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Sunday Sit-Down: WVU Athletics Director Oliver Luck

March 6, 2011
The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

Editor's note: Oliver Luck has been busy since taking the position of athletics director at West Virginia University last June, most notably hiring Dana Holgorsen to replace New Martinsville native Bill Stewart as head football coach following the 2011 season. The Sunday News-Register sat down with Luck to talk about Stewart, WVU sports in general and also to learn the current state of college athletics in the country.

If I did a state of the union address after seven-eight months on the job, I would say that things are solid here at the university within our athletic department. The business has changed dramatically, I think, over the past 20-30 years, certainly since I was here as an undergraduate in the late (1970s) and early (1980s), and I think our department has changed as a result. We've got a lot of what I'll call solid fundamentals, we have a lot of very quality people, certainly some very great coaches within our 17 sports, but I think also there are constant challenges to our business because there's a lot of changes.

There's also some threats to the industry - this is true of any business you're running - ... there's threats to our stability, threats that just don't apply to us but to all intercollegiate athletic programs. I think we're in good shape, if I gave us a grade I'd give us maybe a B+ or so, but I do think as with most businesses there's plenty of room for improvement, there's plenty of things we can do to make us stronger, to make us better able to ... repel those threats. ... So, it's like with most businesses, a constant daily battle to make sure we're doing the right things and improving on the things that we do here.

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That just doesn't mean winning more games or matches or meets. ... It includes doing a better job of advising our student-athletes academically, generating more revenue (as) we're in sort of an arms race with every other school to have the nicest facilities and the best coaches, and that all costs money. And ultimately, at the end of the day, we can never lose sight of the fact that we are the state's flagship university. We carry the West Virginia name when we go into a game ... and that's very important. Despite all the business things we have to do on a daily basis, I think we also have to remember that ultimately, our job is to represent the state and the university as best as we possibly can with our student-athletes and coaches.

What we try to do, and what I've started doing over the past seven-eight months, is really take a look at everything we do. How do we sell tickets? How do we sell sponsorships? How do we academically advise our student-athletes? How do we orient them to the school when they show up on campus as a freshman? How do we recruit? What vendors are we using?

So we're looking at literally everything that we do, and trying to be methodical about it, to make sure we're delivering the best product that we possibly can. And that just doesn't mean the performance on the volleyball court, but how we put together the volleyball program. How do we spend money on the volleyball program ... are we being as efficient as we possibly can? I'm a big believer in efficiency, and I'm a big believer in asking a lot of questions. If you could spend time talking to my staff, you'll probably have them tell you that all I do is spend time asking questions. Why do we do it this way? How long have we been doing it this way? Is there a better way of doing this? A more efficient way of doing this? What are our peer institutions doing - those could be Virginia Tech, Pitt, Ohio State - because I think you can always learn from your neighbors, even though we're rivals ... at the end of the day we're all in the same industry and there's no reason why we shouldn't be learning from the experiences that others have had.

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I think really, to answer your question, it's going to take a methodical, comprehensive view of all the different things that we do to make sure that we are if not best in class, that we are trying to approach best in class, and really that means understanding what is best in class in all these different facets of what our department does.

The short answer ... is yes, I did. Having served a couple years on the Board of Governors I had some insight into the department, how it's operated, what things were being operated very well and where I thought we needed to make some changes. I'm also - I guess it's in my DNA - if I take a new job or start a new position, I tend to do a lot of things quickly. If I look at something and say it can be better, I don't push it down to the bottom of the priority list, I try to actually improve it. That in some cases means changing personnel, in some cases it means changing the structure of how things are looking. It has been busy.

... I'll give you an example. The first move I had to make was with our volleyball coach. This was in early July (2010), shortly before the start of the volleyball season. What drove me is the fact that I wanted to be able to say to myself that we were providing the best experience for our scholarship volleyball players that we possibly could. I thought we could make an improvement over the previous coach, Veronica Hammersmith, who did a nice job over many, many years. ... But I also realized we needed to enthusiasm, more excitement, we needed more youth, to be very honest with you.

The woman that I hired, Jill Kramer, I think did a phenomenal job in her first year. She came in in a difficult circumstance, obviously, but she's done a marvelous job.

We hadn't beaten Pitt in volleyball since 1981, when I was a junior or senior. ... We beat Pitt under Jill's leadership. ... We hadn't beaten Marshall in eight years ... and we beat Marshall here in Morgantown. I felt good about that move because I truly believe we gave the volleyball players a better experience for that year. And I think Jill's going to continue to build and I think we can become a real powerhouse in volleyball.

It's not in me to see something that's not working well and not change it. I think that's what President (James) Clements wanted me to do when he asked me to become the AD, is go in there, be smart, be judicious, use your discretion but if we can improve, then we need to improve. ... As important as football is, and men's basketball ... the other 15 sports are equally as important because those kids and coaches are working as hard as the football players or the basketball players and they need to not only have a great experience, but they need to leave WVU with a diploma saying, 'That was fun. I enjoyed that, I liked that university. That's something I can stay attached to.' ...

It has been a busy seven-eight months, but I think at the end of the day they were all things that really needed to be done and I went ahead and did them.

I think number one it's extraordinarily important that we stay in the national conversation. We need to be bigger than we really are. We need the perception to be around the country that we are a national program, that we can go out and recruit nationally, that we can compete with the top schools. ...

The basketball program I think is in great hands with Coach Huggins. We're not playing quite as well this year as we have in the past, but I think people understand losing (Da'Sean) Butler and (Devin) Ebanks was a tough thing. Very few teams can ... reload as I'm sure Bob would have liked to reload. ... I think we're in great shape in basketball for many reasons, one of which is the new basketball practice facility, which I think is going to be just a tremendous asset for both the mens' and the womens' team.

In this business, football is king, whether we like it or not. I happen to like football ... but it is what drives the athletic department revenue. We're no more unique than any other school, we're really all in the same boat. It's extraordinarily important as we go forward that we maintain not only the high expectations but we achieve the high results that I think people expect in football.

I tend to take a little bit of a historical approach and go back to the early days when Don Nehlen arrived and, quite honestly, we weren't a very good football team. He made us a good football team, but we were not a national player. Under Coach Nehlen's leadership and the new (Mountaineer) stadium - I don't think people realize how important that was at the end of the day in giving us a platform in being a national player, I'm not sure we could have been a national player had we still played 10 or 15 more years at old Mountaineer Field, as nice as the place was it didn't really say 'big time' to others.

Don brought us there. Coach Rodriguez, I thought, did a great job of taking advantage of that, we were playing at a very high level going into the last game regular season game, fighting for a national championship. I thought Coach Stew has done a good job, I really do ... with his three years. I'm sure he ... is excited about this upcoming season. But I also think we had to guard against kind of slipping back into - this is not a word, so I'll just make it up - 'regionalness,' to be just a local, regional player. I think that would be damaging to our program, I sincerely believe that, and I think the obligation we have because we are the state's flagship institution, we carry the brand on our chest as we go into battle ... I think it's important that we really strive to be a national player and to be in the national conversation. And that means expanding our recruiting areas, it means responding to demographic changes that we see in our region. I grew up in Cleveland, and I can tell you that Cleveland is not producing the number of Division I football players that it did 30-40 years ago. There's still some great talent coming out of Cleveland, as is there great talent coming out of Pittsburgh and other places, but we don't the numbers like we used to. There's nothing we can do about it, but we have to realize that the fertile recruiting grounds are now Florida, and Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma ... It's all about changing, and being smart with the way you change, and looking for opportunities maybe in some places we historically hadn't looked for opportunities. ... This year we will take the greater Houston player of the year out of Houston, coming to WVU, really because of Coach Holgorsen's connections down there and his knowledge of that space, if you will. This kid took his team to the 5A state championship, which is the big school level in Texas, and he was the MVP of the state championship game. He's one of those kids who got overlooked a little bit in the shuffle, to show you how much talent there is down there. He's coming to WVU. I don't think we can get 10 kids a year out of Texas, but we can get two, three or four, much like we did when we first started to recruit Florida. It's all about changing, nothing stays the same. ... We have so much equity in this program, we do have great history and we do have a lot of respect around the country that certainly Coach Nehlen earned, and Coach Rodriguez and Coach Stew. I think we need to continue that, we need to set high expectations for them. That's why we're going to continue to push forward, pulling toward one goal and that is winning a national championship.

The short answer is no. The way college football is structured, and the fact that 6-6 teams go to bowl games now routinely ... there's no way to do it smoothly. If you're going to make a coaching transition, by definition ... there's really no way to do it where the casual observer would say that was handled well. Look at our neighbor schools. Maryland, they went through a pretty ugly, contentious coaching change with Coach Friedgen, and now Coach Edsall. The Maryland kids were in turmoil and they ended up playing very well in their bowl game and won. Look up the road, our friends at Pitt went through a pretty ugly (situation,) and they won their bowl game over an SEC team, Kentucky.

My point is this: ... I think it would have been derelict - if I say to myself that we need a change, we need a new offensive coordinator, which is what we did, and down the road, a new head coach, I'm derelict in my duties if I don't proceed with dispatch early in the process. Because guess what, all the good coaches get gobbled up. There's very few coaches who are around after the bowl game because most ADs will do what I did which is decide a course of action, scour the country, we all have our list of coaches that we think are the great up-and-coming coaches that have lots of potential, we all hope we're right. ... I think it's negligent if one waits through the course of the bowl game because the candidates just aren't there. ... I did not want to lose the opportunity to get a guy like Coach Holgorsen who I think is one of the great offensive minds in the country. ... I didn't want to run the risk of losing him, and I can guarantee you if I had started the process ... Dec. 28, not only would Coach Holgorsen been scooped up ... three or four other coaches on my list would have been scooped up. I don't think any AD anymore can do anything that the outside observer would say 'that was handled well' because of the structure of college football, which has 6-6 teams going to bowl games and in many cases, if you're a 6-6 team or a 7-5 team, your athletic director is probably going to be making a change, because for many schools that's not acceptable. ... I think part of it is the structure of college football today, which is odd. There's no sport in the world that plays games on more or less a one a week basis for ... three months, and then takes four weeks off and does a final game. It's an issue that's going to become more prevalent as more and more teams go to bowl games and there's more ... bowl games. So you have effectively mediocre teams at 6-6 going to bowl games and you'll see more ADs making decisions that will leave you with the ... situation you had at Pitt, at Maryland, all the talk at Michigan - I can't believe the Michigan players were focused on the bowl game because they didn't know what was going to happen to Coach Rodriguez. If you look around at the bowl games you saw many examples of that because of the odd calendar that results from having these bowl games.

Bottom line is yes. I think the BCS has done one thing very well ... they've matched up No. 1 and No. 2. ... That's really the goal of the BCS. ... I just don't think that there's a reason logically not to look at a reasonable, rationale playoff system. They do it in Division II, they do it in Division III, and they do it in Division I-AA. Those kids somehow handle their finals, they handle their academics very well. I don't think I-AA students are any brighter than Division I students. Every sport that the NCAA sponsors except football has a playoff system. ... I really do think the NCAA and the bowls should look at that because I think you could put together a system that protects a lot of the great history that some of the bowls have. ... I think there needs to be a better way to determine who the national champion is.

I operate under this premise: try to explain college football and the bowl system and how the national champion is determined to an intelligent sports fan, let's say a soccer fan from Germany. They understand sports. They're into their sports, they love their soccer, basketball ... If you explain how the system works, and that people vote on who's number one, they would look at you and scratch their head and say, 'Gosh, these Americans are nuts!' I just don't think (the current system) holds up under intense scrutiny, and I would like nothing more than to see the NCAA and the power conferences look at a system that would maintain the integrity of the bowls but also look at a playoff system.

If you think about it, the one bowl that matters is the national championship game. The Champs bowl, WVU playing NC State, or the Orange Bowl, with Stanford playing Virginia Tech, the two bowls I attended this past year ... I mean beyond local bragging rights, and beyond wanting to win for your school, they don't really mean anything. There's no real significance to those games, and I think you're starting to see that because a lot of the bowls had pretty poor attendance, a lot of the schools sat on thousands of unsold tickets ... we were able to make a small profit on our bowl game, but we cut back significantly on the costs of attending. ... Most schools lose money on these bowl games. I think we're getting to a point where there's going to be some pressure for the NCAA and the conferences to really look at a different system.

There are a couple things. Our $60 million number is a little misleading because we include capital costs in there. ... If you looked at our more traditional operating expenses it's less than $60 million, but it's still a significant number, no question about it. I think we need to be on the one hand very hard-nosed, to make sure we operate efficiently, that we're spending the money we need to spend but that we're getting the value out of every dollar we spend in terms of all the things we do, how teams travel, how we feed our players on the road, what tournaments we go to ... we have to be very smart about that. We have to be very diligent about generating revenue. That means constantly changing things. We had a parking lot out here at the Coliseum - I'll give you a short example, because I think it's illustrative of the challenges we face - we had a parking lot out here, that was a public lot, for free, you could park there for basketball games. ... I asked our staff who typically parks in this lot? They said well, we open it up three hours before the game and the people who get their first. And I said the people who get their first typically in the sports industry are the security staff, concession workers, and I said do they park there? And the answer was yes. So we had out best parking that we're giving free to literally people working for us. So we changed that. We now park those folks off site, we shuttle them over, and we turned that lot into a paid lot and I think in the course of the basketball season we've generated (more than) $100,000 from that relatively small parking lot. That money is needed to pay for all the other things we have going on here. ... It's important that we maintain our financial viability.

On the other hand, we can never forget that we need to treat our student-athletes as well as we possibly can. We need to give them the best coaches that we can possibly afford. We need to put them in situations with facilities where they can achieve, we cannot afford to have sub-par facilities. ... We need to travel relatively well on the road, eat well so their parents can feel comfortable that their kids are being treated well. We have to be smart in the way we go about things. Thankfully our coaches, by and large, get that ... they've done a good job over the years of running good programs that are quality programs because you need that, you need that buzz around your program for recruiting and everything else. At the end of the day we really cannot afford to forget that the student-athlete really needs to be the focus of what we do. We expect that student-athlete to take his or her sport very seriously, and virtually all of them do. We expect them to take their academics seriously, and thankfully virtually all of them do. ... We do want them to have that first-class experience where they can leave this university ... with a diploma ... and say that was great, I really appreciate what WVU did for me, because that's how you create quality graduates that go out and represent the university well.

It was interesting, Garrett Ford, who has worked here for 44 years, (recently) announced he was going to retire. ... He's spent virtually his entire life, outside of grade school and high school, at WVU. I didn't realize this until I was reading his biography, he started the academic advising department back in 1978 when I was a freshman. That's probably one of the things that's changed the most from my experience is that we've got computer labs, we've got tutors, an army of people that worked with our ... 500 student-athletes on academics, to make sure they really have every opportunity they need to do well academically. ... That's one thing that's changed enormously. ...

I think the student-athlete experience has gotten better. All the things associated with being a student-athlete - living conditions, food, training - all that's gotten significantly better. ... The Mountaineer Athletic Club, which is our fundraising arm ... they've gone from basically zero to 60 in the ... 30 years I've been gone from the university. Last year I think they set a record, raised over $18 million. I think as you look around at the facilities that we do have - sometimes people take them for granted because they see them every day or they come up for ball games - we've got some of the best facilities in the nation. It's encouraging to hear from, for example, some of the new coaches - Coach Holgorsen and some of the assistants that he brought with him - they look around and say, 'Wow, this is awesome. We didn't realize you had these great facilities.' They don't have, for example, at Oklahoma State ... an indoor practice facility. They walked into our Caperton Indoor Practice facility and were blown away. That's great to hear, it's obviously an affirmation that what we've been doing in terms of raising money, trying to be aggressive in putting these facilities together not just for football but for all the sports, that we really are best in class in some of those. ...

I think at the end of the day the student experience has gotten better for the student-athletes, the amount of money that's being generated by these departments has gotten much, much bigger, the emphasis on fundraising has gotten much bigger, the attention paid to student-athletes and to college sports because of the explosion in the media ... I can remember being a senior here at WVU and it may have been the first or second year ESPN was in existence. Watching a college football game on cable was a brand new experience.

Also, the focus on the student-athlete in terms of cell phones and cameras didn't exist when I was a student-athlete. ... Being out socially and having your picture taken, my son (Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck) experiences that, so I've got both professionally as well as personally some anecdotes about have difficult that has become. ... The media and the focus on the kids has changed, and the focus on the coaches as well.

I hope by 2012 they'll have their labor dispute resolved. I went through a strike in 1982 and then I retired ... right before the 1987 season, one of the reasons I left is that I was finished with law school and had to take the Bar exam, but also there was a strike coming on, you could sense it as a player, that was the year (the NFL) did the replacements, which was a lousy year ... to play professional sports.

I told Andrew, I said, listen, I don't have a crystal ball, but I have followed the NFL labor issue because I'm a vested union member. It's in my own financial interest to make sure the union is representing the old players well. I said, the challenge this year is there's a strong likelihood that the preparation period any rookie quarterback is going to have ... that preparation period is going to be ... short. Which means no mini-camps, potentially. We could lose two or three weeks of summer training camp. Believe me, veterans don't want to go to training camp, they're happy to lose two or three weeks. But for a rookie quarterback not to have those mini-camps ... because you're locked out, you can't go visit with your coach to watch film, you can't do it. ... Not to have those mini-camps, not to have a week or two or three of training camp, to miss potentially a preseason or two preseason games, that's brutal.

I said you've got to keep in mind, Andrew, you're going to be going to the worst team (Carolina Panthers) if you're the number one pick. You're going to be going to the worst team, they've got a new head coach, a new offensive coordinator ... it's hard enough as a rookie quarterback to pick up a new system and play well. ... Sam Bradford had a marvelous year this year, but he had a full preparation period. ... Peyton Manning told Andrew you're first year's going to be a disaster anyway, it's just the nature of the beast. ...

I don't know if the (lockout) will happen or not. I hope it doesn't, because I'm an NFL fan as well as a college fan, and would love to see them reach an agreement, but my sense is that it's going to be a pretty hostile negotiating atmosphere. ... I can see this thing going through the summer, and them missing some of training camp and potentially a regular season game or two.

I will say you've got two new leaders, Roger Goodell's going through his first labor negotiation - I know him well, I used to work for him, he's a very smart guy - and you've got a new union leader, Mr. Smith, who's a real union guy as opposed to Gene Upshaw, who was a former player, so I think that those are two guys who are going through this for the first time, they've staked out their positions and they're pretty far apart. We'll see what happens.

The addition of TCU gives us a much better footing. TCU is a good football team. They finished second this year, right behind Auburn, they played Wisconsin very well, I watched that game, I happen to know (TCU's) quarterback, Andy Dalton, he's a local Houston kid who grew up just down the street from us and he and Andrew are pretty good buddies. They just play good, solid, fundamentally-sound football. They remind me a little bit of a Don Nehlen team. Not necessarily the best athletes, but boy they play well together.

I think that the road to the Big East championship beginning in 2012 is going to go through Fort Worth, because somebody's going to have to go down there, hopefully us, and win a game on the road at the end of the year to claim the Big East title. That's helped us in football enormously.

I also think that clearly the Big East was down the last year or two, we finished the season without any teams in the top 25, but I also think that we hit sort of the bottom of the valley and we're coming out of that cycle. ... I think part of it was we lost some pretty good coaches over a two, three, four year period. (Bobby) Petrino down in Louisville, and Rich here - people might have strong feelings either way about Rich, but he got some great results on the field - (Brian) Kelly at Cincinnati ... so I think we lost some pretty good coaches ... I do think we've reached the bottom and things are coming up. ... I think this year, with Stew as our head coach and Dana coaching the offense, we're going to be much more exciting. We're in a good trajectory. ... I know that various ADs are saying to themselves, much like I've said to myself, gosh, we're going to beat TCU we've got to pick our game up. ... I think everybody realized that every team need to upgrade its talent pool, its coaching ... to be able to compete against TCU.

I think the Big East football conference is going to get better, the presidents have given the commissioner authority to go get a 10th team, Villanova has been mulling over whether they want to go Division I for a number of years, we should have an answer this spring. There are some other candidates out there, some quality schools. I think that we're headed in the right direction. ... There's still this threat that's out there ... of major college football realignment, what that could mean to us. The crazy thing is nobody knows when or if it's ever going to happen. ... That's one of the reasons I think people are frustrated: they look at college football, which is more popular than it's ever been ... but you have this multibillion dollar industry with no CEO. The conference commissioners only care about their individual conferences. ... There's nobody who's taking sort of that big-picture view of how we can move this sport from where it is to another notch or two higher. That filters down into a lot of things, like the bowl system and the lack of a playoff. ... That's the one really glaring weakness I see, coming from the private sector is you have this massively popular industry, and there's really nobody guiding it. ... That's one of the challenges the sport faces as it goes into the future.

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