Q&A with Blake James

University of Miami athletic director Blake James addressed the media Monday afternoon. Read on to see everything he was talking about.

Opening Statement...

"Good afternoon. It’s great to have all of you here with us today. I’m excited for another year of Hurricane Athletics to really get going. As most of you know, a number of our programs started last week, and some of our other programs will continue on this week. As a program we're real excited about where we're at, and where we're going. For our students and coaches, we talk about our core values of excellence, integrity, respect, passion and family. Excellence in academics, athletics and life is something that is very important to us, and it’s something we work on on a daily basis. I think we had a great year last year. I’m sure many of you saw our recently published year-in-review annual report. There are a few things that are important for me to touch on here, before we go forward today.

“In academics, we had three of our teams score a perfect APR score. APR measures the academic progress rate of all of your teams. Three of our teams – men’s cross country, diving and women’s golf - all scored a perfect 1,000, and all of our programs are above 965. For those of you who follow the APR, 930 is where the NCAA starts putting penalties in place, so I feel we're in a very good spot from an APR perspective. As importantly, our students are doing exceptionally well in the classroom. As a program, we have a cumulative GPA of just over a 3.0. When you look at a top-50 institution with one of the top athletic programs in the country, it’s great to see our students are achieving at such a high level in the classroom. It’s important for us to graduate our student-athletes, and as indicated in our annual report, to have a graduation success rate [GSR] of 90 percent is something we can all be proud of as part of the Hurricane Family.

“Athletically, it was a great year for us overall. 11 programs qualified for the postseason. We had 31 of our students recognized as All-Americans. In the Learfield Directors Cup  - which is a holistic view of how your athletic program competes - we finished 40th in the country, which is our highest finish since the 2002-2003 season, and only the seventh time in our program’s history that we achieved a top-40 ranking. It's something I feel we can build on, and it’s something we talk about as a program. We'll be releasing a strategic plan later this year that will touch on the importance of us competing with the very best every year.

“Another neat thing with our program this year, and something we can all be proud of, is we were the only program to have our football team in a bowl game, our men’s and women's basketball teams in the NCAA Tournament and our baseball team in the College World Series. Again, we’re showing our success on the athletic field. Credit to all those programs for the fine years that they had. You have those fine years with great coaches. Having been around this program for a number of years, and as I’ve said to a number of you, I think collectively we have as great a group of coaches as we’ve ever had. You have coaches like Jim Morris, who has helped lead our baseball program to 25 College World Series and our 44th straight NCAA Tournament, and on the women’s side, Paige Yaroshuk-Tews, whose women’s tennis program went to its 11th consecutive Sweet 16. Obviously the excitement around football, with the hiring of Mark Richt, started last December 4th and has carried through today, and I’m sure everyone in the Hurricane Family is excited to see the team come out on December 3. Those three are just representative of the great group we have. Top to bottom, as I said, we have as good a group as we can have as a program, and I'm very excited about the future.

“With great coaches come great student-athletes. Some quick highlights – I think anytime you do this you open yourself to missing someone - that stuck out to me right away were: obviously the great job Artie Burns did with last year’s football program, being drafted in the first round. You look in the spring, Zack Collins was another first-rounder with our baseball program. Dewi Weber, our women’s golfer, finished as a national runner-up as a freshman. Sinead Lohan, our sophomore women’s tennis player, finished in the national semifinals. Not to mention the seven Olympians we have competing in Rio right now: divers Sam Dorman and Marcela Maric, swimmer Heather Arseth, soccer player Catalina Perez, track & field athletes Alysha Newman and Murielle Ahoure, and rower Aisha Chow. They are all individuals we can be very proud of and that we are very proud of as an institution.

“On the life front, it's important to continue to give our students the skills they need to compete in whatever arena it is after their athletic career is over, whether that's professionally or at the collegiate level. One of the things we've done is to really try to educate them on what’s next in life. We had 20-plus educational sessions last year, whether it was career centers, financial training, to just having them ready for the next step in life, it’s something that’s important to us as a program. We talk about family and excellence being among our core values, and when you tie those things together, you want to put your students in the best positions to be successful.

“In addition to that, they did a great job in the community. Last year through this summer, we've clocked over 3,100 hours in our community service programming, and that says a lot about the great young men and women we have in our program going out and representing our institution, not only athletically, but touching different parts of the community. That number finished in the top 50 in the country, and it is a number I assure you we will continue to improve on, because we have great men and women in this program who continue to excel in all areas.

“As the Athletics Director, it is important for me to give those coaches I talked about the right tools they need to be the very best. Facilities is one of the key components to that. This past year, we opened up the nutrition center, and that’s something that has been a real investment in our student experience. We renovated our swimming pool, and I know that will mean great things for our swimming program moving forward. We’re getting ready to start a renovation to the front of the Hecht Athletic Center, and we are in the process of starting renovations over at men's and women's basketball. All of those further enhance our facilities and put our program in a better position. Like all of you, I'll be excited to see the final product September 3 on a stadium with over $500 million dollars in renovations that Stephen Ross and the Dolphins have put into that facility. I am confident it will be one of the best in the country, and will be hosting future Super Bowls, college football championships and, as we know, home to NFL team. To have a stadium of that level to be there for our program is something that is a real win for us.”

“With that said, there’s other things that we need, and I’m sure there will be questions on it, but an indoor practice facility remains at the top of our list. As I've said to some of you, an announcement will be coming soon. I'll continue to say that. Unfortunately we don't have it yet today, but we're finalizing some details and will have a naming gift secured here in the near future. That’s something I am really hoping we’ll be able to have in place for the 2018 season. That's a project we continue to push on full-go.

“To get those facilities, you need to have a passionate fan base and one that's able to step forward. As I said, we're getting that on the indoor practice facility, but we're also seeing it on a daily basis. Our Hurricane Club grew to over 9,500 members this year. If you look back, since 2010, it was just under 4,000. To now be at 9,500 says a lot about the great support we’re getting from all those who bleed orange and green and have a passion for our program. We’ve surpassed $12 million on an annual basis, and that money goes into making that student experience a better one – whether that’s the nutrition center, training table meals, scholarship costs, cost of attendance…all those things add up. It’s the great support of our fan base that allows us to make those things reality.

“Ticket sales is another one. Last year we sold out men's basketball [on a season-ticket basis] for the first time. The great crowds for the men’s basketball program is something that I'm confident we'll see more of moving forward. On the football front, we're over 36,000 season tickets today, and rapidly approaching our goal of 40,000. I'm confident we’ll have 40,000 season ticket holders for the stadium this football season. There are less than 1,000 seats left in the lower level, and I know one of the things all of us have looked at for years is, ‘How do we fill it up?’ The great job our ticket sales staff is doing, in getting out and making people aware of those opportunities, and obviously to have our fans coming out and supporting Coach Richt and the young men who put on The U every day, it'll be great to see all those tickets sold for our games. We’re looking forward to a great season out there this year.

"Another area where we continue to enhance our program is in video production. As I’m sure many of you heard just a few weeks ago, the ACC announced the launching of the ACC Network. Knowing that was something that was coming for our program, last year we made a significant investment into video production. Hopefully a number of you have seen the fruits of those labors. We produced 114 events last year that were live through ESPN3. With the addition of the ACC Network, I think you'll see, and our fans will see, an even greater presence of Hurricane Athletics, to both digital and linear outlets. We are very excited about where that's at and where we're going as a program.

“Finally, it's great to be a Miami Hurricane. We'll continue to push forward. As we talk with our coaches, going into the future, it’s important we continue to win, in the classroom, in competition and in life. The young men and women who come to this university come here with great aspirations to be the very best they can be, and to enhance those skills. All of our staff will continue to do the things we need to do for us to compete to be the very best. There’s no doubt we’re in the best athletic conference in country in the ACC, and it’s important for us, as I’ve said from Day 1, that we’re competitive for ACC Championships. If we are, we're ultimately going to be competitive for national championships. We need to continue to focus on those goals as a program. I promise you we will, and I look forward to our fall sport season getting going. With that, I’m happy to answer any questions any of you have.”

On the launching of the ACC Network…

“I think the ACC Network is a benefit on a few fronts. As I touched on, the increased exposure for all of our teams. That's not going to change as much for football as men’s basketball, as I think there was already great exposure through our agreement with ESPN for those two programs, but for everyone else. With that said, I think we're going to see across the board support, the opportunities to further increase revenues through the TV contract, and, as you touched on, really strengthening the agreement between the conference members to stay together. As part of this agreement, the group all agreed to provide their media rights to the ACC up through the 2036 season. With our new media rights, there really isn't an opportunity in today's market to be looking at other conferences. In a lot of ways, what it did was solidify the ACC through 2036. While realignment may occur, that's not something I’m looking at, as I feel confident in the conference we're in and confident that it is going to continue to be the great conference it is moving forward.”

 

On his confidence in opening the football season Sept. 3 at New Miami Stadium…

“Based on the comments that the Dolphins have made publicly, I feel all the more confident. With that said, they've been great at communicating throughout the process. Obviously we have a backup plan in place if needed, but as of today, we feel confident that we’ll be at that stadium on September 3rd, and really admiring what we’ve all seen in pictures. We’re looking forward to seeing it. Our plan is to be there. If something were to change, we'll have a contingency plan to make sure the game still occurs."



On the positive energy surrounding the program since Mark Richt’s hiring in December 2015…

“Since last December 4th, when we announced Mark's hiring, there has been a real wave of energy around the program. I think it's hard to put into words without quantifying, as I did earlier - just seeing the increase in ticket sales, seeing the increase in donations, just the positive energy around the program from a fan perspective. I think from a football perspective, it's just seeing Mark really bring in a vision and instill it into the young men in our program. Whether it's the reports around practice, talking to people who have been out there and what he's doing there, or talking to everyone around the building in terms of all the different people that our student-athletes interact with on a daily basis, Mark has done everything I could have asked from my position and beyond. We're excited for the season to start, but as importantly, continue to support his vision and give him the resources that he needs to be the very best. As I touched on earlier, with the big piece there that we need to move forward with is the indoor practice facility.”

 

On if there are any other goals for facilities that have not yet been announced or referenced…

“I don’t think that there's anything that you haven’t all heard of. I touched on a few - the need to upgrade this building, that’s in place and will be starting soon. We just did some work over at the pool, the work on the men's and women's basketball facility, the indoor practice facility. With that said, I know our coaches will come up with new needs that they have. One of my goals is really to be able to do something every year. I'm sure there will be something, once we get this indoor practice facility finalized, that will be pressing for us and we'll move forward with. With that said, there isn’t anything that I have out there that is urgent right now outside of the indoor practice facility. That's really the one we're focusing all of our efforts on."

 

On the back-up plan if the stadium is not ready for the season opener against Florida A&M…

"If we're unable to play September 3rd at New Miami Stadium, we'll have a stadium that will be able to accommodate our fan base, that will meet the needs of the two teams and that will allow us to play the game on September 3. If the need to communicate that plan is there, we’ll move forward with communicating that to our fan base in a timely fashion."


On when a decision would be made to move the opener, if necessary…

"It's hard to say until we get the definite answer that it's there, but to me, within a two-week window. All indications that I’ve received from the Dolphins is that we’ll be ready to go on September 3rd, and our plan is to be at the stadium there on September 3rd.”


On when he hopes to have the indoor practice facility open…

“My goal is sometime in 2018.”


On how he sees conference expansion shaking out across the country, given the Big 12’s exploration…

"Not knowing the conversations the Big 12 is having, I think that’s where, as everyone knows, the opportunity for expansion. When you look at the Big 10, SEC, Pac 12 and ACC, personally I don't see much movement among those leagues. I think it is the Big 12 that has that opportunity, if they feel it’s right for them. Obviously there’s a lot of talk, and I know there's been some public support of different institutions by member institutions of the Big 12.

“Given the climate and where things are going, I think it's harder and harder financially to compete with schools if you're not in that ‘Power 5’, is what they're being called. Those five conferences, I think, are just in a different position in terms of what they're able to do from a financial perspective. I do believe it'll be hard for other institutions to continue to keep up. Not to say there won't be institutions that will compete in different sports and that will win championships. But on a regular basis, top to bottom, those are the conferences I think that you’ll see will have the greatest amount of success."


On what he sees for the future of the College Football Playoff and any changes to four-team format…

"I think the playoff is great at four [teams]. I think it would be hard to expand it right away to eight. I'm sure there will be pressures to go that direction. I think one of the great things about college football is it keeps the regular season almost in a playoff-type format. When everyone isn't making the playoffs, every week becomes important. Obviously there would be different interests, and I’m sure there will be pressures to look at different things, but I hope as an association we continue to keep the regular season of college football very relevant, and one that is watched very closely. I think you still see that each week there are big games that have real implications on who's going to be picked in that final four. I like the number of four as it’s set up right now, because I do think it keeps the pressures on everyone to really keep that playoff-type format the entire college football season.”

 

On the potential of changing conference games…

"We're looking, as a conference, at staying at eight or going to nine [games]. As I’ve shared with you before, I'm a fan of nine. I think it helps create the rivalries. We all know as a league we're going to be together for a long time. To me, it doesn’t really support enhancing the rivalries if we're not playing each other on a more regular basis. By playing nine conference games, all of our fans will see teams on a more regular basis. My position continues to be that I would like to see us play nine conference games. With that said, I know that's not ideal for everyone. Wherever we end up, whether that’s eight or nine, we're happy with the situation. My vote will be for nine conference games, as I said, for the fact that we get to play our conference members on a more regular basis. "


On the potential to of being forced to schedule non-conference games vs. ‘Power 5’ opponents…

"It's what we're going to do as a league. It's a decision that has been made as a league. I would rather see us play other conference opponents on a more regular basis. I think from a scheduling perspective, it can be real challenging – especially when you're a program that has great tradition. A lot of times schools won’t want to play you, where there’s long travel times…scheduling can be a real challenge. Based on familiarity with the conference and creating those rivalries, I'd like to see nine, but at the same time, from a scheduling perspective and where you see dollars going, in terms of guarantees and what it takes to get other teams to come play, to me, it would be a win for everybody in the conference to go to nine games as well.”

 

On the team’s decision to partner with adidas and how that relationship has blossomed…

“Our partnership with adidas officially started one year ago right now. With that said, it’s been a little bit longer than that, in that we knew the agreement was coming. adidas has gone above and beyond - real credit to them in terms of the active role they've taken in understanding our program, understanding the young men and women who represent our program and the needs of our teams. It's not that our partnership before wasn't one that was a good one. I think Nike did a great job for all their years with us. But it's been interesting to see how adidas has really elevated it.

“From my perspective, there’s a financial component to that which was well-communicated when we first launched the deal. From the financial side, it has been a real win for us. But as importantly, from an experience side for our students, it's been a win. The win in part is not just the increase in amount of product, but the real interest in understanding the needs of the students at the University of Miami and how they best meet those needs, and then coming through with that product. Whether it’s different looks, or working on different product components or really getting feedback from not only our students but our staff as to what’s the vision here, and how adidas incorporates into meeting that vision, not creating their own vision, I think it's a credit to them. It has really helped enhance the relationship.”


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