Listen to the conversation below:
Mike Alden has been at the helm of the University of Missouri athletics since 1998 and has produced the most comprehensive run of athletic and academic success in school history. Alden’s mentorship has also produced a number of athletic administrators who have gone on to be successful ADs in their own right. At last count, five former assistant and associate ADs are currently coaching at other major programs, and all admit that Mike played a significant role in their later success.
Whit Babcock — Athletic Director for the University of Cincinnati — and Mark Alnutt — Athletic Director for Southeast Missouri State University — worked together under Mike for a number of years. All three were good enough to sit down with Ryan Matthews, Winthrop’s Managing Editor, to discuss their time together at the University of Missouri, that mentor relationship, shared challenges, and the process of transitioning to a senior AD position.
How does being at the helm and in the spotlight compare to being in a supporting role, what are some successful strategies for handling the pressure?
I probably didn’t recognize this as much at the time but I do now, as I sit in this chair. You know, as senior associate ADs you make suggestions, and as an AD you make decisions, and that’s where the buck stops. I’d say that’s the biggest difference.
I tell my staff that as nicely as I can—I’m here to hear your suggestions and a lot of times I’ll take them. But at the end of the day, I have to be the one to make the decision. I’d say that’s the big difference. Successful strategies to handle the pressure, I’d say if you could bottle that one and sell it, there’d be a lot of people buying.
I think you have to have some harmony in your work-life balance. I don’t think it’s going to be 50-50, so I wouldn’t call it balance. But harmony there. Exercise can help with the pressure and you better have good people around you to delegate to because it’s too tough a job for one person.
I’d echo a lot of what Whit said. I agree you have to surround yourself with good people first and foremost. I don’t claim to be an expert in all the areas, I have to lean on our people in compliance, our folks in internal relations, business, whatever the case might be. To be able to empower them to help you with an issue, or make a recommendation on an issue.
But like Whit said, it’s your decision, but all-in-all we have collective buy in. That’s very important and I agree with Whit in terms of how the role has changed. And for strategies, there’s are several, but I go back to having a relationship with the boss, in this case Mike Alden. A person who is going to empower you to make decisions, and also to hold you accountable. But ultimately to prepare you for this type of role, which I think is very important.
I go back to a simple exercise, and Mike might remember this, a few years ago, he encouraged me to keep track of all my speaking engagements, whether it was interviews or public speaking in a work setting. That was very valuable. He said, you give a minimum of 24 a year. I thought that was a lot at that time. Now at Southeast I’m giving a speech once or twice a week. But that simple task helped prepare me for the many, many things you deal with when you’re in the chair.
What traits did you, Mike, see in Mark and Whit that led you to believe they were AD material?
I’ve always approached it from a few basic things. I think you’re always looking to surround yourself with good people, as both Whit and Mark were saying, they have the right values, the right commitment toward things on and off the job. But what are the skill-sets you’re looking for?
We identify people who have a strong anticipatory skill-set. Those people that can anticipate things that are coming up and once they do so, what kind of initiative do they show? Are they able to pick things up and run, how do they work with other people, how do they involve other people, how do they take the opportunities that are presented, and educate other people as well?
So not only doing a job, involving other people, showing initiative, but how are they training people and educating them? And to make sure they show a certain level of confidence, not cockiness, but confidence.
Those are the things that you’re looking for in successful leaders. I’ve known both Mark and Whit a long time, and those skill-sets that I mentioned and then some, are ones that they truly live on and off the job. You see that with them. And if you can identify those skill-sets, and develop them, and enhance those skill-sets, there’s no question they’re going to be successful.
They have great core values, great work ethic, certainly committed to doing things the right way, they work hard on their family life just as they do on their professional life. Those are the things that I admire in those guys and others that I’ve been fortunate enough to work with.
What lessons, themes, or principals did you, Mark and Whit, learn under Mike and have employed in your own programs? Are there aspects that didn’t make sense in the context of your new operating environment?
Mike summed it up very well. I’d go back to one of our initial discussions when I had the opportunity to be recruited by Mike and the senior athletic leadership at the University of Missouri. We were at one of our favorite eating establishments in Columbia, and we were talking about the position and the role—a quasi interview—and I was director of football operations at the time, and he asked me a question. It still sticks with me: “Mark, who do you know,on campus?”
Me being a young guy, I rattled off some names, some people who I worked with directly such as director or residential life, folks on campus dining. I hit a grand slam with my answer, but he looked at me and asked: “Do you know who Bunky Wright is?”
I had no idea who Bunky Wright was. He’s in the office of general counsel. He asked me if I knew who Jackie Jones was. She’s the chancellor, vice-chancellor for administration. It was just that conversation that made it real, just how important it is to have those relationships, not only on campus, but in the community, and inter-departmentally.
It’s important to be able maintain and grow those relationships for advancement, internally and externally, to be successful. When you talk about taking initiative, another great value that I learned under Mike and also Gary Pinkel, is attention to detail.
The lessons and themes and principles that I learned from Mike; it’s a long list. Everything that Mike taught me has been applicable in the chair. It all makes sense, even more sense now with the position that I have. In general, what I learned from Mike is to be proactive, anticipatory thinking, being out in front of things, and strategizing. I learned meeting organization and structure. I learned how to over-communicate with coaches and with people on campus.
But the thing I try to use every day. Mike just set the bar really high, this expectation of excellent. And Mike knows everybody is not perfect, but he set this expectation of perfection and it made us all achieve more than we ever thought we could. In general, those are the lessons and themes I learned from Mike.
I learned more in five years with Mike than in the fifteen combined before that. I’m indebted to him and I use his stuff every day.
What are some of your most meaningful experience together?
For me there have been a couple. I’ll just pull these out—they may not be substantive, but they ring with me because they show a certain level of dealing with adversity.
We were in Austin, Texas, and we were there for a football game against the University of Texas, but the night before we were going to go see the volleyball team, who was playing Texas. Mark was our senior associate AD, he was running everything. We had all this stuff going on: Gameday was there, and so we had the President, the Chancellor. Whit, were you there with us?
Yes, yes I was. I was jammed up in the back seat.
So here’s the memorable experience. We were in a medium-sized car and Mark is in charge of getting the President, the Chancellor, Whit, and myself in this car. We have people stuffed in this car going to the volleyball match. And people are just firing stuff at Mark left and right, the entire time.
But to be able to balance that, to understand what was going on, and how it was going on. We had ESPN Gameday there, we had the number one crew there, we had a big football game, big volleyball match; but how do you handle those kinds of pressures when they’re thrown at you and you have no idea where they’re coming from? Boom, they’re coming at you right now. How am I going to transport these guys from here to here, in this type of car, to navigate this whole area, with Gameday being here?
And I know that may seem simplistic, but to me that’s a great example of handling adversity thrown at you because the reality–in this business, it’s crisis management 101. Every minute, almost, every day, you have no idea what’s coming at you.
How you deal with it, how you handle it, how adjust to it, how you keep your wits about you while it’s going, it’s critical. And I remember watching that with Mark, and we laugh about it because there were some challenges that went along with that story. To me, that’s something that stood out.
Another one, we’ll pull one here with Whit. We had a guy in our ticketing operations when Whit first got here. You remember this, Whit?
So what happened is, Whit comes on board, he inherits his organization. You have to be able to analyze it right away, and look at some different things. There was an employee within our ticketing operations who had been here a long time, had been institutionalized so to speak, engrained. He wasn’t living up to our expectation in terms of setting the bar high.
And that initial part of that t would have been typically, boom, you’re out. We’re doing something different here. Now eventually that adjustment occurred, but not before Whit stood back and said: “Okay, let me figure out who I need to be talking to about this, why has this guy been here for awhile, how is he impacting the organization, who are the people that he touches, why has he been performing the way that he has, what are the expectation that have been set, and how do we move this thing forward?”
And those in two simple examples, and I could go on with many, many more. To me, those are indicative of skill-sets to be able to deal with something that day that is thrown at you, adversity that hits you, whether it’s in Austin, Texas, in a humorous setting, or here where you’re practically assuming the position right off the bat knowing that you have people that are underperforming. How are you going to do that, without pulling the trigger too quick? These are just off the top of my head, but those are the ones that resonate most for me.
I can come up with just one. We had a lot of good times together and celebrating successes. But I think the times that drew Mike and I, or all three of us, closest were the crises. What drew us together more was the tough stuff together.
When things are going good, everybody’s with you and everybody’s your friend, but when things start going south, or you’re getting killed by the media, or a coaching hire, or what have you, hanging in there together through some hard times like that is what drew us the closest. That’s when you learn who’s really in it with you and who your friends are. Who you can lean on and trust.
I think, what I remember most is coming off the field, win or lose a game, being there to support your staff, together.
I’m taking some liberty here. But I want to get one more last thought here. In 2010, here at Mizzou, I was with Mark and I was with Whit, and ESPN was here we had a huge game against Oklahoma. We ended up winning that game, and it was homecoming, and it was all of these things. To be able to see the culmination of everything coming together was great.
Whether it has to do with our kids in school, selling tickets, or running games, or doing all these things, and to see the impact of that on our program, our university, and the state of Missouri–that was great. And I was with those two guys. It was the three of us and we were at the football stadium when all that was coming together. To me that’s the most memorable experiences. I’ve had a bunch of them with these guys, but that one was pretty special.
Mike how do you prepare young administrators for leadership roles? In addition to Mark and Whit, Ross Bjork at Ole Miss, Mario Moccia at S. Illinois, and Larry Tice at Texas State—and there are three other administrators that became ADs after serving as administrators under your leadership. How do you prepare these people for the future?
I want to mention those other three. Peter Fields at Montana State, Sandy Hatfield Clubb at Drake, and Brian Wickstrom at UC Riverside. I think the common thing with all of us together had to do with the—this is a personal thing, I’d usually say we, but this is an I—I think really giving people an opportunity to experience all the thing they possibly can while they’re here, beyond their job description. Working together to make them the best that they be at what they were hired to do, but to try and expand beyond that.
What I’ve always tried to do with these folks, and others, the opportunity to be able to experience, not only development or facilities, but also what are we trying to do in academic services, what we are trying to do in compliance and eligibility, what are we trying to do in marketing. I really try to give people a broad base of experience.
I’m always trying to put those folks in a position where they’re representing, not me, but this position. So, you say, maybe it’s Whit’s turn to sit in the Chancellor’s staff meeting and represent athletics, and sit in that chair. Now it’s Mark’s turn to do that, or to go to the rotary club and speak, as basically the Athletic Director while they’re there.
All the different ways you can put folks who have a desire to do this, and have the skill sets that I talked about, to be in a position to experience what it’s like to be in this chair. To me, that’s one of those things that probably over prepared Mario at Southern Illinois, over prepared Ross Bjork, over prepared Whit at Cincinnati, over prepared Mark at South Eastern. And all the other folks.
And I think that, in my opinion, is what we’ve done to put these guys in position, not only success here and to get those jobs—but to be successful at those jobs. And all of them are successful where they are.
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