Half of the Mid-American Conference’s 12 athletic directors are entering their first or second year, a number that reflects the transience of a league viewed as a short stop on a path to bigger pay and greater visibility.
University of Toledo’s athletic director is approaching his 12th.
“It doesn’t seem possible,” Mike O’Brien said.
O’Brien, who turned 60 on New Year’s Eve, does not appear to be itching to leave Toledo, nor perhaps are bigger schools knocking down his door. He soon will be offered a contract extension, according to university President Lloyd Jacobs, that would extend O’Brien’s deal — set to expire July 31, 2016 — an undetermined number of years. O’Brien, who came to Toledo in early 2002, trails only Western Michigan’s Kathy Beauregard, entering her 17th season, as the longest-tenured athletic director in the MAC.
“Every once in a while I’ll get asked, ‘You’re still at Toledo?’ ” O’Brien said. “That’s accurate. I like it here. My family enjoys it, and it’s been fun to watch us progress on and off the courts and fields.”
O’Brien’s legacy is complicated, a series of brilliant decisions mixed with unflattering headlines. His negotiating aptitude has lured major football programs almost every year to UT’s Glass Bowl, and his skill for identifying quality coaches is evident by the success of the department’s three major sports. Balanced against those feats are low points, ones that might help explain why a bigger university has not raided UT and hired away the leader of its 15-team athletic department.
There was the point-shaving scheme involving the football and basketball teams, and a poor hire who upended the basketball program. Two major sports, football and men’s basketball, lost scholarships as punishment for underperforming academically. Both have since made strides under new leadership and are flourishing in the classroom.
Compounding O’Brien’s worries was a health scare. In 2011, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, something he has kept mostly under wraps until now. For 38 straight days he received treatment, and now he is considered cancer-free.
“Has there been stress? Sure,” he said last week. “I look at some of those instances and they’re behind us. We’ve handled them the best we can. For some of those, there’s no manual.”
Perhaps no MAC program has experienced as much disturbance over the past decade as Toledo. None though, with the exception of Western Michigan, has enjoyed as much stability atop its department. Two schools, Northern Illinois and Eastern Michigan, are searching for athletic directors after losing theirs to bigger programs. NIU’s Jeff Compher in March rode the wave of a football Orange Bowl appearance to East Carolina, about the same time Eastern Michigan lost Derrick Gragg to Tulsa. Athletic directors at Bowling Green, Miami, and Ball State are entering their first or second year in the league.
“Having stability in a position like that is tremendously valuable,” Dr. Jacobs said. “[O’Brien has] certainly been a stabilizing force. His longevity is a positive in my mind.”
In 2007, there was conjecture UT might soon be searching for an athletic director amid an avalanche of negative press. The university was shaken with allegations of point shaving, and Dr. Jacobs, in an unrelated move, cited lack of financial control in athletics in ordering to move sports accounting and bookkeeping to the finance department. O’Brien also came under scrutiny for the firing of a high-ranking UT athletic official.
The next year, in 2008, O’Brien made a regrettable hire for men’s basketball coach. The person with the foresight to hire eventual three-time MAC women’s basketball coach of the year Tricia Cullop, and successful football coaches Tim Beckman and Matt Campbell, also hired Gene Cross. Cross, who went 11-53 in two seasons, resigned days after a woman who claimed to date Cross delivered O’Brien a lurid letter accusing the coach of deviant behavior. Cross, now head coach of the NBA D-League’s Erie BayHawks, denied the allegations.
Jacobs, whom O’Brien consults on major hires, called the Cross era “an unfortunate time.” Reductions in scholarship and a postseason ban were later enforced by the NCAA for poor Academic Progress Rate scores, a downward trend that began with Cross’ predecessor, Stan Joplin.
“Hiring people is one of the most difficult jobs that leaders have,” Jacobs said. “If you’re batting .500, you’re doing very, very well. His hires in general have been excellent.”
O’Brien’s football scheduling has been the envy of the MAC. Among the opponents he enticed to the Glass Bowl include major programs Boise State, Cincinnati, and Arizona. Missouri of the prestigious Southeastern Conference is set to visit in 2014, and Miami (Fla.) and Iowa State will come in 2015.
A deal to host Ohio State in 2009 at Cleveland Browns Stadium is perhaps O’Brien’s greatest moment at Toledo, as that September afternoon netted the university almost $3.5 million and erased an athletic department deficit. O’Brien hinted at more deals with major programs, but “I don’t like to release those until the ink is dry.”
The Larimer football building is moving toward a face-lift, and he’s “optimistic" a requisite $5 million will be raised to upgrade coaching offices and the weight room. Plans are being discussed to renovate Scott Park, home of the university’s baseball and softball diamonds.
Through his and the university’s trials, O’Brien has maintained a solid reputation.
Men’s basketball coach Tod Kowalczyk, who coached previously at Wisconsin-Green Bay, was drawn to the job in part because of good things he heard about O’Brien.
The late basketball coach Charlie Coles in announcing his retirement after Miami’s season-ending loss at Toledo in March, 2012, called O’Brien and former Miami athletic director Brad Bates two of the best athletic directors in the country.
O’Brien boosted his reputation with Toledo fans when in 2011 he requested a football loss to Syracuse be vacated because of an officiating error. His appeal didn’t get far, but the gesture did.
Academic success of athletes, once shaky under O’Brien, is now a source of pride on campus. Thirteen of the 15 teams scored a 3.0 grade-point average in the spring semester. The other two scored 2.9s. Additionally, the football team posted its first-ever 3.0.
“This has evolved into a good job,” O’Brien said. “The job is good, and the university has helped me make it good due to support from Dr. Jacobs, the board of trustees, and vice presidents. I’m very committed.”
There was a time in his career, before he was married, that O’Brien was one of those nomadic types, leaping from school to school. He held four jobs in his first 15 years, never staying at a university longer than five years. He now has the opportunity, it appears, to retire a Rocket, with Jacobs set in the coming weeks to offer O’Brien an extension. Jacobs said the deal would have been finalized if not for his needing to deal first with timely matters.
O’Brien makes $208,855 in base salary and has bonuses attached to the success of the football and both basketball teams. He also stands to benefit from academic achievement by student-athletes.
O’Brien, who has an 11-year-old son with his wife, Michelle, said retirement is a way off. He considers himself to be a young 60 and works out every day in the weight room at Savage Arena. The elliptical machine, he jokes, “is mine.” Exercise is his way of dealing with the weight of a job that at times has been stressful and other times satisfying.
“I have no thoughts about retirement,” he said. “I will tell you, and my wife would agree, I have no retirement skills. I would find something to do, but I would most likely drive her crazy.”