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Published: Sunday, 7/15/2001

Working hard at the job he always wanted

BY RON MUSSELMAN
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Mike Karabin is happy to be interim athletic director at the University of Toledo, and many others at UT are smiling, too. Mike Karabin is happy to be interim athletic director at the University of Toledo, and many others at UT are smiling, too.
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Mike Karabin hit the ground running when he was appointed interim athletic director at the University of Toledo on June 19.

Since then, he hasn't had much time to rest.

Karabin often works 12 hours a day, but he's not complaining. He is doing what he always dreamed of doing - running an athletic department at an NCAA Division I school.

He's also getting a chance to show the university what he can do.

Karabin, 44, was the triggerman in moving the Minnesota-UT football game from Friday, Aug. 31, to Thursday, Aug. 30, to avoid a potential conflict with high school football, even though it meant bumping the game off of national television.

He helped secure a two-year, $250,000 sponsorship deal with Coca-Cola that will benefit the entire UT athletic department. He has established the Breakfast Club, a monthly open forum for Rocket fans to ask questions, and he has made several moves that will save the athletic department money.

On top of that, Karabin is leading the charge to install new artificial turf at the Glass Bowl, a project that will cost nearly $1 million. The money for the project, if it is approved by the Board of Trustees and new president Daniel Johnson, will be raised by Karabin and the athletic department through donors in the community.

Karabin is being paid a salary of $110,000 to run the department until a permanent replacement can be found for Pete Liske, whose contract was not renewed when it expired on June 30.

Karabin, who is being assisted by a three-person operations committee, has worked for the university for more than 21 years. Before his most recent appointment, he had been Toledo's senior associate athletic director since 1997.

Late last week, Karabin sat down for a 30-minute question-and-answer session with The Blade in Karabin's office at Savage Hall.

Q: You have been on the job for almost a month now. Can you assess how things are going? What are your priorities?

A: We've done a lot, but there's still a lot to do. The re-engineering of our entire department is the thing that we're constantly working on now. What I mean by re-engineering is we're fundamentally re-thinking everything that we do - how we assign work, how people take on different tasks and responsibilities, how we process things, how we utilize our resources and how we make more money for this program.

We want to get our athletic staff and coaches into a position where they feel they are actively involved in decision-making and take ownership in their specialized areas.

Obviously, we've got a really good program. To have a 10-win football season, and 20-win seasons in both men's and women's basketball, is a huge thing for this athletic department. No school in the history of our conference had ever accomplished that, and there's only a handful of schools in America that have done that. Obviously, we need to capitalize on that success.

Q: The athletic department had a huge operating deficit under Liske. Can you have a balanced budget this year?

A: Yes, absolutely. We have to - there's no choice in the matter. We have to be responsible for what we have to work with. We can't have a $900,000 deficit again. That's a real problem.

The university has been very generous to us. If you add up everything in our budget, we have a $13 million annual budget, by the time we add the Glass Bowl turf project into that. Roughly we generate 50 percent of that through outside resources; the other half comes from the institution. The institution can't provide any more dollars for us. We have to use what we have. We can't be in position where we're belly-aching and asking for more.

Q: Will it be possible to make up that $900,000 deficit?

A: We already have re-engineered $300,000, and it hasn't affected any individual sport's budget program in this department. We've done things such as relocating office space, moving the sports-information office from the Glass Bowl press tower to Savage Hall and we're going to save close to $90,000 annually in heating and air conditioning costs. We've also asked some of our coaches to give up country club golf memberships, and they willingly gave those up knowing that was part of their contracts. And we've refocused some things that we're doing with our telecommunication system, and other telecommunication modes. We consolidated our department's cell phone usage, and that's going to save us in the neighborhood of $2,000 a month.

We need to reduce what we're doing with our student support groups too. What I mean by that, we will always have students working with our department, we just won't have as many. We grossly overspent in that area last year and we can't do that again.

When we hold the line, we'll save money and then we can re-direct those dollars in a more useful manner. We've got a ways to go. Part of our challenge is how we're using funds, but we also have to be in position where we're generating more money.

Q: Before now, your main job at Toledo has been fund-raising. Will you still be heavily involved in that area?

A: Absolutely. I feel proud of the things we've accomplished, especially from the external side, and how we've produced revenue. We've been the leaders in our conference; we are constant leaders in attendance in all three of our majors sports. So I feel really good about the things we've done with endowment dollars, sponsorship dollars and dealing ticket sales. Am I satisfied 100 percent? Absolutely not. We need to do more of that.

As the interim athletic director, to me, it's like being the cleanup hitter in the lineup. I have to be in position where I'm raising dollars. That's so critical in this job, along with all the other areas of responsibility. We can go out and raise $100 million, but if we don't do things in compliance with the NCAA, then it's all for naught. We've got to be well-balanced.

Q: Morale had reached a low in the athletic department near the end of Liske's five-year reign. How hard has it been to improve that morale?

A: I don't know if I can fully answer that question, other than with my own observations. But that was the first task at hand. As I said earlier, we have some real quality people working here in all aspects of this program, whether they're clerical, general staff people, administrators or coaches. They're all outstanding.

It's my objective to make sure I'm squeezing as much juice out of them as I can and they feel good about what they're doing. I want everybody to have the attitude around here that they're experts at what they do, they're good at what they do.

I want everybody to have the attitude that we're setting our coaches up for better chances for success all the way through, not just for our high-profile sports, but the whole way through. In just a short time, I think we've made a real impact, and our staff is buying into the program. I can see it in people's faces, and in the way they walk.

Q: Besides yourself, the operations committee that is assisting you consists of Laurie Turner, senior associate athletic director; Jim Klein, professor of law and the UT faculty athletics representative to the NCAA, and Calvin Lawshe, interim vice president for student services and assistant to the president for community relations. How is that arrangement working out?

A: I feel extremely good to be working with all three of those individuals. I've known Jim Klein and Calvin Lawshe for the 20-some odd years I have been involved with this program. They have an enormous amount of experience at this institution dealing with athletics and the NCAA. They are valuable resources I've used throughout my career here, even before I was named interim athletic director. And Laurie has a lot of knowledge to draw from.

We meet weekly, plus we have scheduled meetings and we have constant telephone conversations. Obviously I can't meet with all of them on every detailed decision, but they are informed before anybody else as to what is going on.

Q: Have you gotten any indication from the new administration as to how long you might be the interim athletic director? It could end tomorrow or three weeks from now, right?

A: I haven't even looked at it from that aspect. The best way that I can describe it right now is we're in a full sprint, me in particular. I'm not jogging or taking a slow pace on anything we're doing. I'm sprinting.

It's not just me, though. Everybody is sprinting. And so far the teamwork and cooperation have been outstanding.

Q: What about the new artificial grass at the Glass Bowl. Has that project been approved yet?

A: Where it stands right now is that the Board of Trustees needs to meet soon to go over all the specifications. Then they will have to decide if we want to pursue the project or not for this season. But we have to be 100 percent certain that this project can be completed before the home opener.

Q: Has there been any progress on new contracts for women's basketball coach Mark Ehlen or men's coach Stan Joplin? We've been hearing for more than a month now that the deals are almost done. Are they close?

A: Very much so. We feel very proud to have Mark and Stan work for University of Toledo. And we will be extending their time here with what we think are good contract offers. Each individual has the documentation in hand now and they are reviewing their offers with their legal experts. I am hoping we can finalize those deals within the next few days.

Q: When you decided to move the Minnesota game, high school coaches and administrators were happy. But Mid-American Conference commissioner Rick Chryst was not pleased with the date change because it meant the game would no longer air on national television. How tough a decision was that?

A: It was difficult, but it had to be done. It was something we didn't take lightly, especially giving up that opportunity to be on national television. That didn't sit easy with me.

But, after analyzing everything, it was the right thing to do. The high schools are such an important area for us, we certainly didn't want to be in position where we were working against the grain with them. I think making that decision alleviated a lot of animosity that we were receiving from the different high school associations, high school administrators and fans.

One of the first calls I made when I was appointed to this position was to Rick Chryst. I informed him we needed to take a look at the Minnesota game and change it. He had worked very hard to get us national exposure, but I thought it was a decision we had to make for the betterment of this program.

We certainly are good citizens of this conference and we always will be, but we needed to do what was right for Toledo in this case - we needed to move the game. It wasn't a decision that we just went out and made for the heck of it. We consulted with the appropriate people on campus, not just people in the athletic department.

Q: What kind of crowd are you expecting for the Minnesota game? After all, the Gophers are probably the best team to ever pay a visit the Glass Bowl.

A: Our objective is to have the largest attendance at a sporting event in the history of the University of Toledo. We've had some awesome crowds in the past. But I want to be in a position now where we set an all-time record for attendance. Will we accomplish that? I don't know yet. But that's going to be our goal. And I feel that we have a real good chance of hitting that mark.

Q: In 1996 you interviewed for the athletic director's job at UT, but were bypassed in favor of Liske. Do you expect a different result this time around?

A: That's a tough question for me to answer. I don't really want to talk about that at this point in time. I certainly would love to have this job on a permanent basis - I can't kid anybody about that. I just don't like talking about it.

Without going into too much detail, I don't think there's anybody in the United States who would appreciate this job on a full-time basis any more than me. And I don't think there's anybody out there who would put more effort into it than I would.

I hope the university considers me. But I'm sure there's going to be a tremendous pool of candidates out there, locally and nationally, who want this job as much as I do.



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