Mike Lude carries a black briefcase into a Tucson restaurant and slips unnoticed into a corner booth. It may sound like a mystery. It isn't.
In the 35 years of the Pac-10/12, Lude is either the most influential athletic director of that period, or, if nothing else, part of the Mount Rushmore of the league's ADs, with Arizona's Cedric Dempsey, Oregon/WSU's Bill Moos and Stanford's Ted Leland.
If you suggest this to Lude, he scoffs. "Nonsense," he says.
Nobody publishes an "Athletic Directors All-America" team, or anoints someone "Pac-12 Athletic Director of the Year."
Why? Because there are no obvious year-to-year measureables that readily identify an AD's effectiveness. In the Pac-12, most ADs are judged to be as good as their football team.
But ultimately, at the conclusion of an AD's career, he or she becomes eligible for the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics Hall of Fame. That's the most coveted and exclusive honor in the business; it's neither a good ol' boys club nor one that awards longevity.
In the 35 years since the Pac-8 expanded to 10 teams, only six ADs who spent the bulk of their career in the league, as an athletic director, have been inducted into the NACDA Hall of Fame:
UCLA's Pete Dalis.
Washington's Barbara Hedges.
Cal's Dave Maggard.
Other Hall of Famers, such as ASU's Fred Miller, 1971-80, and UCLA's J.D. Morgan, 1963-79, don't fully qualify as latter-day Pac-10/12 ADs.
Arizona's Greg Byrne, who is seemingly on his way to becoming a part of this distinguished group, knows a bit about the business. Item one is that his father, retired Oregon, Nebraska and Texas A&M athletic director Bill Byrne, will receive the highest honor in NACDA next year: the Corbett Award, which is sort of like the Heisman Trophy for retired ADs.
Greg's other piece of insight is that "Washington was a monster when Mike Lude was its athletic director."
It isn't a monster any more, and hasn't been since he left 20 years ago.
Lude and his wife, Rena, retired to Tucson more than a decade ago, following a stint as Auburn's athletic director. He then helped to establish and operate the Southern Arizona Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame. Do you know how Ricky Hunley, Chuck Cecil and Rob Waldrop were elected into the Hall of Fame?
The trail can be traced to Lude.
But the point of this story has a broader base. Whenever you step onto the UA campus, near the $74 million Lowell-Stevens Football Facility, you may wish to know that Lude had a part in it. He is the man who launched the Pac-12's facilities stampede in the late 1980s. He was the first to turn a Pac-12 football program into a monolith like those in the Big Ten, at Ohio State and Michigan.
He was the first - beating UCLA, USC, Stanford and his other conference contemporaries - to pay the mortgage and bank the profits with a vision of 21st century college sports.
Since 2005, the Pac-12 has built (and is building) sports facilities worth more than $1.4 billion. It was Lude's bold move in 1985 to spend $17 million (about $140 million in today's money) to re-do the Huskies' football and athletic administration plant.
Long before Nike began throwing ridiculous sums of money around college sports, Washington was the league's first sustained model of a self-supporting and money-generating athletic program.
Lude inherited a $400,000 deficit at Washington. When he left in 1991, the Huskies had $18 million in athletics reserves at a time most Pac-12 schools lived paycheck to paycheck.
Now, sitting for lunch in a Tucson restaurant, Lude chuckles how it all came together.
"We were incorporating all of the women's sports programs, as part of Title IX, and we had lost about 10,000 season tickets holders when the Seattle Seahawks joined the NFL," he recalls. "Our revenues, like many in intercollegiate sports, were stretched beyond thin."
Lude insisted the school add 13,500 seats, adding an upper deck on the north side of Husky Stadum. He hired fundraisers and became the first in the league to charge premiums on top of ticket prices. It was an outrageous idea.
"We raised $5 million in two weeks," he says, smiling widely.
Now everybody does it, and has done it since Lude showed the way 25 years ago.
After Washington built a better mousetrap, Oregon, envious and somewhat desperate, spent $18 million in 1991 to erect the Casanova Center, a 102,000-square football athletic plant. Three years later the Ducks were in the Rose Bowl.
Lude was asked if the Ducks invited him to the dedication ceremony. "Oh, heavens no," he said. "We were pretty serious rivals."
Oregon, like the league's other members, should've at least thanked him for showing the way.
Contact columnist Greg Hansen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4362. On Twitter @ghansen711