Commentary

Booster-ADs forge tricky relationships

Originally Published: January 27, 2011
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Here's what we know about the fissure between the Connecticut athletic department and donor Robert G. Burton Sr.: It's public, it's ugly and, to the degree that it's public and ugly, it's unheard of.

[+] EnlargeJeff Hathaway
AP Photo/Jessica HillJeff Hathaway was the target of Robert G. Burton Sr.'s ire.

Burton's six-page letter to UConn athletic director Jeff Hathaway earlier this month excoriated Hathaway for leaving him out of the loop in the hiring of football coach Paul Pasqualoni. Burton, chief executive officer of Greenwich, Conn.-based Burton Capital Management, wants his name off the football building to which he contributed $3 million, and, oh yes, he wants the $3 million returned, too.

"That's never really happened here," said Matt Roberts, Oklahoma's top athletic fundraiser.

"That's unprecedented as far as I know," said Vince Dooley, who spent four decades as head coach and/or athletic director at Georgia.

"I think it's ridiculous what that guy tried to do," Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne said. "Jeff Hathaway is a good AD. I'm certain he's going to do what's best for the University of Connecticut."

Athletic administrators talk amongst themselves all the time. They swap ideas, trade gossip, bond at conference meetings. Fundraisers e-mail fundraisers. Athletic directors talk to other athletic directors. If you got a few ADs in a hospitality suite and put a couple of beers into them, you might hear some tales of boosters blustering about what should be done or else.

This booster wants more tickets than his donation level qualifies for -- or else. That one wants his kid hired -- or else. This one wants something named for himself/his mama/his favorite coach -- or else.

Those stories elicit knowing nods from the others in the room. But the events at UConn this week led most administrators to find 16th-century religion, as in the quote from English preacher John Bradford: "There but for the grace of God go I."

The way that fundraising is supposed to work is that the athletic department goes to the donor and says, "Here's our plan. Here's our vision. Will you support us?" If the donor believes in the vision, he writes a check.

The roles are understood. Donors donate. Administrators administrate. As Penn State coach Joe Paterno famously said, "We want your money but not your two cents."

Byrne has not hired a head coach at Arizona. Three years ago, he hired Dan Mullen at Mississippi State.

"I've never had anybody try to pull a major contribution or ask for their money back based on who we hired as a coach," Byrne said. "A donor certainly has a right to say, 'I'm not going to support you in the future.' To ask for money back on a project that's already done seems inappropriate."

Most athletic directors didn't get where they are without the ability to manage people, to lead and get others to follow. Those skills come in handy in dealing with coaches. But they also are needed in dealing with donors.

"You try to be a little sensitive to the people if you can, within reason, to keep them informed," Dooley said.

Duke athletic director Kevin White teaches a graduate-level class in sports business. One lecture, which he has delivered not only in class but also as a speech to business groups and other athletic directors, refers to a study of political power in Dayton, Ohio, in 1965. White describes four levels of constituents, with the "No. 4s" being the garden-variety taxpayers and the "No. 1s" being the power brokers who can make things happen.

(White, contacted by ESPN.com, confirmed details of the lecture but refused to comment for a story regarding the UConn situation.)

The care and feeding of those No. 1s is critical to an athletic director's success. If the No. 1s believe in the athletic director, they give him all the room he needs. Stanford athletic director Bob Bowlsby is well known for keeping his own counsel. Given the Cardinal's football success under Jim Harbaugh, a Bowlsby hire, no one objected to Bowlsby's stealth as he chose Harbaugh's replacement, offensive coordinator David Shaw.

"Our donors trust in what our people are doing," Roberts said of Oklahoma fans. "It's usually a fan being a fan, no more than that. When you're invested in something and it doesn't meet your expectations, there's always going to be folks who are upset but not to the extent of withdrawing their support."

One East Coast athletic director, who asked not to be identified, said that donors can make life uncomfortable.

"I've had boosters lean on me to do other things," the athletic director said. "When they do that, it is terribly awkward. Do you do what they want? Or what you think best? The campus must step in, be supportive and make it clear there is never a quid pro quo for gifts."

Never? The way Burton vented his displeasure is remarkable. But the act of withdrawing support is not completely without precedent. Phil Knight has taken his wallet and gone home at Oregon. A decade or so ago, the university joined the Workers Rights Consortium, which had criticized Nike's labor practices. Knight responded by saying he would not fulfill his pledge to help renovate and expand Autzen Stadium. The university dropped out of the consortium.

Since then, Knight has donated $45 million toward Autzen, and $100 million to build Matthew Knight Arena, the basketball facility, named for Knight's late son, that opened earlier this month.

It is believed that Knight's influence resulted in the departure of Ducks track coach Martin Smith in 2006 and athletic director Bill Moos a year later; "believed" because no six-page letters from Knight that document his displeasure have been made public. Knight typically does not discuss his donations.

Burton wrote that letter. Then he had it delivered. Then it became public. Those actions are what is unprecedented in the world of college athletics. They sent a shiver down the spine of many an administrator. It's a good bet that a lot of No. 1s received phone calls from their friendly neighborhood athletic departments this week.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

ALSO SEE