Jim Donovan: Losing more
than an administrator
By Tom Yoshida
Wednesday, July 24, 2002
HONOLULU – For more than 21 years, Jim Donovan bled green on the University of Hawaii at Manoa campus.
From cleaning the artificial turf at Rainbow Baseball Stadium to making important budgetary decisions for the Athletics Department, Donovan will depart the friendly confines of the lower campus to his new office as Executive Director of the ConAgra Hawaii Bowl.
Many people felt Donovan's career would lead him to the athletic director's chair of the Green and White, but when Herman Frazier was selected as the new AD on June 21, life changed for the 42-year-old from Anaheim, Calif. Opportunities were still there but now it was from the private sector.
RSN's Thomas Yoshida sat down with Donovan and talked about a number of issues. Among them were his years at UH, the Athletic Director selection process, the challenges of new AD Herman Frazier and his future.
RSN: Twenty-one years is a long time to spend in one place. Has this experience been bittersweet?
Donovan: Obviously, UH is in my blood. I spent about half my adult life here at UH. I've sweating on those fields, I've spent a lot of long hours and had a ton of great experiences and have a few regrets and even made a few mistakes along the way but overall it's been a fantastic ride and a great experience. I wouldn't say it's bittersweet but it's the right time to transition and this is the right time because of the opportunity to work with ESPN.
RSN: What drew you to this position?
Donovan: The two things I really like about the new job was the opportunity to work with ESPN, which is the number one brand in sports, and secondly the Bowl Game is really for UH. Because of those reasons, I feel like I'm moving laterally and still be helping the department out. The think that I thought was really neat was that I know Herman (Frazier) will serve on the Executive Committee and it gives me a chance to work with him. I've had great conversations with him in the last couple of weeks and he seems like a real good guy.
RSN: Were you recruited?
Donovan: Actually they (ESPN) came back in December but in May we spent a lot of time with them just trying to get them meeting with the right people in town so they can get them off on the right start and they sort of came back and asked me if you was interested in the job. I said ‘to be honest with you, I'd rather be the AD.' They said we understand that and if you get it, it's great for us too, but if not, would you be interested in a job?
I said, to be honest with you, I would be interested because of the people I've met but could we just wait and how this plays out because I want to get the AD job if possible.
When Herman got picked, I just took about a week or 10 days to review my options and I called them back and asked if the offer was still out there and they said absolutely. I talked to my wife Tracy about it and she said it's got so many pluses to it: you're working with ESPN; you're still in the State of Hawaii; you get to refresh all of your relationships with corporate sponsors. If the Warriors win seven games, you know financially it'll be a great help to them. So I figured, ‘damn, what the heck.' I talked to Herman about it and he was very supportive. He offered me a position to stay at UH. I then asked him if you were opposed for me going over there and he said no not at all…please do what you have to do. The more I thought about it, I said it was the right time to do something new and make new contacts and at the same time stay in administration. It would broaden my experience and potentially help me down the road.
RSN: What are your new duties?
Donovan: My three main duties will be: sell corporate sponsorships, tickets and to coordinate all of the bowl week activities including game-day. I really consolidated it down because the last one is obviously a huge job. Working with lots of volunteers, other companies and ConAgra Foods as well as the two teams, Aloha Stadium, there's a lot of logistics but essentially that's what's involved with the job.
RSN: This sounds like a seasonal-type job?
Donovan: It is in some sense but it certainly won't be until next year. Most new bowl games are approved in April for the following year so that's about 20 months from approval to game time. Essentially for me it'll be about five months from the day they announced my new position until game day so it is highly condensed what has to happen here versus some of the other new games. Because of all my years of experience from management to marketing to administration, it gives me a chance to get it done but it's going to be challenging.
RSN: How have you dealt with the disappointment of not being selected as the athletic director?
Donovan: I knew it was a stretch for a couple of reasons. 1) I don't have any AD experience, I was an associate AD and there is a reality out there when you look at the top Division I programs, and I believe we're going in that direction, there is some desire by many institutions out there to have someone who already has experience. That was a knock I knew going into that I had to face up to it. I think every President out there including President Dobelle has a right to get a person who they want because it's like every business or company…they need to get the team they want. I look at Herman and I ask myself ‘gosh, how could I not be impressed?' Essentially he has the almost the same career path as I had in Hawaii what he had at Arizona State with the exception of his 20 months experience he had as AD at UAB (Alabama-Birmingham) and he won gold and bronze medals in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. So I'm very impressed with his credentials and I had to be realistic so it's not so much of a disappointment when you step back, take a deep breath and look at how the whole thing played out.
RSN: How do you respond to the comments that the local candidates were not given a fair shot?
Donovan: Everything I've been told from committee members and from the chairman of the search committee was that it was handled on the up-and-up from square one to now. I heard that my name was presented to the committee from the search committee and I feel like my name was put out there for consideration. I have no feeling other than that I was given the opportunity to be reviewed by the search committee and I think that's what I really wanted. The most important thing was that can Herman do the job and there's no question that he can. I've spent seven or eight hours of one-on-one meetings with him and I'm very impressed with him. That's why when I say to myself ‘do I think I could of done the job…yes.' The more important question is ‘do I think Herman can do the job?' and the answer is undoubtedly yes. It's just the way things work out sometimes.
I really appreciate that Herman offered me a position to stay on board and when he offered it to me, it was a viable option. When I was able to work out something with ESPN, I believe it would be another feather in my cap and a chance to go back to athletic administration…whether it's back at the University of Hawaii, working with Herman or somewhere else. For me, this is a great career enhancer.
RSN: What is Herman Frazier's biggest challenge as AD in the immediate future?
Donovan: I personally think his biggest challenge will be finances. We are today a very competitive Division IA athletic department. Unfortunately our expenses are growing faster than our revenues, which is not atypical for everybody across the country. We have tremendously increasing coaching salaries...we have gender equity concerns that means more funding for women's programs and women's sports then there is the support services that have to grow along with it because you are adding additional student-athletes and coaches and sports programs. My sense of it right now is that these expenses are growing faster than the revenues base can grow. In some cases, the revenue base is shrinking with TV rights going down and marketing levels are shrinking due to the economy. So I think with any AD in the country including Herman here in Hawaii, that will his biggest challenge.
We're going to end up with a deficit this year and it's going to be fairly substantial. I believe the reserve fund will be able to cover it but there won't be much left of the reserve fund. Herman will be facing in the next couple of years, continued budget deficits potentially and I don't know how fast the ticket prices can be increased without people saying ‘I don't need it." You don't want to raise it too fast but you don't want to turn people off too much to the point where they are not participating but yet to stay competitive, the salaries are just going up by leaps and bounds. That is Herman's challenge but that would be for any AD coming in right now.
RSN: Is it your goal one day to be AD?
Donovan: I don't know. I've always focused on the job at hand and that sort of got me to my next job. Because I did a good job as associate AD, that's why ESPN took a look at me and said if it didn't work out would you like to be executive director? I believe in all my heart the next thing I need to do is to do a great job as executive director and that will enhance career opportunities for me after that. In my career, I've always tried to keep as many open as possible and if it is intriguing, challenging, rewarding personally, then I would go like to do it. That's where I'm looking at the future than focusing in on just being a collegiate athletic director although that's certainly is challenging and can be very rewarding so that is definitely a possibility.
RSN: With your experience in marketing and business, did other opportunities appear when the athletic director's position didn't materialize?
Donovan: I had several calls and opportunities that would pan out from July 1 to about February. Some are still out there and it's nice to know that the opportunities are available, but once I chose to be the Executive Director of the ConAgra Foods Hawaii Bowl, I'll put all of my focus on to that until the middle of February where you can catch your breath and evaluate how you did.
RSN: What do you see yourself doing 10 years from now?
Donovan: When I started in administration, I was 32 and looked like I was 25. Now I'm 42 and I look like I'm 49! I aged a lot more than I spent on the job. I liked to think I want to be in a leadership position. My goal is to work with people, to motivate people, to be in position to work on the game plan. It doesn't have to be the number one position but I think I've spent a lot of time training for that and eventually that will come. In a sense, since I'll be the executive director, I will be number one but in a larger sense with full-time employees, this Bowl game will have a few full-time staff and the rest will be volunteers. I think someday I want to be number one in an organization with a large team of full-time employees working toward some goal that we all believe in.
RSN: What will you miss most about UH?
Donovan: No question the number one thing I will miss more than anything is working with the people here. The relationships you build here are so deep and they are such good people. Behind the scenes, these people bleed green. There's no question that with any Kansas, Oregon State victory, I can share the win as a fan but being part of the athletic department family, you cherish it with them. That without a doubt I will miss more than anything else.