our energies have been.”
■ Q. Like Mark Dantonio says, it’s easy when things are going well, but you’re truly tested in difficult times. Do you have that same feeling?
■ A. Yeah, I think past, present and future are always part of our lives and you have to make sure you have some connection with each of those, good or bad. You have to anticipate that maybe the future is not gonna be as bright as some things you’ve had in the past and how can you respond and be extraordinary in the future. That’s part of our goal. I think I’ve talked about experiences with Twitter, experiences with my own life in staying balanced. One of my concerns with Twitter that can relate to life is Twitter extends emotions in a way, positively and negatively to exponential levels. You can feel extremely good about yourself or extremely bad about yourself beyond maybe the reality. That’s a good lesson, I think, for any leader when going through challenges. And challenges can be success and challenges can be failure or issues like are occurring on campus that we’re managing through. He is right. Coach D is right in that when things are right or good or successful you have to stay grounded and sometimes we’re as challenged with that as we are ensuring that when there are challenges we can continue to deliver all the good that is being delivered on a daily basis.
■ Q. With football specifically, there are separate issues off the field and on the field in terms of performance. Where is your confidence that the program is headed in the right direction in both cases?
■ A. Well, he’s the same head coach that took us to the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in Tempe. He’s the same coach that took us to Rose bowls and Cotton bowls and the playoffs. Coach D is a very good football coach. The staff is a good staff, and like anything else they’ve had an off-season of reflection and improvement, like they do every year. But I think it was probably, I know there was, a different approach to it, like everything around them. You got to remember, they’re coaching kids that are 17 to 20 year olds. They’re not cogs in a machine and they’re not professional football players. They’re children and that’s not to excuse mistakes, that’s not to excuse poor performance, ’cause they’re all trying to be the best that they can be in what they do. But I have high confidence and it’s almost trite saying it: Coach D is a great football coach. Kids are changing today, the game is changing. I think you’re seeing a lot of different variables that are out there of which was sort of the perfect storm for Michigan State last year.
And if I can, I don’t think the off the field and the performance on the field is necessarily disconnected. I think it’s very connected. I think when you sit back and you can reflect on it, were there things that were seen that could have improved our on-field performance? Those are all questions that have to be answered and have been answered, I think as we’ve gone through. I do think there is a connection and everybody needs to check themselves.
■ Q. Do you talk to Mark Dantonio or any of your head coaches about their staff and how they evaluate them or do you leave that up to the head coaches?
■ A. As an AD I probably listen more than I talk about a staff. I think as an AD you want to hire the best head coaches you can, and then allow them to surround themselves with individuals that can make them successful in this environment. You may provide advice and counsel based upon experiences I’ve had as an athletic administrator, as an athletic director. I could hear things from Coach (Tom) Izzo that maybe I believe could help Coach Dantonio or things from Coach Dantonio that now could help Danton Cole. Those conversations I share and sometimes I’ll pull other head coaches in to have conversations about staff, about approach with student-athletes. We very much take kind of a village approach to that, so I think sometimes coaches listen. I think sometimes they have the attitude, “I’ve got this.” But when you can bring a coach into that environment I think it helps with the communication because problems, challenges, success, failure have been experienced by every one of these coaches and for them to be able to share that with each other is a value.
■ Q. So you’re not the kind of AD that will dictate to Mark Dantonio how he should handle his staff?
■ A. I think my job is to evaluate Coach D, and if you reach a point as an athletic director where you’re mandating, dictating, ordering, it’s difficult to evaluate someone when you’re having what I would call an authoritative, dictatorial approach to what they surround themselves with. Do we talk? Do we have communication about strategy? And I’m not talking about my hook-and-ladder play. He won’t use my hook-and-ladder play. Maybe someday (laughter). He tried it once. It worked but then Iowa came back and scored on us. But we obviously talk all the time but it’s not in the direction of “make this change” or “do this.”
■ Q. What do you want to see on the field that will show the program is headed in a positive direction?
■ A. As an athletic director, what you want to be able to do is look at, there are 100 and some kids on the team and it’s to be able to sit back and say, “They’re having a great experience and they’re lives are getting better.” And if that happens you win more football games, you graduate more kids, you have more kids having a positive impact in the community. I’ve always, from Day One, said I’m gonna evaluate our head coaches based on athletics, academics and community engagement. Those are the three broad aspects that I look at. I think in football, everyone knows the objective is to win games because there’s things around football that are culture, our institutions collectively have put out there as this has to occur because of so many things that are connected to it. I diffuse that a little bit from a standpoint of I do want academic success. I do want kids in the classroom, in the study halls making themselves better. The day I took the job they said how do you want to leave your legacy? And it was for faculty on this campus to respect what we do in the athletic department. If I can keep that on the forefront of what we’re trying to do — faculty, they’re doing the hardest job on campus. But they tend to have the viewpoint that is gonna be the most challenging for us as an athletic department to be a value and that’s what we want to continue to instill. I feel like as an AD I’ve stepped away from that in what I’ve led, but it’s not because of effort and you’ve got to get right back at it. It kind of goes back to your first question, you gotta get back at it, ensuring that what we do — 25 sports, 800 kids — is a positive value to this school and not just an entertainment component.
■ Q. Can you update us on the facilities improvements around campus?
■ A. I think as you look at each of them, one is the revenue for each of the projects is being paid by the athletic department yet enhancing campus as a whole. Go through each on, in particular. We have for years, and we’ve put this off, wanted a location where the administrative team can all be in one location and not separated by four or five different buildings. The efficiency, the ability to get things done quickly, to meet, to communicate have all been challenged. So through collaboration with our housing division we were able to go into 1855 Place and kind of have an environment where we’re all together and also have synergy with our housing division, which is the other large ancillary on campus. And if you can think across the floor of communications, athletic communications, Spartan Fund, our administrative team, our compliance office, our business office, Varsity S Club — all of those things being able to have synergy on one floor but then vertically going up and down, also having synergy with marketing team from housing, campus, the things we can do positively there. To have a retail, a main street with spirit shop, the marketplace, Starbucks, a place where students go to sign up for their rooms and the like. It’s really going to create a high-energy environment right across the street from Breslin.
So that one was one that we partnered with and feel very good about that. The entrance to Breslin is a university building. Athletics puts a lot into that building from the standpoint of the infrastructure with scoreboards, video boards, sound systems. We created the new entrance and the great thing about that is it’s gonna be video based so depending on the event that’s taking place at any one time the look can vary. It can be an academic feel for commencement, basketball for each of the two basketball teams that compete there. But as other activities come in the look can change. Restrooms (at Spartan Stadium), it’s not the finish it’s the start. I think we have something like 800 new toilets at Spartan Stadium, which I laugh because it’s somewhat humorous but at the same time it’s probably the most needed thing in that facility. Making it available to the public pregame and then from the inside once the gates open is gonna kind of flip the entrances to that it becomes a fan-friendly addition to the stadium. And that has to continue to go around the stadium and keep making improvements. The lights as part of our commitment to the television networks not to have to come in and rent the Musco portables. It gives a permanent feel to it. It’s actually a much better lighting. The shadowing will be vastly improved, but we’re excited about that. Lights at the soccer field is gonna create a new environment out there to be able to have games later and allow us to host a few more NCAA or Big Ten events and not being restricted by time. All those things are improvements all paid by various sources within the athletic department.”
■ Q. Will lights be coming for baseball and softball?
■ A. “I think down the line … the reason we selected soccer first is one, the lights are lower so it gives us a good test. Those that go out when the lights are on are gonna be stunned at how tight the light is. There’s not a lot of what they call light pollution where it flies into the sky. You virtually can’t see any light on the river that is right next door. Could we see that moving down? With soccer being in the fall you have much better weather. Baseball/softball is challenged weather-wise. You have to look at financial commitment, the return. Those are two sports where at some point in time you want to see it happen but I’d also like to see some things happen with the schedule in those two sports … getting some fall games. By the time the weather breaks here you’re into the Big Ten tournament and that’s some of the challenge. But if we feel like we can host some things in May that would be something worth looking at.”
■ A. The expectations are to compete for Big Ten championships, and if you can do that compete for national championships. You understand the pace of what Danton has to do. I have the highest regard for Tom Anastos. It was a hire that had risk associated, but it also had a potential upside that I thought was worth the risk. We sat down at the end of the year and we plotted through how we got to where we were at and what we had to do to turn it around, both Tom and I kind of mutually agreed that it was time to let this go in a different direction. And I think Tom did some things that will allow Danton to have some success. We’re set now that once we get the last piece of the addition, the bowl itself is great. Danton knows how to recruit, Danton knows how to coach. Danton is a coach and I think everything that Tom and those before him had laid out — as you know it’s difficult to follow a legend, follow an icon. I think Tom (Izzo) probably did it as well as anyone following Jud (Heathcote). But Danton, I think, is a guy that Ron Mason is proud of. I think he’s looking down on us favorably. He loved Tom, as well, but I think this is a guy that quietly resembles the coaching abilities of Ron Mason and I think he’s gonna have great success here.
■ Q. Do fans understand the unique challenges in hockey?
■ A. I went to school here so I got to see it. I didn’t understand the complexity of recruiting in hockey, maybe. Hockey and baseball are probably the two biggest challenges. Hockey is probably No. 1 in when kids commit, when you have to bring them in, when you have to commit to them, the inner workings of the family advisers and the agents that are involved in the process, having the Canadian league, having the ability to jump and go play somewhere else and not go to school as an option — those are all things a lot of sports don’t have to deal with, so schools are ending up with older kids playing that sport. We had some very young kids that were playing for us, very good hockey players and students but just physically younger. Danton knows what to do and we’re gonna get that program back in short time.
■ Q. Hockey has always been important, what would it mean to be back at a championship level?
■ A. Remember, hockey in its heyday, was good when there wasn’t much around it. Today you’ve got — Suzy (Merchant) is doing really good things with women’s basketball, men’s basketball is at a very high level — so it used to be hockey was THE sport, not above football but it was a sport that was gelling, was winning, was having success. Ron was a vibrant guy in this community, so you have to kind of look at what’s around something when evaluating something on its singular value. I want all programs to be great, but those four in particular (football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball, hockey) we put a lot of resources in and expect championships.
■ Q. Expectations will be high for men’s basketball. Where’s your excitement level?
■ A. I left the basketball committee and as my term ended in August and I was giving my farewell talk I said I hoped to come back to the Final Four in San Antonio and make all your lives miserable as an overbearing athletic director. But we do have expectations of high success, of a Big Ten championship and I know Tom would love to play, he loves San Antonio as a Final Four site. The path would be awesome if it went through Detroit, so I’m doing everything I can (laughter). But we do have high expectations and they’re a great group of kids that really seem to enjoy doing things together and as an AD at this time of year, to watch that happen, to watch them go to movies together, not forced to but by choice. To watch them is fun, it makes me feel good to be around them. They’re helping me more than I’m helping them. They’re a great team to be around.
■ Q. Basketball scheduling is tougher this year with conference games in December …
■ A. I think if you focus on compression, and that word is almost getting overused, but it’s something we’ve been talking about this year, in particular. Having the Big Ten tournament in New York a week earlier shortens already a shortened year. There’s gonna be challenges when the Big Ten schedule comes out for all teams and as you look at that, you have to say we take this on this year but what can we do in the future? I don’t like starting college basketball on Friday in the middle of a football season. I think we need to find ways as a conference and nationally to ensure that we’re playing games in windows that bring value. I don’t like to play in the Champions (Classic) and play Kansas, Duke or Kentucky and then fade off into oblivion for a few weeks until you come back in a few weeks and do something else. We need to find a pace … I’d like to see a way we can put some space in between conference games in a way that brings a little more sanity to the schedule, realizing that times are determined by television. Sometimes you can be playing at 9 o’clock and maybe that’s OK on occasion as long as you have space, so those are things that we as ADs are already talking about and it might have taken a season like this to really stimulate that conversation. The season is long but to move it back to Tuesday to allow basketball to launch and get some momentum. You play Friday then it’s football, then it’s NFL and it’s like those Friday games are almost meaningless. So there’s a lot of changes that can take place. I am an advocate of 20 league games. I’d like to get more marquee games in Breslin and I think that helps that process. I don’t want to walk away from the Champions because I think that’s a thing for Michigan State that is of high value, as it is for the other three schools. ACC Challenge has been good, Gavitt Games has created a new on-campus game that we have yet to play in because of the Champions …
■ Q. Do those events make it tougher to get marquee non-conference games at home?
■ A. “They do. The ACC Challenge, now we have Notre Dame here. Gavitt Games are on campus. This is a unique year with the PK80 (event in Portland), but do you want to go to Maui and play three games there or would you like to maybe play two more good games here at home? Those are some decisions you have to make as basketball coach and AD.”
■ Q. Do you like the Big Ten tournament in New York?
■ A. I was in the Big East for three years and love college basketball in Madison Square Garden. There is nothing like it. A little frustrating to play when we’re playing but I think it’s worth it for the experience to take it in there for a year and have that facility. I think Detroit is gonna be one of the great destinations in the future if that city can continue to click like it is, but that building is second to none for basketball, I think. Just the way it’s designed and the cutlines and the viewlines, they’ve done a great job.”
■ Q. Would you push for Detroit to host Big Ten events?
■ A. I would push hard for Detroit for NCAA, for Big Ten. One of the things I look at is there are so many college basketball teams within — I look at radiuses, where are the teams coming from that play in the Sweet 16, in the Final Four. When you take Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, Louisville, Michigan State, Villanova — they’re in this Midwest pocket. And I always think you want to look at it from a perspective of fans getting to regionals, fans getting to first rounds and the families. Where do they have to travel over those three, four weeks. Detroit is an environment that has a dome for Final Four and has this new arena for regionals and second rounds. As the city continues to grow back into something that is very vibrant I think it’s gonna be a destination for college basketball.
■ Q. What about protecting conference rivalries in basketball?
■ A. I think it has to be done in our current situation and if we go to 20 I think it’s a mandatory part of that. I worked in a league office for nine years and I understand the complexity of putting schedules together. That being said, we’ve got to find a way as a league to allow Purdue-Indiana, Michigan-Michigan State, Illinois-Northwestern — let them play twice every year so they can have a game on your campus. It’s good for the game.
■ Q. You wouldn’t want to play Michigan in a non-conference game?
■ A. That doesn’t work. You can’t say this is a big rivalry game but it doesn’t count. We should be playing twice.
■ Q. What’s the next big thing from Mark Hollis?
■ A. One of the big things on my mind right now is to ensure some stability in this department. I’m not making an announcement of a retirement for anybody, but when you look at Tom, Mark, myself and many others that are vital cogs to this program — Greg Ianni, Shelley Appelbaum, Wendy Brown, Paul Schager, Jim Pignataro — they’re all at a point in their career where I need to ensure that this place is on solid ground for the long-term future. So that’s something I’m spending a lot of time on, of making sure we have the structure that allows individuals to either go and do other things and come back or continue to grow here and fill those important roles. Outside of that, with the basketball committee done I’m starting to get energized and I’ve got a group of student-athletes that I meet with once a month and they have subsequent meetings and using them to come up with ideas. Foreign travel has become much more commonplace than it was in the past and we’re gonna continue to look at where teams can go to compete, maybe foreign tours. I’d like to get more of our student-athletes in traditional study abroad and allow them to experience the real study abroad program, so a coach can’t say they have to stay back. Some health and safety initiatives. I’d like to see more involvement of athletics with other areas on campus involving sports and recreation and how we can be of value to 50,000 kids instead of just 800. Those are things I’m trying to jump into of what could we do to make student life better on campus. We’re still looking at Greece, we’re looking at things in Europe in multiple-sport kind of things of getting memories for more teams in the future.”
■ Q. Is it tougher to do that with a football team?
■ A. It can be. It’s a tougher risk. Football means so much. The value a single football game has to East Lansing — the community, the hotels, the restaurants, the campus — is massive. A lot of times we tend to focus on the negatives of games but I’ve seen the economic studies and the numbers are extremely high of the value that presence has for mid-Michigan. Taking a game away is something you want to think through. If it’s your home game you have to think about the lost gate and what does that mean. But I also think you want to balance that with the experience for the kids and Spartans to be able to travel to a location. So, it wouldn’t be out of the question to take a football team somewhere someday.”
■ Q. Do you think about how much longer you want to be the AD at Michigan State?
■ A. I’d like to end my real career here. When you say “real career,” everyone wants to be a consultant or maybe a ski instructor or something. My goals are to end my career at Michigan State. I don’t have a defined time. I think when I lose the energy or I lose the value, both the school and the individual kind of knows it. Joe Kearney once told me, “Remember you’ll always love your alma mater more than it loves you.” That’s always stuck with me but I don’t think it’s true. Nancy and I have had such a great relationship with people on this campus. My dad was in education and I’ve thought about a career as a professor and maybe continuing to give when the athletic director career is over in that way. But we have no intention of moving on from here and I don’t have a defined time but when I get tired I will.
■ Q. Do you have the same conversation with Tom Izzo and Mark Dantonio?
■ A. Not really. I take five-year windows and if I was to look at it today I would say the five-year window is good for all three of us and you just keep evaluating each year, what does the next five years look like? If you start feeling like there’s a situation where that five-year window is gonna be challenged then I think you’ve got to get in some serious conversations because now you’re talking about kids that you’re recruiting, people that you’re hiring and them having someone different around them. As of today, I feel very good with where we’re at with the five-year window and we’ll just continue to look at that every year.