Nobody ever says, “Go east, young man.” Everybody knows that you have to go west to make a name for yourself. But (now former) Stanford athletic director Bob Bowlsby, didn’t get the message when he was offered the opportunity of a lifetime last weekend, and will leave the Farm to take over the Big 12 in June.
Now that the dust has settled over Bowlsby’s departure, everybody has started to throw out their ideas of who should succeed the man I like to call the Bowldozer. But when you think about those names out there, it’s important for the Stanford fans and administration to ask themselves: Just how important is it to hire a good athletic director?
The athletic director position is not one to be taken lightly. After the President of the University, I think it’s pretty safe to say that the second-most important person on campus is the athletic director. Whether or not that’s the “right thing” is another issue, but the fact remains that a good athletic department can benefit a school in innumerable ways.
First of all, the athletic director is someone who is responsible for the success or failure of every single sports team to some degree. The AD directly hires new coaches and is critically important in fundraising for new facilities, mostly by courting big boosters to give their hard-earned money to the school. If an AD does these things well, it benefits the student population and the reputation of the school by bringing more attention and money to the campus. For example, how many of the school-record 36,744 high school seniors that applied to Stanford this year were attracted by the successful football team? (Another great example is how applications to Butler University went up by 41 percent after the basketball Bulldogs nearly knocked off Duke to win an NCAA title two years ago.)
That butterfly effect of one good hire shows just how important it is to pick a person who knows what he or she is doing and has a clear vision for the future that will keep an athletic department’s teams from stagnating or getting worse.
On a tangential, yet related note, that’s why it worries me when people bandy about the idea of having Condoleezza Rice as the next athletic director here at Stanford. While she might be one of the world’s most knowledgeable people about American foreign policy, she’s wholly unqualified to lead an athletic department. Getting your face on TV at every women’s basketball game doesn’t mean you are the right person to control one of the most successful athletic departments in the country.
Returning to the point at hand, though, the responsibilities of an athletic director don’t just end with hiring coaches and raising funds. There are times when an athletic director sometimes may also have to exercise their power and make ugly or unpopular decisions in order to best benefit the school.
In 2009, Florida State athletic director Randy Spetman had to force out legendary Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden, who had been with the school for 33 years and collected two national titles and 12 ACC titles on his way to totaling the second-most wins in college football history. Bowden’s tenure had turned south in the late 2000s, with the program going from a perennial national title contender to a rather mediocre squad, and Spetman eventually had to find a way to jumpstart the program. That meant he and university president T.K. Wetherell had to do the most unpopular thing possible and fire Bobby Bowden — a complicated and controversial move that left Spetman and Wetherell under fire from all sides. Now, the Seminoles are on the right track once again, bringing in good recruiting classes and preseason rankings (yes, I know that they did collapse to No. 23 after this year’s preseason No. 5 ranking), and a lot of that is due to Spetman’s unpopular decision.
Whomever Stanford decides to hire, it’s also essential to remember that an athletic director’s impact isn’t often felt until a few years down the road in their tenure. For example, in Bowlsby’s first year on the Farm, he hired Jim Harbaugh from Division I-AA San Diego to lead the Cardinal football program. While Harbaugh had led the Toreros to back-to-back I-AA National Championships before coming to Stanford, nobody could have guessed at the time that Bowlsby’s hire would turn the football team into a national championship contender.
Altogether, it’s important to scrutinize the candidates in line to take over on the Farm because one of these people could be making a difference for the Cardinal for decades to come. And that’s not something to take lightly.
Jack Blanchat isn’t going to throw his name into the mix for AD, but he wouldn’t really mind if you did. Give him interview tips at blanchat “at” stanford.edu or follow him on Twitter @jmblanchat.