CN: It's the beginning of spring ball. What are the expectations? What are the hopes?
Pollard: I think from the football coaching perspective, it's just for them to get to know the players and this is the first time they get to see them in live action. So I think the whole spring will be a learning process for both the players and the coaches as they figure out the style of the new coaches and the coaches figure out who can play and who can't play.
CN: Now, on one level this is everybody starting out on ground zero, but also we see the enthusiasm that's been built around the program, the increase in the ticket sales, some of the additional things that have happened. How do you balance the excitement with realistic expectations going into both the spring and next season?
Pollard: Expectations are set by those that want to set them. It's like last year. People, I think, got way ahead of themselves, not because anybody in the athletic department talked about that; it's just that the fans tend to make their own expectations of what's going to happen. I think, in our particular case, we're just working through what you normally would do. We've got a new coach, and we're trying to build around a new coach, sell as many season tickets as we can, and try to continue to build the great fan environments that we've been trying to work on through tailgating and game day atmosphere. You know, what happens on the field, I can't control that. That's why you have coaches. And I'm not going to set an expectation of what they're going to do.
CN: I want to get back to football in a moment, but we had a very exciting couple of weeks there. I want to begin first with women's basketball. They had a great season; they made it to the NCAA. Talk about what that experience was like, as athletic director.
Pollard: Oh, it was a blast! I've done this now for 18 years. Of all the times that I've been to the NCAA tournament – including going to the Final Four with the Badgers – I've never had so much fun as I had at the place where everyone gathered in the pre-game before the women's basketball games. There were so many Cyclone fans, so many people having fun, and as athletic director, that's exciting because that's what we want to have with this is if people have fun they'll keep coming back and doing more and more with us and that's what was really neat, and to see the student athletes get to play in front of 4,000 Cyclone fans both days. I know Monday didn't end the way anybody would have liked it to. But you know what? If you're going to have your career come to the end like it did for our seniors, and that gets to happen in front of people that gave them a standing ovation, I don't think you can wish for any more than that if you're a student athlete.
CN: Now, after Saturday's game you hopped on a plane, you headed over to Auburn Hills, a lot of excitement going into the final round. I know you're a wrestling fan; talk about that experience. This team began the season with low expectations, was competing for a national championship. Just walk us through your thought process as that all unfolded.
Pollard: It was a real exciting weekend, because I was actually there on Thursday and Friday for the first two rounds, so I got to see it kind of unfold. I mean, Minnesota was clearly the hands-on favorite and I know a lot of our fans that probably aren't as involved in wrestling, they just look at it and say, "Well, we were ranked second so maybe we should have been getting second." You have to really be a true wrestling fan and understand how the sport is scored at the national tournament to really fathom how incredible of a job our student athletes did in that tournament. To be able to be in a position on the finals night that we had a chance to win, because hands down, Minnesota should have walked away with that tournament, and we should have maybe at best been fifth place. But our seniors stepped up; we had three kids get in the national finals, but it was from top to bottom a team effort, and you could just watch it unfold on Thursday and Friday that Minnesota wasn't wrestling well and we were wrestling . . . off the mat, off the charts. And it set up an opportunity for us on Saturday night to be able to wrestle for the national championship. As Cael said, it would have taken a half-court shot to go in, but what was neat for me was our fan section was next to the Minnesota section and on Thursday night all their fans left because Thursday night is the wrestle-backs for the losers. So their was this kind of attitude of, "We're gonna walk away with this tournament." On Friday night, they were sweating. On Saturday night, they had to wait out and see how we did to see if they were going to win, and that was neat!
CN: Now, six redshirt freshmen, a good foundation for next year; what are you looking for from the wrestling team going into next year?
Pollard: I think I learned a lot as athletics director this year just being at the tournament. I watched kids that were undefeated, hadn't lost in three years, lose. It really gave me a better perspective on how Cael's accomplishment in his four years of never losing is something that, it's almost even hard to believe it happened, because of how intense it is on championship night and watching great wrestlers lose for the first time. Why do I say that? Well, I think it's important to keep in perspective that what we just accomplished, you just aren't going to show up next year and not win the national championship. We'll have to wrestle very, very well and improve a lot just to be able to stay second in the country. But I have no concerns that we aren't heading in the right direction, that Cael has built the foundation of a program that going to sustain itself for a long time, and we're going to be in the hunt next year and in future years to win the Big 12 championship again and to compete for a national championship. Whether we'll win one or not it takes a lot of luck to do that. But I think we're going to be in the hunt to do it, and that's pretty neat.
CN: Switching to basketball real quick. Despite just nine scholarship athletes, the team only won one fewer game than last year. What kind of job did Greg McDermott do in his first year?
Pollard: I think he had a great first year. When you evaluate the entire season from start to finish, you have to look at it and say, "What a great year!" Given what he inherited and how bad it could have been, given that half the team transferred and you were left with not many returning players that really had played substantial minutes and you were bringing in a whole new coaching philosophy and a way to approach the game. And I really liked what I saw, I mean the fact that we won 15 games. If you'd told me that at the beginning of the year I would have said, "Okay . . ." Unfortunately when you win 15 games, that means you lost 16 and . . . we're all competitive; we don't like to lose. And so that's not fun, if you're Coach McDermott or any of the student athletes. But I think that the groundwork is laid for what should be a great tenure for him as head coach. Do I think it's going to happen overnight again next year? No, we're going to bring in more new players and have to continue to build. I think you've got to look out at maybe two or three years to probably really feel the impact of what he can do successfully. But my biggest thing that I thought when I watched this year was I just like how he operates. I watch the bench demeanor of the assistant coaches and the head coach and I just smile whenever I see Greg's really upset with one of the kids on the floor, but he teaches them in a way that they know he's upset, but usually they're both smiling. And as a father, and I've said this before, as a father that's the kind of coach I want my son playing for. He's going to be hard on him, teach him, but at the same time he's going to respect him.
CN: Now, when we look at a couple of the other programs, you've got a great gymnastics program, a great volleyball program. Three of your athletes were just at the national trials for volleyball and they just made the NCAA tournament. Talk about the job that's been done on the volleyball court and also what's happening with gymnastics right now.
Pollard: Well, on volleyball we've got a diamond in the rough in Christy Johnson; she's probably one of the most underrated and most talented coaches out there. A lot of people wouldn't know this, but Terry Pettit, her former coach at Nebraska, shared this with me. Christy is the only player in Nebraska history that went through her career undefeated on the road as a starter. Christy has got a great demeanor about her as far as if you want a coach that never sweats, that's Christy Johnson, and she has built a great program in a short period of time, and I think that's one of the programs that we can really carve out a lot of success in the Big 12. The Big 12 is a great volleyball conference; if you can compete in the Big 12, you can compete for a national championship, because Nebraska is probably the hands-down best volleyball program in the country, and I couldn't be more excited about the fact that she's here, that we just signed her to a contract extension. We're going to grow this program as she grows as a head coach.
CN: Wrestling has great fan support, basketball has great fan support, but it seems that volleyball now is having some outstanding attendance and that's growing. Talk about the economic impact or the importance of the fact that people now are getting excited about that program and are coming to see those games.
Pollard: It's one of those sports that you're going to carve out large crowds slowly but surely, and it's been fun to watch more people get attracted to volleyball, but it's also one of those sports that . . . you've almost got to teach fans how to be fans and really understand who are the good teams when you're playing them. Everybody knows Nebraska, but do they know when you're playing . . . you know we had a great crowd for Northern Iowa, but do they understand what you're playing against that particular night so they know when there's going to be a great game or a great match, and that's going to take . . . it's an evolution, but I think the base that we have here to support a woman's sport like that is there. We see it in women's basketball and I look at the fall and say we've got an opportunity to carve out a great niche, and maybe not get the same type of crowds you get at women's basketball, but certainly get pretty large crowds for volleyball.
CN: In terms of gymnastics, this is a program that's had some All-Americans. One of the things that impressed me was your All-American also was sort of an All-American citizen, this was honored that way. Talk about the gymnastics program and then talk about the kind of character we're seeing coming out of that program, as with most of the programs here.
Pollard: Well, our women's gymnastics program has been one of our more successful programs over time, and last year what they accomplished by getting to the Super Six out at Oregon State is the equivalent of a Final Four in men's basketball. Unfortunately this year we've had the injury bug hit us a little and that's one of those sports that . . . it's a sport that's scored subjectively based on your performance, and I think sometimes a little bit of your history equates into how you get scored, because you get kind of slotted in spots, and when you have to put freshmen out there on the mats, it doesn't mean that they're not as good, but people don't know them, they don't come in with the reputation and it's a little harder to kind of move up the pecking order. At the same time, though, we're still . . . you know, given the injuries we've had, because they were a couple of our top kids, we've still been ahead of a fairly successful year. I think we're going to be stretched here down the stretch at the Big 12's and at the regional championships to get back to the NCAA's, but I think that the coaches feel really comfortable about the kids and they're getting great experience, and maybe it'll all come together at the right time. Last year, what happened at that Super Six performance is our upperclassmen, everything fell into place, and a lot of that credit needs to go to K.J. Kindler and Lou Ball for everything they did. They were great coaches and we were sorry to see them leave, but at the same time we're real excited about having Jay and Mary Ronayne, and the two assistants that they brought, actually three assistants that they have with them. So I think we have a good, new, young set of coaches on the gymnastics program and the key for them will be to be able to continue to recruit the type of athletes to be able to compete in the Big 12.
CN: The soccer program is another program that made it to the NCAA tournament a couple of years ago. What's that program looking like, and is it going to make it back to the NCAA championships this coming year?
JP: Two years ago we became the first women's soccer program in the state of Iowa of any of the schools, Iowa, Northern Iowa, Drake, to go to the NCAA tournament, and we finished second, I believe, second or third in the overall Big 12 standings, had a run at the conference championship. This past year we fell off a little; we had a couple of kids transfer, a couple of seniors that graduated, and the new student athletes came in and didn't get off to as good a start as we would have liked to. A lot will be determined in how those kids respond this year over the summer to come back this fall and really get off to a great start. But we feel very comfortable with the leadership of Rebecca, again, another good young coach, her first time being a head coach and I just like her style; I like her aggressiveness. She's got a little bit of an attitude to her about wanting to win and I like that.
CN: The softball program – 38 consecutive games on the road. I can't even comprehend that. Just give me your thoughts on that; I don't even know what question to ask about that – 38 games in a row, on the road.
Pollard: Therein lies our question when people ask me why we don't have baseball. The fact of the matter is, we're in Ames, Iowa. We're in the Midwest. You couldn't have played at home anytime in the last month if you would have wanted to. So the only way you're going to be able to play and compete is you've got to go on the road every weekend and go south, and that makes it really, really difficult academically, because those kids are out of class an awful lot and that is an issue nationally for softball and baseball. If you're a southern school, it's a little bit more of an advantage because (a) you've got all the northern schools coming to play you, and (b) you can tend to stretch out your seasons a little bit longer because you can get more games spread out in that spring schedule, where for us, you know, even the games that we'll get in at home here this spring, you've got to worry about rain-outs and cold-outs, and that's a challenge. It's a challenge.
CN: Back to football. The season kicks off with a Thursday game for the second year in a row. Talk about what that means versus playing over the Labor Day weekend.
Pollard: One of the things that we talked about a year ago was we've got to try new things. You know, we'll throw mud on the wall and see what sticks. And one of the things we did last year was, we said, "Let's try that opening game on Thursday night." There's a lot of reasons for doing that. Number one is a lot of people go away on Labor Day weekend, and the last thing they want to do is come to Jack Trice Stadium. The students all go home on Labor Day weekend, and the students are a big part of the atmosphere in that football stadium. And number three, by starting on Thursday you actually get a couple days head start on practice and, you know that may not sound like a lot, but it is. It's two extra days that the coaches get to be with their student athletes; it also provides you two extra days of rest going into the next game the following week. So there is an advantage to that, strategically, from a competitive standpoint. The other thing that I noticed last year I hadn't thought much about, was by playing on Thursday, we had the Thursday morning and Friday morning papers and news media cover, whether it's television or radio, pretty much to ourselves because we weren't competing with Saturday morning and Sunday morning's coverage of all the other games that took place on Saturday, and last year we also benefited by the fact that FOX Sports allowed, for the first time ever, for us to peel out a game from the Big 12 television package and show it statewide on Mediacom, and that was just good exposure that we couldn't have gotten on Saturday. The crowd was as good attendance as we've had, if not better than Saturday nights, and so when we started looking at it this year, we said, "Let's ask our fans." So we did it as a question in the season ticket survey, and overwhelmingly it came back ‘Play on Thurday night.' So we thought we'd try it again this year. Does that mean we're always going to play on Thursday night? No, we're very respectful of the hardship that causes on some, and I'm not saying that next year we won't play on Saturday. But this year we decided we'll go on Thursday night again.
CN: Talk about the overall philosophy that's gone into really making the commitment to make this a championship program.
Pollard: One of the things that we did in the hiring process was, we looked and said, "What things can we really try to separate ourselves from our peers?" And I'm just a big believer, and it's not unique to me, but if you look and talk to people that have been successful running companies, it's because of the great people they put around them. And the best way to put great people around you is to be able to have the resources to be able to go out and pay them. And so that was one of the things that we decided we were going to put our money into, was the assistant coach pool. And so that was a big start. Secondly though, is Coach Chizik's philosophy. Coach has decided that there are some people he's paying top dollar to, and there are others he's paying what I'd call . . . I wouldn't say low dollar, but ‘hungry dollar' meaning I'm going to get a young, hungry lion and I'm going to pay him a little bit less than what the market rate is, and I'm going to say, "Prove it to me." And by doing that he's been able to take some extra money and put it in some other areas in the program. We hired an additional strength coach. He's looked at trying to do something more with academics. He's gotten a position now just completely dedicated to being a high school liaison in the state of Iowa. So he's strategically said, "I'm going to take that pool of money and break it up in a way that allows me to have the best well-rounded program." And that was something that I didn't anticipate going into the process and I think that's what makes Coach Chizik pretty special.
CN: We saw four of the men in basketball make the Big 12 All-Academic Team. I believe, 21 of the 23 seniors in football that graduated. Six or seven of the women's basketball players made the team. Wrestling had two guys make it. Great character, great academic accomplishments. Obviously you're the athletic director, but talk about the importance of the character and the academic accomplishments of the student athletes going through the various programs.
Pollard: It's extremely important, I mean it's first and foremost on our minds. They're student athletes, and we need to never forget that. They tend to, again using the media, the media tends to not talk about their academics, they talk more about their athletic accomplishments. But the reality of it is, the majority of our student athletes are going to have to rely upon their academic accomplishments to make a living in this world, and so for us it's very important. It starts with the new Academic Center we just dedicated this past month, a wonderful, wonderful $10 million facility that is clearly state-of-the-art. And I think it's very symbolic of the importance of the academics of our student athletes, but it also is just in our results. Our student athletes have had a higher grade point average than the average of the student body at Iowa State now I think seven semesters in a row, and that's important to us. But at the same time we do have our challenges; we need to continue to work on improving our graduation rate, because it's one thing to have them do well in class, but the most important thing is they walk out of here with a degree. And so when the Big 12 does that and recognizes those accomplishments, it's important because the student athletes need to get that affirmation, that it's just as important academically as it is to be on the All-Conference first team or second team.