A key date in the future direction of Iowa State athletics is looming.
By June 30th, ISU president Gregory Geoffrey must notify current athletic director Bruce Van De Velde if he intends to retain him as the man running the show at the Jacobson Building.
Van De Velde's contract actually doesn't expire until 2005, yet there is a clause that calls for him to be notified a year in advance regarding the school's intention to extend the deal or not.
Being an athletic director is usually a thankless job, and that is certainly the case for Van De Velde as well. As the athletic director, you take the brunt of the public relations heat when things melt down. Meanwhile, when coaches win and players graduate usually they get the credit for a job well done while the athletic director is overlooked.
So, with that being said, what criteria characterize a successful athletic director? For that matter, what specific factors should Dr. Geoffrey look at when deciding whether or not to hold on to Mr. Van De Velde?
Since there seems to be enough anti-Van De Velde sentiment out there on the Internet, I thought this week's column provided an excellent opportunity to present the dissenting viewpoint.
Call this the case for Bruce.
Now, some of you who are on the anti-Van De Velde bandwagon will surely say I'm only doing this because I have to. After all, since my talk show airs on the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network, and I publish a site about ISU athletics, I have to kiss Bruce's rear end, right?
Of course, a lot of those same people who think that way will then turn around and say I make stuff up just to spark debate or chatter for the sake of profit. I don't see how you can have it both ways, but I digress.
Does it help me professionally to have a good relationship with the athletic director at Iowa State? Yes, obviously. Of course, that also helps you the customer get access to things like live radio shows on site for media days, for instance. Do I have a good relationship with the athletic director at Iowa State? In the interest of full disclosure the answer is certainly yes. Am I a personal friend with the athletic director at Iowa State? No, we've never gone to the movies, exchanged Christmas presents, or broke bread together.
He has a high-profile job at a high-profile school. I have a job that calls for me to cover and comment upon his high-profile job and school. We get along well, but our relationship begins and ends there.
And frankly I don't need to support Van De Velde to keep this site alive or my show on the air. On more than one occasion, Van De Velde has voiced issues he has with my show to the brass at Clear Channel. Van De Velde has been very supportive of our magazine from a marketing and access standpoint. We are extremely grateful for that. However, Van De Velde doesn't do that because I'm a really swell guy or the world's greatest Cyclone. He does it because the publication is first-class and he thinks it's good for Iowa State.
Besides, at this time last year dozens of Cyclone fans were canceling their subscriptions to this site simply because of my stance backing the school in its decision to terminate Larry Eustachy. Thus, that kind of blows the argument out the window that I frame my opinions around what's best for my business. Had I backed the former men's basketball coach at Iowa State and trashed the athletic director, I certainly would've profited more than I did with the position I took.
So let's dispense with the preliminaries and get down to where the rubber meets the road. It seems there are two ways to look at Van De Velde's tenure, and which prism you see it through probably determines what opinion you have on whether or not he should be retained.
On one hand there is results—i.e., wins, graduation rates, and facility management. On the other hand there is presentation—i.e., leadership style, use of the bully pulpit, and handling of public relations.
If you're a results-oriented person, you probably want him to return, or are at least open to the idea. Why? Because his resume of accomplishments the past three in a half years is fairly impressive. To wit:
- A nearly 30 percent increase in overall revenues to the athletic department, pending the final numbers from the just-concluded school year.
- The top graduation rate in the Big 12 among student-athletes that exhaust their eligibility.
- Raising of assistant coaches pay across the board.
- Signing coaches Dan McCarney, Larry Eustachy (before last year's nightmare divorce), and Bill Fennelly to long-term contracts that kept them here at the height of their popularity and marketability.
- Seven different varsity sports have been nationally ranked.
- Numerous cosmetic upgrades to Jack Trice Stadium.
- Raising the funds necessary for the construction of the long-awaited Steve & Debbie Bergstrom indoor multipurpose facility.
- Successful negotiation of the popular home NIT doubleheaders, which was a brilliant move.
- Successful negotiation with Mediacom to televise NIT basketball games.
- Successful negotiation with national companies like Nike, ESPN, and Clear Channel to market Iowa State sports.
Let me propose that if an Iowa State athletic director not named Bruce Van De Velde – or one that had a name like Gene Smith – had that record to run on he'd be overwhelmingly re-elected.
Unfortunately in Van De Velde's case, those array of accomplishments are dismissed by a segment of the fan base looking for stature, charisma, and media savvy. To be honest, I'm partially responsible for this as a member of the media, since we in the fourth estate exist in the realm of public relations. We're partially responsible for reflecting the view that Van De Velde is lacking in that area.
Still, Van De Velde himself bears some of the responsibility as well. Although he was principally correct during the Eustachy fiasco, he failed to project an image of strong leadership before the cameras and microphones. Questions still linger for some about what did he know about Eustachy's peccadilloes and when did he know it?
The search for Eustachy's successor turned out to be successful in settling for Wayne Morgan, but it was certainly handled clumsily in getting to that point.
One of the first major decisions Van De Velde made was to eliminate two men's sports for the sake of finances, drawing the ire of baseball fans who rarely showed up for the games while they were being played at Capp Timm Field.
Elaine Hieber's departure was messy – especially on her part – and very public. Sometimes I hear about sweating the small stuff too much, like wondering how late the lights are left on in the football offices at night. Students are upset about changes in parking policy more friendly to donors. Donors are upset about seating changes more friendly to students.
In a perfect world you'd be able to find a harmonic convergence between an athletic director that can produce results with a perfect presentation. But that's tough to find, given the chief executive nature of the position it's impossible to not offend someone every time you make a decision.
Since we're always comparing the University of Iowa to Iowa State, let's compare Bob Bowlsby to Bruce Van De Velde. In NCAA circles, Bowlsby is as well respected as any athletic director in the country. He's also one of the most powerful. Heck, he's the current chairman of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. He also absorbed what was once the most progressive women's athletic department in the country and consolidated it under his own power.
Yet I also hear complaints from the Hawkeye Nation about his term of service? Why, because he, too, has had some public relations blunders. The sloppy handling of Tom Davis, the sloppy handling of Bob Stoops, the sloppy handling of the Pierre Pierce sexual assault settlement, and the sloppy support of Steve Alford after three straight berths in the NIT certainly hasn't endeared him to some fans here at home; despite his clout abroad. In fact, one wonders whether Bowlsby would replace Van De Velde on the most criticized list if not for the fact he completely lucked out by hiring Kirk Ferentz.
Is Van De Velde perfect? Nobody is. As an administrator I think he's pretty good. As a leader, he's improving after a rocky start. Is Iowa State athletics in better shape than it was before he arrived four years ago? Wins are up, dollars up, and student-athletes are graduating at a breakneck pace. So the cut and dried answer is yes.
Van De Velde's problem isn't so much his service to ISU as it is how people see him personally inside the athletic department and out on the Cyclone Club circuit. Some of you think he lacks gravitas. Some of you think he doesn't project strong leadership. I think the results speak for themselves.
The track record of results is good enough to warrant retention, especially since the matter that has created most of the detractors was really orchestrated by the administration and not the athletic director, who was just the messenger.
If I were Dr. Geoffrey, I would extend Van De Velde's contract another three years. If I were Van De Velde, I'd make forming a solid, grass-roots relationship with Cyclone Nation my top priority in a second term.
(Steve Deace can be heard on the radio each weekday from 3-6 p.m. on 1460-KXNO, the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network. His next column will be published on May 24th.)