For the first time in 14 years, Virginia Tech is searching for a new president, and while that person will continue to build on the university’s national and international presence in terms of academics, outreach, research, and economic stability, he or she will also shape the future of Hokie athletics.
On May 14, Tech president Charles W. Steger announced he would step down after 14 years once his replacement is found – presumably within the next 12 months. Under Steger’s leadership, the university increased its research portfolio by more than 300 percent, grew enrollment to 31,000-plus, increased graduate enrollment by 12 percent, raised more than $1 billion in private donations, created more than 2.5 million square feet of new buildings, formed the remarkable school of biomedical engineering, and created a school of medicine.
From an athletics standpoint, Steger’s tenure has been very impressive. He negotiated Tech’s entrance into the Atlantic Coast Conference and served as Chairman of the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee, which formed the new college football playoff that goes into effect following the 2014 season. He also oversaw several expansions to Lane Stadium, the construction of the Hahn Hurst Basketball Facility, and other major capital projects within Tech’s athletics complex.
Virginia Tech Board of Visitors Rector Mike Quillen has appointed a search committee to assist the board in finding the university’s next president. That committee, which has chosen an outside consulting firm to assist in the search, will be supported and staffed by Minnis Ridenour, Tech’s executive vice president and chief operating officer emeritus.
While the new president will inherit the charge of continuing to build a major land grant university that has become a renowned international research institution, he or she also will play a vital role in shaping the future of Hokie sports. This includes hiring administrators and coaches, approving facilities, and perhaps most importantly, setting the tone of athletics’ importance both within the university and externally among its constituents.
A president’s job is much more than just overseeing athletics, of course. Virginia Tech’s budget for next year is a whopping $1.28 billion. To put that in perspective, Tech’s athletics budget this past year was roughly $67 million. So in reality, while Tech’s athletics revenues are impressive – ranking among the top-35 schools nationally per a recent USA Today report – the athletics department’s spending is only about five percent of the university’s overall budget.
Still, athletics is extremely important at Virginia Tech. The new president will be challenged to navigate those waters and understand the importance of sports on this campus and to its constituents throughout the commonwealth and nationally.
Presidents, not athletics directors, have assumed the controls of intercollegiate athletics and that academic flavor goes all the way to the top, where a former UConn and LSU president, Mark Emmert, is now in charge of the NCAA. However, there have been casualties among several brilliant academic executives at high profile and prestigious universities in recent months.
At Penn State University, former president Graham Spanier is facing charges of concealing child sex abuse allegations and perjury involving former Nittany Lions football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. That scandal, one of the biggest in NCAA history, ended the long tenure of college football’s winningest coach, Joe Paterno, and led to unprecedented sanctions from the NCAA, including a $60 million fine. The Governor of Pennsylvania tried suing the NCAA, but the lawsuit was thrown out.
At Rutgers, new president Robert Barchi and the school have faced heavy criticism of the university’s handling of former men's basketball coach Mike Rice, who was shown in a video throwing balls at his players and verbally abusing them in practice. Rice was eventually fired and former athletics director Tim Pernetti also resigned. But controversy over the hiring of Pernetti’s replacement, Louisville associate AD Julie Hermann, and the inaccuracy in the released academic record of the school’s new basketball coach led to a former New Jersey Governor calling for Barchi’s resignation. Current Governor Chris Christie has backed Barchi in what has become both an academic and political issue.
At Ohio State, president Gordon Gee announced he was retiring last week after he made statements mocking: a.) The University of Notre Dame, b.) Notre Dame’s president, c.) Roman Catholics, d.) the academic integrity of the University of Louisville and e.) the Southeastern Conference. Back in 2011, Gee joked that football coach Jim Tressel, who had admitted to breaking NCAA rules, would have the power to fire him. Tressel was eventually let go, Ohio State was placed on probation, and Gee has now stepped down.
At North Carolina, Chancellor Holden Thorp will resign at the end of June after spending three years dealing with an array of NCAA and academic issues related to athletics, which have landed the Tar Heels on probation. Thorp, a UNC alum, will become the new provost at Washington University in St. Louis. During a campus forum in April, Thorp said he “certainly didn't know enough to run college sports” when he was first hired at his alma mater in 2008. Yet during the NCAA investigation in Chapel Hill that began in 2010, Thorp claimed his “daily duties became all athletics, all the time.”
In an April article by The Associated Press, Thorp told attendees at the forum, “Either we put the AD’s back in charge and hold them accountable if things don't work or let's be honest and tell everyone when we select (presidents) to run institutions that run big-time sports that athletics is the most important part of their job.”
Listen, Thorp – like Spanier and Gee – is a brilliant guy. These people are all incredibly intelligent, proficient fundraisers and dedicated, experienced academicians. They were all well-qualified, highly vetted and paid incredibly high salaries to run major national universities with billion dollar budgets. And by all accounts, were popular, successful, terrific presidents.
Robert Barchi is a brilliant neuroscientist whose main goal is to merge two medical schools. Yet he’s been embroiled in a political controversy between state senator Barbara Buono, who wants him gone, and Christie, who has Barchi’s back. Buono is running for Christie’s job, and the two are headed for a November election showdown in New Jersey. It’s almost mind-boggling that Barchi – and Rutgers – are in the middle of this gigantic political scandal because of … (pause for effect) … what happened during basketball practice.
As Hokies, we’ve been lucky. The Charles Steger-Jim Weaver-Frank Beamer triumvirate at Virginia Tech has been a remarkable success. To have the same president, AD and head football coach for 14 years is unusual. These three men share common goals, ideals and a mutual trust that has helped Tech not only grow, but perhaps more importantly, avoid many of the pitfalls that have afflicted many of Tech’s conference and regional brethren.
Is Thorp right? Should new presidents be told athletics are “the most important part of their job?”
That’s hyperbole, of course.
But the tenor of Thorp’s message is valid. A keen understanding of athletics and the consequences of a single misstep in this arena are more critical than ever for any new president.
Especially for the person who is about to move into the big office at Burruss Hall … whomever that may be.
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