About the only thing the athletic departments at Arizona and ASU have in common anymore is that they are travel partners in the Pac-12.
Almost everything else has changed. The difference between the Sun Devils and Wildcats has become as striking as that of small town Washington State and the big-city Washington Huskies, whose only bond is that they live in the same state.
In the last month, new ASU athletic director Ray Anderson hired his top three lieutenants from outside the world of college athletics.
Now on Anderson’s executive cabinet are David Cohen, who was director of sales for the Minnesota Vikings’ new stadium; Greg McElroy, who was a senior VP for the Dallas Cowboys; and Scottie Graham, who was an executive for the NFL Players Association.
The Sun Devils are the first Pac-12 school whose key front office positions are dominated by those from pro sports. It figures; Anderson spent the last decade as the VP of NFL operations.
By comparison, UA athletic director Greg Byrne, who had worked at Mississippi State, Kentucky, Oregon State and Oregon, promoted a former UA softball player, Erika Barnes, to be his senior women’s executive.
He hired the former golf coach at Oregon State, Mike Ketcham, who was working at a high school in Iowa, to be part of his inner circle. He promoted a former UA football player, James Francis, to operate communications. And he promoted a 25-year member of the sports department, former All-American swimmer Scott Shake, to be the senior associate AD for development.
And yet it is Arizona, with a balanced budget for 31 consecutive years, that has made its business model work.
If ASU’s pro-oriented approach works, if the Sun Devils can get out of a five-year, $33-million budget deficit, it may launch a new way of life in college sports.
The quaint notion, and title, of an AD has evolved more into that of a CEO. Arizona and ASU both have budgets approaching $70 million a year. Perhaps the Sun Devils, for the first time since ex-AD Fred Miller turned the school into a contemporary athletic power in the 1970s, will again be a pacesetter.
The risk taken by hiring people from the NFL to run a college athletic department is that they are not administering to professional athletes.
Byrne, and most college ADs, are on call 24/7 with issues from more than 500 student-athletes and their parents. That is one of his strengths. Most ADs could write a compelling book about the behind-the-scenes drama, student by student, that never becomes public.
At the end of the day, it is still about a cross-country runner getting a degree, and about maintaining academic integrity. But when you’re getting $19 million a year in Pac-12 media rights, and $6 million a year from an in-house (IMG College) marketing firm, it’s sometimes easy to forget about soccer results and think only of a bottom line.
ASU’s Anderson last week forced baseball coach Tim Esmay to resign even though Esmay guided the Sun Devils to a 201-94-1 record in five years.
By comparison, Byrne resisted the urge to fire women’s basketball coach Niya Butts, who went 5-25 last season and is 79-108 in six years.
ASU and Arizona will remain rivals of the first rank, Hatfields vs. McCoys, but about the only thing they’ll have in common is that they share the same time zone.