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Success Beyond Winning: NIU’s Frazier, Utah State’s Hartwell & Learfield IMG College’s Hamilton

Guest Sean Fraizer, Northern Illinois; John Hartwell, Utah State; Mike Hamilton, Learfield IMG College
22:06 min watch


Northern Illinois AD Sean Frazier, Utah State AD John Hartwell and Learfield IMG College EVP/former Tennessee AD Mike Hamilton discuss defining success beyond the easy evaluation points of wins and losses. Internal versus external messaging,  insight on fans expectations, continuing success under a new head coach, developing personal philosophies & more.


Click the timestamp below to jump to a specific topic/question in the conversation. Scroll down to read the full transcription.

  • - Beyond hoisting trophies, how do you define success?
  • - How do you balance your internal messaging regarding expectations for success with what you are publicly articulating?
  • - How do you voice your standard of excellence to your fans?
  • - When does winning get to the point where you have to help fans understand realistic expectations?
  • - Once you have achieved a level of success, how do you maintain it when coaches move on?
  • - How did you develop your own success philosophy?
  • - What is one aspirational thing you would hope for at your respective institutions?


Full Transcription:


Mike Hamilton: I am Mike Hamilton, Executive Vice President of Learfield IMG College and I’m thrilled to be here today with Athletic Director U to bring you a conversation with two great guys in this industry, Sean Frazier, the athletic director at Northern Illinois University and John Hartwell, the athletic director at Utah State. Good to be with you guys.


Sean Frazier: Thanks a lot.


John Hartwell: Thanks.


Two longtime friends, guys who have just done a tremendous job through the years. And today, guys, we’re going to talk about success. And most people obvious… it’s the obvious answer first, we measure success by the wins on the field, the championships won, those sorts of things. But beyond holding the trophy, hoisting the trophy, how do you guys, in your respective institutions, look at this thing we call success?


SF: You know, I think it’s a great question. And I’m going to jump…


JH: Go ahead.


SF: Jump on, John. But just to start a little bit, it’s interesting, you know, it’s all that is winning, outcomes are very important, right, that wins and losses, the academic accolades and make sure graduation is working. But I also think it’s doing it without compromising standards. You know, I think that when you look at the hallmark programs and programs in general with consistency, you take a look at, okay, obviously the wins, the graduation rates, you know, fundraising goal, all the things that make up a really succinct athletic department, but you also look at the things behind the curtain too, you know, without compromising standards, making sure you’re doing it the right way, making sure that you are true to your core mission, making sure that your student athletes are succeeding in life outside of maybe on the… on the sport, or the academic side, they’re doing things in a leadership capacity. So all those pieces really round up to being exemplary, preeminent, all the things, so all those adjectives, quite frankly, that… that speaks to your program and what that institution aspires to be. So I think that winning is, is a microcosm of that. We see that in the front and that’s the platform, but then you look at everything that’s going on with the institution itself. Because again, athletics is a small part of that, important part of that. But at the same time, the institution gains on so many different levels by having a very successful athletic program.


Thanks, Sean. John?


JH: I also think it’s important that you look at the trajectory of your individual programs. Obviously, the overall success of the athletic department is what we are judged on as athletic directors. But when you are looking at your individual sports, you’ve got to look at the circumstances around those sports. So you can’t say, “Oh, we’ve got to have a 500-record, you know, for you to continue in your job.” It’s really, at what level are those individual sports. Have you made a recent coaching change? You’ve got to… you’ve got to just make sure that that trajectory is on a positive upward swing, and it may not necessarily equate to wins.


I mean, I’ll use the example, our football coach who left after the after this last season, Matt Wells. He was two year… we go 11 and 2, he was two years removed from having a 3 and 9 season. And people say, “Well, gosh, you know, we’ve been to two or three Bowl games in a row and he goes 3 and 9.” Well, you’ve got to look at the factors around that. We lost six of nine assistants, including both coordinators that year before, had some significant turnover. And you’ve got to look big picture, not get caught up in, you know, a certain segment of your fans saying, “Oh, gosh, you got to make a change, you got to make a change.”


And then, you know, fast forward, we could see the young kids in the program. You could see some continuity finally for a couple years with your coordinators, and we go 11 and 2, and you know, obviously he’s now at Texas Tech. But I think it’s important, wins, we’re ultimately judged by wins, but you can’t get totally caught up in wins and losses. You’ve got to look, analyze the programs and see where they stand and what direction they’re going. Yeah.


Let me stay with him just for a second. So you… you clearly understood where you were in this pathway towards success with your football program. And your job as athletic director is to articulate where you are in that. Some of that is internal in nature; some is external. So how do you balance what you’re doing in internal messaging as it relates expectations around success and then what you’re articulating publicly?


JH: You know, that’s a great point and I think it’s about relationships with your head coaches. I think it’s very important and, obviously, you’ve got different folks assigned sports supervision and they have a more intimate relationship in terms of day-to-day correspondence with their coaches. But as athletic directors, I mean, the engines that drive the train are your basketball programs and your football. We don’t have baseball, so football and our basketball programs. 


And it’s important that you have open communication during good times and bad with your coaches and know that, “Hey, we are in this together. We are we’re lock, stock and barrel together.” Now, you know, if you’ve got to make tough decisions, you’re… you’re going to have disagreements and you sit behind closed doors, you come out behind those, you know, from behind those closed doors as one in unison. But they’ve got to understand that, “Hey, we’ve got you back. Yeah, we’re getting some, some arrows thrown at us from some of our external constituents. But we believe in the process.” So you’ve got to… you’ve got to balance that internally.


And then externally to those external constituents, a lot of whom may be doubting you, talk about the positives, talk about, you know, the turnover, hey you lose… If you’re CEO of a high-level company, and you lose two-thirds of your executive level team, you’re going to see a drop off. That’s not easy to overcome. But what are the things we can do to be proactive to, in the future, eliminate that lack of continuity as well as here are the things that we see are very positive about this program, and we think are going to be the foundation for success going forward.


It’s great. So knowing what you know about the Huskies, and knowing that your fans expect MAC championships, and wins beyond MAC championships, those kinds of things, how do you voice your standard of excellence, your standard success to your fans?


SF: Yeah, you know, it’s everything John said, and I think you need to articulate the expectation. You know, the expectations are real. You know, we… we have a certain level of expectation. Winning MAC championships is one, but, you know, we’ve been to a January 1 Bowl, that’s important for us to continue to, to expect a level of, of excellence when it comes to football, and quite frankly, all of our sports. So that expectation up front is something that, that we must maintain.


So again, we talk about the next level. You know, we had a coaching change in football. Rod Carey is now at Temple University. Thomas Hammock, who’s a longtime Husky, played there, was with me at the University of Wisconsin, unbelievable person, recruiter, football guy, was coached by Joe Novak, was historic in our system. So he gets it. You know, we have this thing called the hard way. He exemplifies that. There was a point in the… NIU’s history when we did not have the means, the facilities, the expectations, and he weathered that storm. So to be able to communicate that to our, our constituents, to our fan base, to understand that our expectation, yes, it’s definitely MAC championships, but the next level, the national conversation, you know, we… we definitely exemplify that in our scheduling philosophy, how we do with our with our facilities, how we do with our staff, our student… the type of student athletes that we bring in. So all those are extreme, they’re extreme and they have to be echoed, they have to through our social media, through our… through my private conversations with donors and supporters, through communications in my Frazier’s corner, which is a social media platform.


At the end of the day, I have to look you in my good eye to understand that this is the expectation. And our people need to know that that the program is in good hands with our current leadership, with myself, and quite frankly, with our upper administration that… accepting mediocrity is just not something we’re going to do.


Now, again, it gets a little bit interesting when folks can sit back and kind of dissect about offense, defense, special teams and from a coaching perspective, I’ve got that background and I’m able to talk, you know, get up on the board, you know. They don’t want me up on the board a lot of time. But get up on the board and take a look at offense, defense, special teams, and let’s talk about personnel. Let’s talk about that. You know, Coach Carey had, you know, we had 5 to 7 year, you know, all hell broke loose, so to speak. Right. And, and it should, you know, I understand that, from my pedigree where expectations are high, but also to the recruiting was what it was. You know, we did have some changeover in OCDC, we didn’t make some changes from a staff standpoint. People have to believe that you’ve been in the battle. 


The good news is I’ve been prepared. I had a… I had a great mentor with Barry Alvarez. He used to tell me all the time, he said, “Fraz, don’t flinch. Don’t flinch.” And that was the code word for, “Hey, we got to get this done. And when you have adversity, do not flinch on any of those concerns and that type of adversity, so you can move the agenda.” So, so it’s good. I actually thrive one of these… that type of, that type of atmosphere. Not everybody does. But it’s very important to articulate and communicate that to your group.


So here’s… here’s a, here’s the next question is, so I remember, you know, I was fortunate to be at University of Tennessee in 1998 when we won the national championship. And I remember a few years after that LSU won the national championship and you guys know Verge Ausberry.


Oh, yeah.


So Verge calls one day and he says, “So what now? How is this going to change what fans expect?” You know, of course, those places are hot pressure places anyway and we all… you all have pressures at your respective places. You’ve guys were in places where you’ve had the taste of winning, at both Northern Illinois and Utah State, and at the places where you both been previously.


So, you get into this mode where every fan base considers their school to be the school, and they have high expectations of their… of their institution. And so, let’s say you’re on a track of winning. And, and so the question that we’ve been asked suppose here day is, at what point does that winning and that consistent winning and that success, I don’t want to use the word deterrent, okay, but when does it become something that you have to be… have a greater awareness around as it relates to helping your fans understand the realistic nature of you’re also competing with 9, 10 other institutions in your league who have those same expectations, and in many cases, the same resources?


JH: That’s, that’s a great question. I’d say this. I’d say, high expectations sure beat the alternative. And I think that success… excuse me… is your expectation every year. But if you fall short, have lofty expectations, have stretch goals, whatever, you know, cliché you want to call it, but at the same time, you’ve got to be realistic. I mean, we were fortunate enough this year to be one of five institutions in the country who finished in the final AP polls in the top 25 in both football and men’s basketball, and all of a sudden our fan base, “Hey, this is great. You know, we need to do this every year.” Well, yeah, absolutely. That’s going to be our expectation. But we may fall short of that on a periodic basis. But I think when you’ve got those expectations, and you’ve experienced some success, you’ve got to strike while the iron is hot. And my continued message to our fan base is a, “Hey, yes, we’ve experienced success, a lot of success this year, but to have continued and sustained success, there’s a clear correlation between investment in and success output and we need your help to continue to do this. Because if you don’t think the San Diego states and the Fresnos and the Colorado States of the world are not saying, ‘Hey, Utah State did this, we’re going to do everything we can to, you know, jump over the top of it.’”




JH: So you’ve got to continue. You can’t rest on your laurels. You’ve got to continue every day, bringing it to try to keep that level of success there.




SF: There’s no question about it. I think that, you know, this, I think, having lofty expectations, that’s outstanding. You know, shoot for the… shoot for the stars and hit the moon, right. So I always try to make sure I message this. And it’s tough for some because, again, you know, different levels of support, different ways that our donors and our supporters can support. And we have to find a menu for everyone to be comfortable. But I always say, “There’s no such thing as standing still, either moving forward, or you’re moving back.” And I frame that in a way that says, “Okay, look at our league, look what’s happening in the country. This is what’s happening at this particular institution. This is what’s happening it at that institution. But for us, it’s that expectation, what you can do to give… to support us is at the level that you feel comfortable,” right?


Now, some people might feel more comfortable than others. I like those individuals.




SF: Well… but I also want to make sure that your fan, that they come in and they can support by showing up to the stadium or supporting at the level they feel comfortable. That is so important for us. That’s important for Northern Illinois. We’ve had significant amount of budget cuts in the State of Illinois. At one point, we didn’t have a budget for three years. But we sustained to go to the championships, a game in football, we can stay sustained to be able to have an all sport trophy in all of our women’s sports. We continue to achieve and do things not because the fact we don’t have the resources, because we have the level of support that our institution and our fan base will allow. So again, it’s finding that. It’s making sure people understand that we’re not going to stand still, we’re not just going to freeze this, and everything is going to be the same every year. That’s not going to happen. It’s going to happen when we have continuous amount of support.


So you’re both in places that have had success or having success, but they also, let’s be candid, they serve as a launch point sometimes for coaches to make the next move. You just… you were talking about that a minute ago, John. So, how do you… how… I know one of the answers is I got to have the right guy. Okay? But how do you… how do you maintain… once you’ve achieved that level of success and an expectation where people are coming in and they’re winning at your place, how does that then… how is that maintained when you have that next move to the next coach?


JH: Yeah, I think… and this goes back to what Sean said on one of the earlier questions. I think, regardless of who the people are in place, you’ve got to have the fundamentals, the core values of your institution, of your program in place so that when you do have a change in head coach, you do have a change from a Matt Wells to a Gary Anderson, that you don’t lose the continuity. Yes, every coach is going to put their stamp on it no different than every AD puts their standpoint. But the continuity in your operating principles, how you conduct your business that you… yes, winning is important, but we’re going to win the right way. We’re going to be compliant. We’re going to do things above reproach. That if those principles are consistent, regardless of who the individuals are there, I think you’ve got the foundation for the success to continue.


SF: Yeah, I think that’s very well said. I think, you know, in our process, we had, on the football side, we’ve had a transition. You know, it seven days from start to finish on my search. A lot of it had to do with the fact that the work and preparing for this was immediate. There’s no substitute for daily preparation, kind of go back to that process. So in my mind, you know, I do know what it means to look like, you know, I’m a better AD at NIU having been there now for six years in understanding the right fit and not having a lot of trial and error because the expectation is what it is, we know what it is. We need to win. We will win but we need to make sure we do it the right way and we have to make sure that we have a fit factor with our constituency base, very important. So going through that process, and going through that particular search at the time, was… was really healthy for me to go through that because I knew exactly the right person, they needed to succeed, the coach, Coach Carey, because of the fact of having gone through that process.


So I know you guys well enough to know Alabama football, Citadel basketball, strong traditions, and at those two institutions of success and leadership, and you’ve worked at great places and been around great folks who have, I have no doubt have… have impacted your own philosophy around success and leadership. How did how did you go about as athletic directors, now, John, this is a second school you’ve been athletic director, Sean at NIU, how did you develop your own success philosophy?


JH: You know, I think that goes back and I look over, not just my career, but my childhood and, you know, I will never forget my dad from early, early on saying, “If you are going to be a leader of people, never expect anybody to do something that you won’t do yourself.” And, you know, and I know this term gets used a lot, but I think it’s so appropriate in the world of college athletics and being a director of athletics, you’ve got to be a selfless servant. I mean, there, you know, if there is a pet peeve of mine is somebody saying, “Well, I’m not doing that. That’s not in my job description.” You know, that, that job description is nebulous if you do what you need to do for us to be successful at the end of the day. And I think if we’re doing that as leaders, and the folks who work with us see that, I think that builds such a solid foundation. And I continue to go back to that from early childhood and my dad taught me that.


SF: You know, that’s… it’s what it is, you know, you lead them by example. Again, that’s… you hear that a lot. But, you know, my style was adapted, you know, I’ve been an athletic director Division I, II, and III over my career and having a chance to work with Barry Alvarez as a sitting head football coach transition into athletic director was a gold mine, because I had been around and being at Alabama, there was one standard and we’re going to do that at an excellent level, and we’re going to run hard. But again, the humility piece of that and seeing how it affects all sports, not just football, that level of quality of experience, that inclusive excellence, that ability to make sure you surround your staff and that you’re only as good as the people that are working with you and your student athletes, and I got a lot of that from Wisconsin. But I did get… I got a lot of that from some of the other levels that I was at when I had to be from lining the field, to fundraising to thrive in the Zamboni when, you know, all these different things. And that went into my style. And it really was helpful.


So this is the final question. And this is kind of an unfair question. All right. So if you had to leave here today and say one aspirational thing that you hold out and hope for in your respective institutions, in your respective jobs, what is that? What’s that thing?


SF: I do… and I’ll jump right on it. It’s about the student experience.




SF: I think the, the ability to… we’re preparing these young people for citizenship into society, and I think that a lot of times, especially when we talk about the pay for play, we talk about the likeness and image, we talk about all these things that are happening into collegiate athletics right now, I’m holding out hope that… that the student, we don’t lose the essence of the student experience, the ability to mentoring these young people for citizenship to the next era, the next generation. And I think with all these different confusing… these different competing priorities that are out there, sometimes we lose touch that we’re educating these young people, and they’re going to be giving back, and they’re going to be sitting in our chairs, and they’re going to be captains of industry and all these other things that are currently happening. And sometimes it gets lost because the platform gets muddy with so much other things that are happening in college athletics right now.


Yeah, great.


JH: You know, I think mine is similar to what Sean said there. I think our business has evolved so much over the last 20 years or so. And, you know, I know, there used to be talk about the in-check box, if you will, is when a student athlete walks across the stage and gets that degree. And I… that is still in my mind, while they’re on campus, the single greatest victory they can have is when they get that degree. But I really think our responsibility has expanded. And we can’t say when John Doe or Jane Doe walks across the stage that our job is done. Because I really think what we do over the two, three, four, five years where that student athlete is on our campus, that we arm them with the skills to be successful in whatever they do in life. And really the scorecard on those individuals is not done until much later in their career. And my hope would be that those student athletes look back and say, “You know, my experience at Northern Illinois University or my experience at Utah State University, was not just about competing on the field and getting my degree, it was about giving me a solid foundation that I can be successful throughout a lifetime.”


It’s great. John Hartwell, Utah State University. Sean Frazier, Northern Illinois University. On behalf of Athletic Director U, thanks for watching.