All The Tools Necessary?

There's no doubt that the hiring of Oliver Luck as West Virginia University's Director of Athletics is a great move on many fronts. But is he positioned to help steer his alma mater through the very turbulent waters of conference realignment?

OK, so that opening gambit might seem like nothing more than an attention-getter to lure you in to read this column. But it's not a statement that's made lightly. Luck has many abilities that promise to make him an excellent A.D. and I don't know of a single person that would be willing to wager that he won't do a great job in the position at West Virginia. Luck has clearly demonstrated his abilities as an administrator in a variety of positions. He was vice president of business development for the National Football League and President and CEO of NFL Europe, helping to develop what amounted to a minor league for the NFL overseas. In 2001, he became chief executive officer of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, overseeing the development and management of over $1 billion of professional sports and entertainment venues in Houston, including Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros, Reliant Stadium, home of the Houston Texans, and the Toyota Center, home of the Houston Rockets.

He then built on that experience by taking over the presidency of Major League Soccer's Houston Dynamo in 2005. In that job, he oversaw the procurement of funding for a new stadium and practice facility for the team. That deal, just finalized in April, is set to provide the Dynamo with a new 20,000 seat home that will cost $60 million. And oh yeah, the Dynamo won back-to-back championships in his first two years with the club.

With such a resume, how could there be any doubts? The Mountaineer great has been a sports administrator. He has worked in positions where money didn't exactly fall in his lap, yet was able to build his teams and businesses, in terms of both infrastructure and personnel. And although it's been nearly three decades since his collegiate days, he knows what it's like to be an athlete at WVU. Pick your metaphor – it's a slam dunk, a home run.

Were this an ordinary time in college athletics, there wouldn't be any question. But with Colorado and Nebraska exiting the Big 12, and as many as two dozen other teams either poised to move or preparing to search for new homes, an intimate knowledge of the college landscape, plus a lot of experience and institutional knowledge, is going to be required in order to help WVU. Whether the Mountaineers are helping to shore up the Big East or looking to land in a new league, every bit of college experience is going to be brought into play. And that's something that Luck just doesn't have right now.

To his credit, Luck acknowledged the circumstances that face him right off the bat in an introductory conference call.

"Obviously, as I think everybody knows who follows intercollegiate athletics, this is a particularly challenging time in intercollegiate athletics, given all the conference realignment rumors and the chess moves that are starting to be made," Luck said in response to questions about realignment. "I think there will be further activity that goes on, certainly this summer and into next year. I'm not sure that even as the dust settles there will be a permanent solution. This realignment has a major effect on a lot of institutions, and of course WVU is no exception. I look forward to working with [President] Jim [Clements]and his staff that he has put together to really make sure we protect WVU as best we can, to make sure our affiliations are the best affiliations we can have to further the growth of our University, to improve on the academics and, again, to build on a great foundation that Eddie and his team have left at WVU."

OK, that's all well and good. Luck understands what's going on, and knows that the absolute best he can hope for is that the Big East loses just one or perhaps no teams, and thus isn't forced into making a move. But what about the personal contacts, the knowledge of the landscape? Won't this put him, and by extension, WVU, in something of a weaker position?

"I'm not sure that having contacts is necessary all that important," he countered. "I think what's required is seeing the big picture, the end-game, to strategize in terms of how our institution can maintain an appropriate affiliation for the traditions and for the value that we've created over the years within the athletic program and within the entire University community."

That's a broad statement, and one that seems to involve the balancing of playing and associating with long time foes while also doing what's best for the school. But with this approach, Luck is also advocating something of a patient approach. References to "the big picture" and "the end game" (in other words, how it is all going to shake out), reveal a savvy administrator who isn't going to make a rash decision, but will instead consider and study as much as possible before making a move. That's an important ability for any official, and it's critical for one taking on the A.D. job at WVU in 2010. The key, of course, will be to make the right move at the right time – all the while not knowing beforehand when the optimum moment arrives. He's show that ability with his decisions and accomplishments in his past positions, but now he's faced with the most critical situation of his career – and right off the bat to boot.

On the field, Ollie (as we called him when I was in school) was a cool and calm field general. Clearly, those qualities carried over to his professional career. And after a lifetime of making great moves, he admits that this latest job change was at least partly motivated by the chance to face the challenge that awaits him at his alma mater.

"If you look at the career I've had in the sports business, or even going back to when I was playing ball, I relish the opportunity to take on hard challenges -- whether that's selling American football for the NFL in Europe for a 10-year period, or working in the soccer industry in this country. Soccer is a growing sport in this country, but it's not one of the established sports like the NFL or MLB or the NBA or the National Hockey League is. So I've always enjoyed taking on challenges. And I think, quite honestly, and this doesn't just apply to WVU, but this is an extraordinarily challenging time for a lot of institutions, given all that is in play with intercollegiate athletics and conference affiliations and all that. Because it's a challenging time -- and the foundation at WVU is great, absolutely -- but because it's a challenging time with a lot of challenging external forces, it was something that was attractive to me, more so than perhaps in a steady and slow time when not much was necessarily at stake."

It would seem all to easy for observers to praise West Virginia's hiring of Luck as the best of all possible decisions. But at the risk of being labeled a homer, there's just no other way to evaluate it. Certainly, Luck hasn't been tied close to the college scene through his career. But his experience and success in so many similar areas just can't be overlooked. While we'd all prefer for the transition from Ed Pastilong to Luck to have occurred in less turbulent times, could there have been a better hire at this point?


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