New AD Faces Many Challenges

STORRS, Conn. – It was impossible to watch the proceedings at the University of Connecticut Monday without one eye on the future and another eye glancing over the shoulder into the past. A new UConn athletic director was introduced to the university, his future staff members, and the media, during a press conference at the Burton Family Football Complex.

Warde Manuel is a Michigan graduate, a big man who played football for Bo Schembechler. He stands 6-5, played defensive end, and opted not to disclose his weight. So, yes, he is an imposing figure.

Manuel's father was a sergeant in the U.S. Army. So, yes, that makes him an authority figure – just by relationship and heritage.

His parents were forced to relocate in Opelousas, La., after Manuel's childhood home in New Orleans was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Everybody is fine, he said. Life goes on. So, yes, Manuel is a survivor - strong and tough.

A longtime buddy of mine, a columnist who covered the University of Buffalo these past six years when Manuel was AD there, describes him as "a real straight shooter" and "personable."

UConn president Susan Herbst elected to introduce Manuel as a "rock star."

"He is the whole package," Herbst said "He's charismatic. He was a great student-athlete. He has been at terrific, top universities . . . Georgia Tech, the University of Michigan, Buffalo. He's funny. He's interesting. We had all the characteristics we were looking for. Most importantly, he's got a lot of gravitas. He's very, very serious about both the academic side and winning."

Manuel will need to call on his inner Schembechler and his inner Army sergeant to make it at UConn. He must be forceful. The word "no" must be prominent in his vocabulary. He may be faced with replacing two Hall of Fame basketball coaches. He has to be part visionary and part diplomat and he handles the ongoing saga of conference realignment – making sure UConn is competing in the best conference possible for the next 20 or 25 years.

And even though 21 sports at UConn are getting the job done academically, the one that has given the school a black eye recently – men's basketball - must be dealt with and corrected.

"It's a hurdle, not a mountain," Manuel said.

When Herbst announced UConn would conduct a national search for Jeff Hathaway's replacement, she said the new department head would be in place within three months. That was Jan. 4, so things moved faster than expected. On Monday, she said the pool of finalists included eight candidates. Members of the search committee didn't want to say much, but the ones who commented all said Manuel is "the right guy" for UConn.

Only time will tell, but he'd better be.

This is a critical hire for Herbst and a major move for Manuel. A lot is on the line and it's not just the fans in Connecticut who are watching. UConn joined the Big East in 1979 and that changed everything. Jim Calhoun arrived in 1986, UConn started winning and that elevated the Husky profile to the national stage.

And the nation has been watching closely. Once you start piling up national championships, the scrutiny increases. And once you start making mistakes, the criticism comes from every direction. Since 2009, the men's basketball program has shamed the university with recruiting violations, suspensions, penalties, eligibility questions and academic problems.

Manuel, 43, now is charged with reeling in the men's basketball program at a time when Calhoun's future has been cast into doubt because of new health issues. That is a complicated issue, one that must be dealt with while overseeing all the other sports at UConn.

Manuel will move into his office on March 19 with a five-year contract and a school option for a two-year extension. With Calhoun turning 70 in May, it's safe to say that Manuel will be the AD who conducts the search for Calhoun's replacement – whether that process starts tomorrow or three years from now. That is a moment that has been whispered and worried about in UConn circles for years.

Can the men's basketball program maintain its winning ways after Calhoun? What about the women's program? How much longer will Geno Auriemma be head coach of the enormously successful women's program? Hathaway hired football coach Paul Pasqualoni. How long does Pasqualoni get to prove himself with a new boss?

Heavy questions. But UConn athletics is approaching a major crossroads and Manuel suddenly finds himself in the driver's seat.

"Successful people have a lot to teach," Manuel said. "They have a lot of thoughts and ideas on how to continue to be successful. My job is to work with them and let them know I'm here to assist them to continue to be great.

"I know how to respect and deal with successful people. The bottom line also is things have to be done and I need them to communicate with me, so I can communicate with them and help them build their programs. This isn't adversarial. Powerful coaches are powerful. I love them. I'm not going to avoid them or not talk to them. I don't walk in here thinking I'm the AD and I know everything."

In the coming weeks and months, it will be important for Manuel to meet with every member of the UConn athletic department. There needs to be an open and honest dialogue because everyone shares in the blame for the direction UConn has taken in recent years.

It's not just Calhoun. It's not just Hathaway. It's not just the fact they chose to avoid each other. In a big athletic department such as UConn's, there are any number of people who could have – and should have – stood up to Calhoun and told him no. Told him that recruiting Nate Miles wasn't a good idea. Told him that a lazy eye toward academics would be a big mistake.

That should have been done – even if Calhoun casts a bigger than life shadow and is intimiating.

"I know our senior administrators have been working very hard to find the best candidate available to become our new Director of Athletics and they are very excited to be able to hire Warde Manuel," Calhoun said in a statement Monday. "He seems like the perfect fit for us --- someone who is going to help lead us into the future. I am happy and excited to welcome him into the UConn family and I'm very much looking forward to working with him."

UConn needs a major shift in philosophy and Manuel's priority should be making this a department a team again. He has to rule with fairness and gain the respect of everyone to make this work again.

UConn athletics have been under the Lew Perkins/Jeff Hathaway influence since 1990 when Perkins was hired and he brought Hathaway in as his right-hand man. There was a period of tremendous success, in every one of the areas that Herbst laid out as priorities on Monday.

But there was a tension in this athletic department and it put pressure on people as they tried to do their jobs. It started before Perkins left for Kansas in 2003 and it only got worse. Perkins had a saying that athletics are the "front porch" of any university. In many ways, that is true because college athletics have become big business - and often people know about the teams at a school before they know anything else.

Nobody wants a dysfunctional family sitting on that front porch, but that's the way it has been at UConn for years now. And the Huskies are finally paying the price in a way that is both humiliating and embarrassing.

Maybe Hathaway wasn't the right person to lead UConn into the future. I don't know. But he's clearly got something to offer; he's still the chairman of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee. You will be hearing from him a lot in the next few weeks. That chairman position is achieved with respect and admiration. It is one of the most influential jobs in college basketball.

Herbst made a mistake in forcing out Hathaway so quickly after she came to UConn. If she was worried about the department's direction, or the fact that Hathaway and Calhoun weren't speaking, she could have conducted a review and then imposed a probationary period for Hathaway.

One year of close scrutiny would have given Hathaway a shred of dignity. It would have given him time to find another job without damaging his reputation. And, honestly, Hathaway would have been better positioned to get the Huskies through a fall of conference realignment and all the issues that have confronted the men's basketball program.

Herbst named Paul Pendergast interim AD but basically used him as a fundraiser. Pendergast is a good man; good for UConn. But UConn needed someone well connected to stay in the realignment mix. Herbst issued all the statements, she courted the ACC during realignment, and she organized the ridiculous waiver document that was made public last week in the Academic Progress Rate case making headlines for men's basketball. None of that has cast a favorable light on UConn.

As a result, UConn's athletic future is in limbo. Herbst joked Monday that Manuel now gets to answer all the questions she has been handling since August.

"I'm a college professor," she said.

She's also the president of a prominent public university that is a major player in big-time college athletics. Herbst can be very good for UConn. But she will be even better if Manuel turns out to be "the guy."

Wish him luck. There's a lot on his plate.

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