Barry Alvarez, Director of Athletics at Wisconsin, discusses empowering each sport administrator with the responsibility of having a “short list” of viable and qualified candidates in the case of a head coaching vacancy. Coach Alvarez also discusses the importance of each role within a department and ensuring clear, concise and direct communication of expectations, just as he did when he was leading the Badgers’ football program. Additional topics covered include: recruiting, an AD’s relationship with his/her President/Chancellor, leadership styles, staff evaluation and advancement, the future of the industry and more.
As an Athletic Director, you are ultimately responsible for coaching hires across a multitude of sports, some of which you may have a very limited background. How do you evaluate the coaching acumen of a potential candidate in a sport that you lack personal familiarity with?
I heavily rely upon my sport administrator for the particular program and its respective opening. All my administrators are responsible to maintain a “short list” in the event we have a vacancy. These lists need to consist of viable candidates who are qualified and would fit what we’re looking for. During the vetting process, I hold the candidates to the same standard I would for a football hire – I want to see if the candidate did their homework and understands what the Wisconsin culture is all about. Can this person articulate why they believe they’re a fit for our institution, and what it even means to be a fit at a school like Wisconsin? Like any business or organization, I want to know their plan for success in all areas. What are they going to do with their assistant coaches? How will they go through the recruiting process? How will they sell the program and institution without compromising our values? Will they be able to balance expectations with the responsibility of becoming a contributing member of the greater community? Above all else, their overall approach must be about the kids, our Student-Athletes.
Attaining goals for any organization requires a clear understanding of what every single team member is being asked to accomplish. Is there really any difference in communicating that process to a football team compared to an administrative staff? Also, if you notice deviation from the process, what’s the most effective way you’ve learned to “get through” to those who need to get back on the right page?
In a word: No. As a coach talking to my team, I would review the importance of every single role and the need for every member of the team to embrace the job they needed to execute. It’s about the total picture and when we finally have success, everyone will have contributed. I have that same conversation about the value of each and every position with our 450 employees. We expect our staff to perform their individual roles at an expert level, no matter if they are a custodian or assistant coach, no matter if you work in the cafeteria or you’re taping ankles. Every one of those jobs is important. Again, when we have success, everyone can take pride in feeling they had something to do with it. Great athletics departments learn to focus on doing the small things right, so that the big things take care of themselves.
Direct communication is the most effective way to fix issues. It’s our job as athletic directors and head coaches to clearly define roles and responsibilities and hold people accountable to those ideals. If those standards are not met, it’s addressed as quickly as we identify the issue.
You’ve long discussed being a big fan of how Bob Devaney built programs at Nebraska. It seems many of the cultural tenants at Wisconsin come from your time with the Cornhuskers. How much harder would it have been to instill a similar culture at an institution where the alums & supporters didn’t so readily embrace the blue collar, hard-nosed mentality? Could the same culture, for instance, be applied to a school in Florida?
Every place has its own identity, strengths and weakness. As an athletic director or a coach, you have to pinpoint those and build your program accordingly. Before coming to Wisconsin, I knew the state. I knew I could consistently recruit linemen in Wisconsin. You’d have to leave the state for most skill guys. If I were in the SEC, it would be a totally different style, but I wouldn’t compromise being sound and disciplined. Translated to an athletic department: it’s solid communication with your fanbase, sticking to your standards, holding people accountable, and making sure you communicate roles and responsibilities really well. So, no, you certainly can’t take the same playbook to any athletic department, marketplace or fan base and see the same results. But you can create a strategic and effective plan to build a high-achieving organization around the unique characteristics of the institution and community, while leveraging the best practices of other organizations to bring it all together.
You’ve mentored a number of advancing administrators & assistant coaches who have become Athletic Directors & Head Coaches. How did you know when they were ready for the next step?
First of all, I like to hire people that have a desire to be a head coach or athletic director, and understand the commitment that such a personal expectation entails. It’s not when I think they’re ready, it’s when they think they’re ready. Now, I have had some discussions about next steps that I didn’t think were good jobs or good moves at that particular time and I’ve always been honest in those situations. However, more important is always being available and assisting when key members of our team are ready to have those conversations.
My Deputy ADs and senior staff have real responsibility and freedom to do their jobs. I’m not going to micromanage. I’m going to be clear on the end results I want, but then let them execute and add their own personality to it. So, if you’ve left here, you’ve had responsibility and you’ve been held accountable, and that makes it a far easier adjustment when you take over your own department.
Should Athletic Directors & Head Football Coaches build relationships with their university President/Chancellor in the same way(s)? Or, is there a different tact needed for each of the positions given reporting structures?
It all depends on the individual personality characteristics of each leader. As the football coach, I had a very personal relationship with Donna Shalala. My wife and I were invited to every function along with other Deans and key leaders on campus. Equally, she came to every recruiting meeting and was very involved in the process and general management of the program. Those dynamics created a very solid working relationship between the two of us. That being said, I’ve been through six Chancellors here and every relationship is a little bit different. Some of the Chancellors knew very little about athletics, not that they didn’t understand the value, but rather they simply didn’t understand how departments operated. I still made sure to develop a strong relationship with them regardless in those situations. Ultimately, everyone is a little bit different and you feel out how to jive and best work in unison.
What changes do you see to college athletics in the next five to ten years and what has Wisconsin – or perhaps the Big Ten – done to ensure it come out ahead regardless of what may happen?
I’m always concerned with the escalating costs of our business. The increases of salaries and the expenses of running programs. The issue of lawsuits is a question mark for all of us. We don’t know where it is going. There are unknowns about what expenses are going to be in the future and how we’re going to be able to keep up. Everyone looks from the outside in and thinks there’s a bottomless pit of TV money, but they forget that an athletic department doesn’t just exist for football and basketball. In our case, there are 23 sports and 900 Student-Athletes, that’s expensive. Cost of attendance and unlimited meals were overdue for our industry, but they cost real money.
Given the cost pressures, we have a constant emphasis on building our reserves, in part to have the ability to upgrade facilities depending on marketplace trends. We’re always looking for new revenue streams and being smart with what we can add or adjust at Camp Randall. For example, adding premium seating, though it may decrease overall capacity, can potentially enhance the bottom line. Having venues that you can use year-round as rental facilities and generate income 12 months of the year is another item we’re analyzing.