- George J. Tanber
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College athletics directors rise or fall by the hiring decisions they make. In the case of Arizona State University's Lisa Love, she canned the men's basketball and football coaches during her first 17 months on the job. As a result, Love faces the dual pressure of being judged on the performance of the replacements she hired and -- like it or not -- as one of only six women who direct Division I programs that include football.
"That's normal," said the candid and congenial Love, speaking with a hint of her native Texas by phone from her sixth-floor office overlooking Sun Devils Stadium. "If it's additional pressure, I look at that as what you're evaluated for anyway. I stuck my neck out from the very beginning hoping to raise our athletic profile, hoping to play on a grander stage in our high-market sports. There has been nothing shy, and I would expect to be held to that kind of [accountability]."
Such straight talk and confidence is what attracted ASU president Michael Crow to Love when he sought a new athletics director in 2005.
"She was far and away the best candidate in terms of energy, coaching drive and just raw talent than anyone I interviewed," Crow said. "She had the perfect combination of drive, skills and natural coaching instincts."
Of those who know Love, few are surprised by her success. They point to her upbringing in northeast Texas, her success as a volleyball player and coach and her early work as a sports administrator.
Love believes that from the beginning she had a significant advantage.
"I was," she said, "one of the fortunate ones who knew exactly what they wanted to do."
Love was raised in a sports-minded household. Her father, Tom, was accomplished in tennis and as a high school quarterback.
"He had three girls. My sisters and I were his wide receivers," Love said. "Sports were a part of our fabric growing up. I loved it. And I always wanted a career in it."
Love starred on the Texas Tech volleyball team, became a high school coach and then took over a struggling volleyball program at the University of Texas-Arlington, where she built the team into a national contender.
Barbara Hedges, then senior associate athletics director at the University of Southern California, noticed and called. Soon after, Love was on her way to Los Angeles.
"It was clear to me she was a wonderful coach," Hedges said. "But she also was an excellent administrator of her program."
Love led USC to nine NCAA tournament berths in 10 years. Eighteen months into her stint, her career took a fortuitous spin: Hedges left USC for the University of Washington and became the second woman to direct a Division I athletics program. She recommended Love take her place.
When then-USC athletics director Mike McGee asked her to take the job, Love balked. She still wanted to coach. They compromised: Love would do both. She spent eight years doing both jobs before moving full time into administration.
Coinciding with her USC stint was the resurrection of a number of the Trojans' athletic programs, in particular the football team. As a result, opportunities emerged. Love interviewed with a Big Ten school she declined to name. That didn't work out. Then ASU called. Crow, who became president in 2001, handled the initial interview.
"Gender was not an issue," he said. "I was looking for the best person. Lisa had significant untapped talent. Also, [looking at] her experience at USC as a coach and an administrator, she didn't have a set way of doing things that had been done in the past."
Crow's decision to hire Love in March 2005 rankled some Sun Devils supporters.
"When she was first selected, of course, there were questions, not about Lisa, but how's a woman going to work out doing this," said Phoenix businessman Robert Hobbs Sr., an ASU graduate and booster. "Not questions on my part, but in the community."
"When there's an atypical scenario it's normal to ask the question or to put someone under more scrutiny," she said. " 'Can she really hire a football coach? Can she really hire a basketball coach? Who is she? She's a former volleyball coach.' All those kinds of things I would expect to be [talked about] when you do something out of the norm."
Love wasted little time demonstrating her courage. Nine months in she fired basketball coach Rob Evans, a .500 coach after nine seasons whose teams earned a single NCAA tournament bid. Eight months later, in November 2005, she fired football coach Dirk Koetter, whose teams reached four bowl games in six years but went 2-19 against nationally ranked teams and never won a game in California.
To replace Evans, Love lured Herb Sendek from North Carolina State. This season, Sendek started three freshmen and his squad finished 8-21. But 14 of the losses were by five points or fewer, and attendance grew as the season progressed. Love believes Sendek will mold ASU into an NCAA tournament team.
More controversial was Love's choice of Dennis Erickson as football coach. Erickson won a pair of national titles at the University of Miami and coached the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers, with a four-year stint at Oregon State in between. He left the University of Idaho, a school he had previously coached at, after one year to take the ASU job.
"He is an extremely competitive and talented coach," Love said. "His ways and movements are all based on sort of a stair-step approach to his career and ambition. And that doesn't bother me at all. If we lost Dennis in a shorter term than I expect we simply would go out and hire another great football coach."
Crow believes Love has proved her mettle.
"She had to make two big decisions," he said. "Lisa left no doubt that she knows how to recruit [and] knows how to close."
Under Love, a number of other ASU sports programs are flourishing. The women's basketball team reached the Elite Eight this season, losing to Rutgers in the Greensboro regional final. The women's track team recently won the indoor title. Currently, ASU's women's golf team is ranked No. 1 and its women's softball team is ranked No. 2. Campaigns are under way to build indoor football and basketball facilities.
Still, Love, who directs 160 employees and oversees a $40 million budget, knows she'll be measured by the success of ASU's football and basketball programs. Failures, she acknowledges, could lead some boosters and fans to point to her gender as an issue.
Even Crow concedes the point.
"There are a lot of built-in biases that men have about women athletic directors," he said.
Hedges can relate to the pressure Love faces. She had a successful first 12 years at Washington, but during her last year she was at the center of controversial firings of the school's football and women's softball coaches and a prescription drug scandal involving the softball team's physician. Under pressure to resign, Hedges took early retirement.
"I never felt [the criticism] was unfair," she said. "I just felt it was difficult. The particular situation I went through in the last year would have been difficult whether I was male or female."
Yet Hedges understands the unique challenge confronting Love.
"It's a very complicated job. You are pulled in so many different directions," she said. "Lisa definitely is under the microscope because there are so few women athletic directors at D-I schools."
While only six women direct Division I programs, gender equity in the position improves as the school size shrinks. Six women also head I-AA schools while eight head up I-AAA programs. The figure jumps to 31 at Division II schools and to 82 at the Division III level.
Why this trend?
"It may be because they don't have to deal with the [big] dollars," said Jennifer Alley, executive director of the Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators association. She believes more women should be directing the big-school programs and, as an example, points to the success of the University of Maryland's Debbie Yow. "When these people are successful, it just proves to other people that a lot of great leaders happen to be women."
Love, 51 and single, said she gets it.
"If me being a female in this position helps open the doors -- well, how fulfilling is that? Personally, I don't feel it as a burden. But I don't shirk it as a responsibility."
George J. Tanber is a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.