UH AD Mack Rhoades interview This week, I had the opportunity to meet with and discuss a variety of topics with UH Athletic Director Mack Rhoades. Many of the questions came from our CoogFans.com Red Zone members. Enjoy.
DD - Obviously, we have experienced great success as far as football attendance is concerned. How has this affected the UH Athletic Department as a whole?
MR – Well, to date, we are extremely pleased. The fact that we have been able to sell out four straight home football games has been terrific and a testimony to our fans. It has been really great. It all goes back to the season ticket base, the larger season ticket base, the easier it is to sell out the games. Now, people can't necessarily wait until the last day to go find single game tickets or they are going to miss out. We increased the ticket base, the paid ticket base by 5,300.The great news is that by increasing the paid ticket base by 5,300 we got up to 11,500 paid, our total season ticket base is at 12,500 because we have trade tickets for sponsors. Tremendous strides, but we have to keep it in perspective as well, we have to repeat that again next year. We still have our work cut out for us. To date, the increase in attendance and the total game day experience at Robertson Stadium has made it a fun place to be. I was a little disappointed in the Tulane game, but I understand because it was so hot in the middle of the day. We would prefer to have our games in September and October at night. We prefer those games to be played at 7:00pm, but sometimes television does not allow us to do that. In November, we want our games to be played in the afternoon. Hopefully, we can do a better job of reaching out to the conference to let them know that we have a concern playing afternoon games especially in September. We will try to do a better job of getting those game time right, but again sometimes you don't have much of a choice due to television.
DD – The attendance this year has been unprecedented and a tribute to those that made it happen. Speaking of attendance, I've seen a few things recently about a Seat ‘em Up Coogs program for basketball, do you expect the same type of results?
MR – You know, I think that basketball, when you compare products, football to basketball, I think with football there was a lot of excitement with Case Keenum, the fact that we had been to a bowl last season, we had most of the team returning and some and some fairly good additions to the defensive side. Now with basketball, the product is more of an unknown. For our fans, we lost both of last year's leading scorers, you don't have a collection of guys returning that had a lot of minutes and really essential last year putting the ball in the hoop. We are a little more of an unknown this year. I hope that our fans are excited about Coach Dickey and his staff, they have done an unbelievable job seeing the Coach Dickey arrived on April 1 and his assistants shortly thereafter. They have done an incredible job of putting together a recruiting class at the last minute for this year, but what we will end up getting for verbal commitments in November and possibly a couple later in the spring of 2011. I really like where this program is headed. So for the Seat ‘em Up Coogs program for basketball, we will be realistic with our expectations seeing where the program is at this point. We really want to focus on families showing some discounted family packages and we want to focus on corporations getting them out there. I know that there have been some comments that our non-conference schedule is soft and it is, not as strong as we would like it to be, absolutely. We had some difficulty scheduling some non-conference games. Also, just looking at where are program is, as our program gets better, our non-conference schedule will get better. We will play a really, really tough non-conference schedule in the future. I know that Coach Dickey believes in it, but we are not ready for that right now, today.
DD – Speaking of scheduling, is that something that the coaches do or is that a joint effort? How does that really work?
MR – It is a partnership, for example in football, we have four people that are really involved in scheduling, Darren Dunn, our Senior Associate Athletics Director for External Relations, Justin Moore, our Director of Football Operations, Coach Sumlin and myself. We will talk together about scheduling roughly every two months. Darren and Justin will make a lot of phone calls, I'll make some calls, it is a joint effort. We also work with the conference office and ESPN as they potentially bring some games to the table, that is how we address it here. Probably, philosophically, I tend not to schedule five, six, seven years out, my preference is two to three years out, things change so much and so rapidly in terms of the status of programs. Now, we have some games that we are contracted for right now and we are not going to get out of those, we are not going to break the contract, these are things that we will have to live with and some of them are great things on our schedule. Probably, the hardship for us is that when you go to look at your non-conference games, the BCS schools, at least right now, those schools want two for one deals and that is what has been difficult, it is the balance. We know that our fans want us to play marquee names, but we have to balance that with winning. We also have to balance that, when you look at the list of Top 25 programs, those schools are playing seven and even eight home games, right now, we are playing six and six that's the best we can do. We would really like to manipulate our schedule, sooner than later, and as I have mentioned, we have some contracts that we can't get out of and we are not going to, we are going to honor the contracts. It is difficult to get to seven and five when you are playing two for ones. So we are trying to juggle all of that. We understand that our fans want to play the best names in the country every week, absolutely, but we also want to win games and to make sure that we are giving our football program every competitive advantage they can get.
DD – Getting on to the stadium and facilities, is there any news, anything that you can reveal as to an anticipated start date, corporate sponsors, things of that sort?
MR – I hesitate to give a start date. If we could start today, I would be out there with a shovel digging, but have to have our financing in order first. I think the present economic times make it a greater challenge than perhaps it was two or three years ago. I will tell our fans though that we are in the process of, mainly, meeting with individuals, right now we are focused on substantial gifts of a half a million dollars or more and that has gone very well. We are excited about that. At the same time, we are beginning to look at various corporations so the process of leading naming rights gifts, that will take longer and that could take another six to nine, even twelve months. That process takes a long time. We really could not go out and share that vision until sometime in August. I can promise everyone that we are working hard and feel positive about completing our facilities over the next two to three years.
DD – Speaking of Conference USA and our general sphere of influence if you will, what institutions are our toughest competition in terms of giving and facilities? Is it SMU, Tulsa or someone else?
MR – Well, I think that you start, I think we think of competition a little differently. We certainly look at Conference USA and when you look at C-USA you look at SMU and what they have done with their program by bringing in June Jones and what he has done, the facilities with their great stadium, when you look at basketball, they just completed a new practice facility for both men and women's basketball. SMU is doing a great job. When you look at our conference, you also have to look at ECU, in terms of everything that they have put together, when you consider their facilities, the money that they have been raising for their scholarship fund, they do a really good job. We have to measure ourselves within the state of Texas and if we are truly going to be a Top 25 program, we have to consider Texas Tech our competition, Baylor our competition, Texas A&M our competition, TCU our competition and Texas our competition. So this is where we have to measure up and that is where we set our sights, our sights are to become a Top 25 program. Now, that does not happen overnight, that takes a lot of ingredients, but we have a plan, we've got the vision, we have the people that are dedicated to making that happen.
DD – As to the football stadium, a lot of the stadiums like Memorial Stadium at Texas, Kyle Field at A&M and Robertson Stadium were built in the late 1920's to early 1940's under the Work Progress Administration (WPA), are we considering building up from Robertson's foundation like others have?
MR – Well, the feasibility study showed that [building new] was probably the most economic, cost effective way to go, but with Hofheinz Pavilion it was exactly the opposite. They looked at Hofheinz Pavilion as a box with great walls and a good foundation. We can go in within this box and really gut it up, tear it up and make whatever we want with it as a base. With Robertson Stadium, they looked at, if we were talking apples to apples, we are going to have a brand new stadium versus renovating to a level that feels as new as it possibly can, the cost difference was initially about $13 million. Well, $13 million is certainly a lot of money, no question about it, but when you look at the overall scope of the project and look to see the future 20-30 years down the road, does it make more sense to build new? I can tell you this, for us, nothing is off the table, we are never going to close an avenue. We are going to look at everything and the amount of private funding will also dictate the scope and breadth of the project as well.
DD – On conference realignment, is there anything on the front that you can speak to? I know that we are happy to be a founding member of C-USA.
MR – I have said that publically, our chancellor has said that publically, Coach Sumlin has said that publically, but we are happy to be a founding and current member of Conference USA. It has been a good conference for us, we have loyalty to the conference and the other eleven members. Now, with that said, we are always going to try and better ourselves, always. We need to stay focused on graduating student athletes, winning championships, selling tickets and improving our facilities, if we can focus on those four things and do really, really well at a high, high level, then everything thing else takes care of itself. We will improve ourselves.
As to conference realignment, well, there was a lot of smoke at the end of the day there was very little fire. I think that if we talk specifically about the other conferences; the Big Ten, right now, is taking a deep breath. It was very taxing on the chancellors. I think that they ended up with the institution that they wanted. I'm not sure if over the next few years if they aregoing to be aggressively looking to expand. I still think that they would love to have Notre Dame, I'm just not sure that Notre Dame is even considering it. If you look at the Pac-Ten and with the addition of Colorado and Utah, they are spending time on how to configure the conference, do to split the revenue and what does a championship game mean to them. I think that they will be involved in that process for a while. The Big XII, I think again that they just got to a place where the revenue share is good for Texas, Oklahoma and A&M, the others seem to be happy with that. I think that what will be interesting for the Big XII in a few years is the impact of the loss of a championship game, if any, has had on their conference. They may be truly happy to stay at ten teams for a long time.. Their upcoming television negotiations may dictate what they do or they don't do. The Big East is exploring what it is that they do, they are at eight teams for football, and sometimes at eight you are vulnerable. They have to think what happens if we add an institution or two or three. What is hard for the Big East is that they have 16 schools playing basketball, so they are trying to juggle that as well. Right now, today, the only conference that I see still exploring possibilities is the Big East. At the end of the day they may decide not to expand at all, then again, they may decide that now is the time to do that. I think that we have to make ourselves as attractive a product as possible and try to go back to doing the four things that I had mentioned earlier really well and everything else will take care of itself.
DD – What has been the biggest challenge since taking the position?
MR – I don't know if there has been a biggest challenge, we've had a lot of challenges. We spent a lot of time reorganizing the department. There are really three arms to the department, we have external relations, which really for us is revenue generation, that is communications, development, ISP, marketing, cross marketing and merchandising. We hired new people for that area. I really felt like we were an inbound company and now we are in the process, we are not there yet, becoming an outbound company. In that model, you don't G-E-T unless you A-S-K. We have to get out and ask you to become involved. The second arm of the department for us is internal operations. We completely implemented a brand new budgeting system from A to Z, literally, everything, the budget operations, the equipment operations and the facilities operations. We spent a lot of time on facilities as everyone knows with the feasibility study. WE have also looked at all of our other facilities, what do we need to do with the baseball field, what do we need to do with the softball field, what do we need to do with the Athletic and Alumni Center (AAC)? What kind of upgrades and renovations do we need to do to all of these facilities. Also, compliance is part of our internal operations area, one of our vision statements is on compliance, we are going to develop a department that is compliant, not just by NCAA rules, but also as an organization. Our third and I think arm, our most important, is our athletics development services, we've done a lot there. We have kicked off the leadership academy, the Cougar Pride Leadership Academy, this fall, this is something that we wanted to do immediately when I arrived. We are one of a handful of programs across the country and the only one in C-USA. We talked about making champions for life and that is why we have the leadership academy. We want to make sure that our young men and women come here and absolutely become a lot better athletes, but also a lot better people and that we help them become equipped for life after the University of Houston. There are a lot of great programming areas in terms of the leadership academy, whether or not we are talking about professional development, talking about financial management, talking about wellness, all of those things. So this is very exciting for us. That arm also includes sports medicine and the way we care for our student athletes. It includes sports performance, this is a huge part of our athletics programs success, making sure that we do that exceptionally well. In both of those areas Doc O'Shea and Larry Jackson do a great job. So, long answer, the challenge has been that we reorganized appropriately to meet our goals and we have put our people in positions of strength. If we didn't have the qualified personnel, we went out and hired qualified personnel. We made a lot of personnel changes, anytime that you have a lot of change it is important that everyone is on the same page and that everyone stays focused. We can be really special here. One of the interesting things that I heard from the fans recently when we lost case and then Cotton was that it was a big blow, the balloon was deflated, but we have to get after it, we have to stay focused, stay positive, this can be a great year for football, this can be a great year for our athletics program. We've got to all jump in, that includes the fans, the university, me and the athletics department, and we've all got to jump in because we can make it a positive year in all of our sports programs. We are going to work hard to do that.
DD – What has been your biggest positive since you arrived?
MR – I think that there have been a lot of them. When we talked to our people that we needed to increase our season ticket sales by 3-4,000 and then we were able to do that by 5,300, which is certainly significant. When you talk about facilities and we were able to get a really great study through the feasibility process with positive results from asking people to support that has been a great positive. When you talk about student athletes, the leadership academy, that's a big component that will help us to graduation, so that has significant impact. Hiring the coaches that we hired, the five new coaches, that will have tremendous impact in the department, the culture and how we do things, along with the existing head coaches. I think that all of that is significant. When you look at revenue generation, we increased revenues by 20 percent this past year and that was significant. I don't want anyone to be fooled, we have not been throwing a lot of money in the bank account, the university helps to subsidize the program, but we have to lessen the burden on the university, we have to continue to increase revenues. All of these things have been impactful. We need to continue and get better at all ofthem.
DD – One last thing on my mind, I've followed the golf program for a long time and obviously, we've had great success in the past. It appears that the hiring of Coach Dismuke is a good one. Is there anything on that front that you can tell us?
MR – Well, I think that Coach Dismuke has done a tremendous job. When we hire coaches here, someone made the comment that it takes us a longer than what some might be used to and it does, we really do our due diligence and of course, time will tell. Time will be the proof. We do take a long time to make sure that not only is the person qualified, but that they are a good fit, a good fit in terms of our culture and the culture that we are trying to develop. Coach Dismuke has come in and put a vision in place that we are going back to the days where we were competing for national championships, he believes that, we believe that, I think he has his kids believing that. He has done a tremendous job of connecting with our former players. When you think about programs and I care what programs that you are talking about across the country, we've won 16 NCAA Championships and there is no way that if we are going to talk about being successful here at UH that we can ignore that. We need to embrace this and we need to be at that level. Coach understands this, he has connected with the former players, connected with the alums and the donors that are excited about the program and he has done a great job of recruiting. This year, we go to Cabo and four of our freshman are the players that qualified for the tournament. I think that the following recruiting class will be exceptional as well. I really like the direction that it is headed, I think that Coach Dismuke and now his assistant coach, Chris Hill have worked their tails off and we appreciate everything that they are doing for us, for the program and our student athletes.
Thank you, that was quite insightful, I must tell you that I like the energy and the direction that you have brought to our program and look forward to many successes in the near future.