A college athletic department is big business.
Take Michigan, which has an operating budget of $151 million for 31 sports and more than 900 student-athletes.
So, it's important to find the right person to lead such a department. That's why Michigan president Mark Schlissel has hired a search firm and organized a search committee to hire an athletic director who can manage the budget, raise funds, lead a staff of 350 and work with coaches and student-athletes to develop top national programs — all under the umbrella of promoting academics first.
And during these times of sports as big business, it might make sense to go with a business-minded leader. That surely has been the case with Michigan for a while. Current interim athletic director Jim Hackett is the retired CEO of Steelcase. Before Hackett was Dave Brandon, who had been a CEO of Domino's. Bill Martin, athletic director from 2000-10, came from the business world, as did his predecessor, Tom Goss.
Martin, however, believes it's time Michigan hires an individual who has moved up the athletic director food chain in the more traditional sense, one who has cut his or her administrative teeth working throughout their careers in college athletics.
"We should be looking for a sitting athletic director with a lot of experience at the senior levels," Martin said. "The president is taking this challenge very seriously. He wants to have input from every stakeholder group in the university, and that's wise of him.
"At this stage where Michigan is, I would favor going with someone with extensive athletic experience."
Schlissel hired Turnkey Search and appointed a search committee that includes softball coach Carol Hutchins and Dr. Stefan Humphries, a former Michigan football player now a medical director of a facility in Nevada.
He said he has set no timetable to replace Hackett, who was hired Oct. 31, 2014, after Brandon resigned. And he said having a business background is not requisite for the job. But he did say having some connection with Michigan "does have advantages."
Four current athletic directors with Michigan ties that fit Martin's view are considered, although not confirmed, to be candidates: Boston College's Brad Bates, Warde Manuel at Connecticut and Joe Parker at Colorado State are all former Michigan athletes; Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long spent 11 years in Michigan's athletic department.
New model appearing
Steve Dittmore, an associate professor of sports management at Arkansas, presented a study in 2011 at the College Sports Research Institute Conference in Chapel Hill, N.C., that explored the evolving requirements of the athletic director and the changing background of those who ascended to that position.
Historically, as Dittmore's study points out, a college athletic director typically rose from the ranks of high school coach to college coach to associate athletic administrator. That's no longer the norm.
"It would appear that a new 'normative' model for athletic directors at FBS schools is emerging, one which emphasizes experiences and apprenticeships in college athletics," the study revealed. "(There's) increasingly more evidence that athletic departments reflect more of a corporate model in terms of titles and qualifications for athletic directors."
He has found that many of the athletic directors have come from a university development background and understand how to generate revenue.
Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis presents another option with his marketing background. Hollis has dazzled nationally with his inventive game venues and ideas while leading the men's basketball and football programs to national heights.
"Maybe they don't have a business background in terms of degrees," Dittmore said. "They're going through channels that revenue develop. And part of the importance and emphasis of revenue generation is the cost of intercollegiate athletics."
Some schools have departed from hiring the classic athletic administrator and gone the route of hiring an attorney, like Notre Dame's Jack Swarbrick, and CEOs, like Brandon and Hackett, to run their athletic departments.
But that background offers inherent problems as the individual transitions to this new world of college athletics.
"When I came to Michigan, there were clearly gaps in the tools that an AD needed in his toolbox that I didn't have a clue about," Martin said. "Such as NCAA compliance. ... I saw that and I thought, 'IRS tax returns. Do we file a tax return?' The business side was easy."
Martin was the last Michigan athletic director to have spent more than a decade on the job. According to a Sports Business Daily report this summer, there is a significant turnover rate among athletic directors. The report indicated the average tenure is 6.8 years.
To develop longevity, Martin said it's important to have a strong senior leadership team, which consists of four to five people. And if you're not someone who has had, say, a strong background in fundraising, you hire someone who has that.
"That's crucial," Martin said. "Having individuals with experience with major donors, you need that on the staff."
'Different day and age'
Bob Vecchione, executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics, said it's still nice to see people move up the traditional ranks to become an athletic director, but he also knows the college landscape continues to change.
"It's just a different day and age," Vecchione said. "It's got to be a fit. It's a big job, pays a lot of money has a lot of responsibilities."