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Athletic Director In Residence: Rob Mullens (Oregon)

By Rob Mullens
7 min read
For the first time in my career I have sport oversight. Judging from historical results and the trajectory of the program I now administer, it’s possible we may need to make a coaching/leadership change after this season. What steps would you advise I take to 1) fully support the head coach and program this season, while 2) doing due diligence on the marketplace in the event we make a move?


Congratulations on adding sport oversight to your portfolio.  The opportunity to work closely with coaches and student-athletes to support their success is one of the most rewarding in college athletics.  In my experience, every situation is unique but I do have a few suggestions to consider.  First, make sure to have open and candid dialogue with the head coach to build a trusting working relationship.  Second, be a good listener and be visible – ask the coach how you can assist in supporting the program within the resources available and be around the program as much as you can.  Third, provide the coach your perspective on the current status of the program, recommendations for improvement and expectations for the upcoming year.  Your mindset should be to do all that you can to give that coach every opportunity to meet or exceed expectations.


As the administrative leader for the program, you also have a responsibility to the department to always be prepared in the event that a coaching change is required.  Fortunately, plenty of resources exist to allow you to confidentially build a list of potential candidates to match the profile you are seeking.  Your research will provide you the background on each candidate and have you ahead of the game if you need to conduct a search.  Though you can do background research on your own to be prepared, do not actively seek outside input or contact candidates.  Remember, you have a head coach!


Good luck – coaching transitions are often difficult on many levels.


I currently work at the Division I level. While it is a good position and have received praise internally and externally for my work, it has been made obvious by supervisors that no promotional opportunities are available given the current structure. What recommendations do you have for finding the next position, when things such as location and compensation (have a family to support, can’t just move anywhere, etc.) are factors?


The most important thing is to continue to excel in your current role.  Often, high performers frustrated with the pace of growth/opportunity at their current institution allow frustrations to change their mindset which, in turn, negatively impacts performance.  You have to be patient, which of course can be tough given the low turnover in attractive positions in our industry.  In my experience, it is best to run to something which lights a fire for you as opposed to running away from something that you find frustrating.


Assess the market and career options objectively.  While you continue to fulfill your job duties, consider being proactive in reaching out to your supervisor to express your interest in new opportunities to serve the department which provide growth for you.  At Oregon, we love when we can provide high achievers opportunities for growth which also improves the organization.  Continue to produce results which draw praise while you assess the marketplace for an opportunity that matches your career aspirations and meets your family needs.



I am a young Director of Sport Operations (Track & Field) at a D1 institution. Ironically, despite NCAA rules prohibiting my position from any coaching responsibilities, it is often seen as a stepping-stone to getting into the profession. However, I actually enjoy the administrative aspect of my role, and aspire to move into an Assistant/Associate AD role down the road instead.  How do I avoid being branded as a “coach-in-waiting”, and what are important skills to develop to be a successful administrator that I may not be getting to practice in my current position?


The role of Director of Operations is an extremely important administrative role and can absolutely lead to an Assistant/Associate AD position.  In my opinion, the operations role is best filled by someone who embraces the various and wide-ranging functions of administration.  The role often has a close working relationship with every support unit within an athletic department.
Use your current position to gain a deep understanding of each administrative function while supporting the coaches and program.  Build trusting relationships through effective communication, efficient processes and quality results and it will be recognized and appreciated.  Also, as noted in an earlier question, be proactive in expressing interest in new opportunities to serve the department and provide growth (committees, event support, donor engagement, etc.).
Remember too that working in an operations position gives you a very unique prospective when it comes to the coach-administrator relationship. Use this to your advantage – when the time comes to parlay your experience into a AD role you will have a unique skill set you can sell that others vying for the position may not.


With the growing focus on the mental health of student-athletes, what steps have you taken as a department to make sure that your student-athletes needs are being met?


Mental health of student-athletes is an extremely important area and a high priority for us.  At Oregon, we made a strategic shift in resource alignment to support our initiatives in mental health a few years ago.  As we began to see a greater need, we reallocated departmental resources from “sports psychology” to mental health practitioners.  More recently, we surveyed student-athletes to learn more about their perception of mental health support and how we could improve support services.  We have developed a Behavioral Health Management Team with interdisciplinary representation (including both department and university staff) with the goal of determining and implementing initiatives in the area of education and awareness, service delivery and policies and procedures.


The team will be responsible for providing information regarding access to resources, service delivery and support as well as protocols for managing cases related to behavioral health. Our immediate focus has been on continuing to communicate the wide array of resources available to our student-athletes, breaking down the stigma barrier for those seeking mental health support and coordinating the communication within various units to ensure effective case management.


What are some of the steps you took early in your career to expand your responsibilities beyond the business/finance office? Can you share some thoughts on the importance of a business background for an Athletic Director position?


I was fortunate to have great mentors throughout my career who were invested in my professional growth.  In the very early stages of my college athletic experience, I had to move to find the opportunity which expanded my portfolio.  At the University of Maryland, both Jamie Pollard and Debbie Yow had strong interest in supporting my professional goals and provided me with increasing responsibilities in new areas.  Mitch Barnhart, another mentor and friend, takes great pride in providing his staff with growth opportunities to support their goals.  Sorry to be repetitive, but the clearest way to earn expanded responsibilities is through exceptional performance in your current role.  And again, take the initiative to seek out opportunities to support the department’s goals in areas of need while continuing to deliver in your position.  Highly motivated professionals can get derailed when they obsess over what their resume is missing instead of focusing on performance.  Opportunity will be provided to high performers.


My experience at Ernst & Young and my experience on the financial side of Athletics have served me well in every stop in my career, including as an AD.  Beyond the numbers, the analytical skill set built through the business experience has been as asset.  With increasing amounts of data, the ability to analyze and use data in strategic decision making has also been helpful.  Aligning resources to support goals will always be valuable in a highly competitive environment.


As budgets and the complexity of administering an athletic department grow, do you envision more individuals with a business background being afforded more opportunities to become an athletic director?


Leadership roles in college athletics have become–and will continue to be–increasingly complex.  As we see in other industries, executives making the hire are likely to place less weight on technical skills and more focus on leadership traits.  Speaking from experience, professionals with a business background can be unfairly labeled as “bean counters”.  It is important to find ways to develop and demonstrate your leadership skills while expanding your area of responsibility beyond only finance.


That being said, because of the growth of college sports over the last several decades, having business acumen and an overall prospective that was shaped outside the world of college athletics can be very beneficial for a department. Everyone knows the importance of diversity within organizations, but diversity comes in many forms. Having individuals who come from different industries, backgrounds and cultures can only benefit a department.

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