5 Lessons on Leading College Athletics

It’s easy to think the world revolves around sports. (I mean, it does, doesn’t it?) For much of the college world, sports do serve as a front porch and most visible part, oftentimes. That said, athletics represents an important, yet just another facet of a major institution, whose primary objective is to educate students and give them a great four years.

For the people in charge of athletics, making due with relatively  limited resources and fitting in as a salient, but still cohesive part of the university, is an ongoing challenge. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Kirby Garry, Director of Athletics for Cal State Monterey Bay Athletics (listen here) and he provided great insight into his role, opportunity, and challenges overseeing a division two athletics program. Here are five key takeaways about being successful in leading the athletics program:

Over-communicate

Garry appreciates the important role he has — representing all those coaches, administrators, and hundreds of student athletes. When the university leadership comes to together, he is the primary representative for all things and people Otters (Athletics). To serve such an important responsibility effectively, Garry emphasizes the importance of communication, of doing his best to keep up with what everyone is doing and what they want and need.

“It’s about communicating openly and honestly with our head coaches and with the vice president…and our president,” said Garry. “It’s keeping open lines of communication to find out where we are. I want people to over-communicate…”

Garry doesn’t just want to communicate from athletics to university leadership, but also make sure their activities, their vision, and their branding and content and tone are aligned with the priorities and messaging of Cal State Monterey Bay. Athletics may be among the most visible part of any university, which only reinforces the importance that it represents the brand of the university as a whole.

“I need to be able to tell the story of what’s going on in our department to the senior-level administration at CSU-MB. I need to be able to do that at a national and conference level.”.

Be good at what you’re good at

Even the biggest college athletics programs in the countries can’t be good at everything (insert facetious comment about Clemson’s digital team here), but that’s not a realistic goal for anyone, anyway. This is where self-awareness can go such a long way — the key is to be known, period. Known as something distinct and for something impressive. Identifying these elements can make such a difference and is a key aspect of Garry’s leadership of Otter Athletics.

“It’s…coming up with that narrative of who we are. I think that’s so important, especially at our level,” said Garry. “You just have to build on what your resources are, and build on your strengths…It’s really – capitalize on the strengths that we have…and be here for our students every day…”

There will never be enough time in the day, enough resources to go around, enough opportunity to master everything. But it’s better to be the best at something than an also-ran in everything.

Build a foundation, have a vision

Rome wasn’t built in a day (Maybe you’ve heard that cliche once or twice?). The only way to realize a greater vision is to successfully achieve goals and stops along the way. Garry has not been Director of Athletics at CSU Monterey Bay, but he knows what he wants five years from now to look and what has happen to today and tomorrow and the next day to stay on that path and to build that brand. Because you CAN do something, one thing, every day to get closer to an ultimate goal.For Garry and CSU Monterey Bay, it’s building the school and its athletics program into an admirable institution, who’s dedication to athletics is suprassed only by dedication to, and development of, student athletes.t hat all sounds good on a pamphlet and or on a banner on the wall, but step back and think about what happened yesterday and will happen today and tomorrow that furthers the ‘master plan.’

“We can recruit hard and train good kids and develop them…and then if we’re (performing well) when those kids are juniors and seniors, we’ll (have success),” described Garry

“…But of course we have a lot of facility needs…We’re spending (resources) tearing old buildings down left over from the military base…We have these transformational projects that are happening…that are just institutional projects. So where we do fit in in that master plan for athletics?…Where does athletics fit and what do we need to look like? And I don’t think that was a conversation we had ten years ago..So being in that (university-level) conversation excites me…to move the needle…having some vision, and doing the best we can on a day-to-day basis.”

It’s not about where athletics will be in five years, it’s about where the university wants to be in five years and how athletics plays a (valuable) role in that. It’s a mutual relationship and why it’s so important for Garry and his peers to over-communicate, to understand how athletics is a part of the whole, and to further the university’s brand and vision throughout every facet of athletics.

“What I think I need to do every day is really keep my eye on the future, so I can position our department to grow with the university, and be part of the fabric of the university,” said Garry “…So we can provide the service and support to our students…as students, and not just athletes, on our campus..”

Social and digital represent an opportunity to stand out

I could show my mom two graphics, two website recaps, two social media posts, two GIFs, etc. etc. and ask her to identify which one is from a big school with tons of resources and which is from a school where their budget is not eight figures, and I could not guarantee you she’d know which was which. There are schools all over looking “big-time” on social and digital because the digital playground is a truly level playing field. CSU Monterey Bay may not have the facilities of an Oregon, but darn if they can’t look just as good, if not better, and, just as important, unique and distinct, on digital and social media.

“We tried to create an identity in the digital and social space. Because it [sic] is a level-playing field…I hope we’re looked at as early adopters in some of the social things we did as a division two institution, that everyone has caught up to now. But we looked at it as a differentiating factor,” Garry explained, with energy and conviction in his tone. …

“We sat down and (discussed) how do we make this look big time?…Student athletes are on social (media), they are on their phones. They’re feeling good about what we’re providing them in terms of support…I think early on, really strategizing and planning our work on social…Made an impact.”

What kind of impact? Well, beyond looking good for student athletes, their families/friends, and potential recruits, the Otters garnered such attention on social media that CBS Sports Network decided to come and televise one of their women’s volleyball matches. That’s some pretty powerful social media ROI and it all happened because the Otters stood out from the crowd.

Develop assets that add value, and everyone will get value

We’re always focused no ROI these days. When you can measure, well, everything, you start to question the return on your time and resources. That’s part of it, but, as many know, it’s not always so clear-cut, nor can you have the chicken before you have the eggs. Garry knows there’s value in a strong social media presence, but before you can think about adding value through direct dollars and cents, you have to make sure you’re adding value for the followers, the fans, the student athletes, with quality content.

“Really, it’s about awareness,” Garry said of CSU MB Athletics’ investment into digital and social media. “To us, it’s not about making money. Maybe breaking even would be great…”

“But if you don’t build it, if you don’t have the assets to promote, then you’re never going to monetize it…You’ve got to get your production up to a level, where you feel good about it…We’ve dabbled with monetizing some of our digital inventory last year…We earned a little more money this year than we did last year…”

Social and digital media is not really a question these days. Having a presence is a prerequisite. Then, it’s up to the school and guys like Kirby Garry to determine the brand and strength and value of that presence. It needs to get to a point where fans actually want it, then you can maybe earn a few sponsorship bucks (and then some). One can never take for granted the attention of fans. It must be earned.

The best mindset one can have is NOT to lament the lack of time, lack of staff, lack of budget, lack of resources. Better to be thankful for what you DO have, to develop what you do have to such an extent that you truly stand out.

It’s easy to get caught in the day-to-day, year-to-year routine. But complacency is a killer. Have a vision and embrace it. Live that vision and progress toward it every day. There’s nothing more important than the effect a day’s effort. If you truly care, then every day, wherever you are, is the big-time.

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