Since the spring 2020 college sports season was called off March 12, athletic department leaders across the country were forced to reckon with never-before-seen crises: a public health disaster and its calamitous financial implications, racial equality protests spurred by George Floyd’s killing, and an unprecedented rise in athlete activism.
How did NCAA Division I athletic directors confront the unique challenges since last spring?
At least some answers, as it turns out, are in their calendars. Sportico obtained, through public records requests, the March-to-September electronic work calendars of college ADs from a sampling of schools: Connecticut, Iowa, LSU, Massachusetts, Nebraska, North Carolina, Northern Illinois, Ohio State, Texas Tech, William & Mary and Wisconsin.
Individually, the agendas reveal, in bureaucratic jargon and quotidian notes, some telling details of the strangest epoch in modern college sports history. Taken together, they show the work habits of leaders as they responded to a rapidly evolving landscape, from how they conducted meetings to which donors they contacted to how swiftly they upgraded their diversity awareness programs.
Here is how college sports’ ongoing season of disruption was captured by their schedules:
Gene Smith, Ohio State
Arguably the most powerful athletic director the country, Smith saw his already chock-full agenda expand with weekly “post-pandemic operations task force” Zooms and “State of Emergency Recommendations” Skypes in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.
But even with these new disruptions, there was still normal business to accomplish: On May 5, Smith was slated to speak for an hour with Learfield IMG president Cole Gahagan (OSU would re-up its multimedia rights agreement by year’s end), and on June 8, he was expecting a call on his cell from Jimmy Haslam, the Cleveland Browns owner and Urban Meyer buddy. Smith is co-chair of the NCAA’s NIL working group and his calendar reflects semi-regular calls with Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman, the working group’s other co-chair.
On April 17, the working group released its final report and recommendations, advising the NCAA on the “guardrails” that should accompany any “modernization” of the association’s athlete compensation bylaws. The next morning, a Saturday, Smith was supposed to have received a call from the NCAA’s top lawyer, Donald Remy. There are also two conference calls with ex-Buckeye wideout and current Ohio Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, who introduced bipartisan NIL legislation in Congress over the summer. With the NCAA continually delaying its NIL rule-making, having a direct line to Capitol Hill may prove to be a smart play.
(Click here to see Smith’s calendar.)
Scott Woodward, LSU
If there was a raging pandemic going on, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell from Woodward’s calendar. LSU’s athletic director scheduled more in-person meetings than most of his peers, a reflection, it seems, of his state’s lockdown guidelines. Louisiana entered Phase One of its reopening plan on May 15 and by the end of the month, Woodward was having lunch with LSU alum Richard Lispey, a major sporting goods distributor and state Board of Regents member. He continued a handful of in-person appointments into July–around when cases peaked the first time in the state–taking lunch meetings, making a trip to the governor’s mansion and flying to Birmingham, Ala., for an SEC meeting. But throughout all of those months, his calendar had comparatively few COVID-specific meetings.
In response to an inquiry, an LSU spokesperson insisted that Woodward’s calendar simply “serves as a general planning document” and that “COVID has been a primary focus in all departmental work since the onset of the pandemic.”
Unsurprisingly, football was a focus, particularly as the SEC finalized plans for its 10-game, conference-only slate. Woodward was on calls mapping out Tiger Stadium capacity guidelines in August and received his first documented COVID test three days after the season kicked off in late September.
Timely issues always found their way to the AD’s desk: When COVID started to settle in, a conversation about mental health popped up; seven weeks after George Floyd’s death, Woodward had a meeting titled “Dialogue on Race”; team-specific “National Anthem discussions” were scheduled in late September; and NIL meetings maintained a steady frequency through summer and into fall.
(Click here to see Woodward’s calendar.)
Kirby Hocutt, Texas Tech
Hocutt’s smooth ride in Lubbock hit major turbulence this past summer, when media reports of coaching abuse allegations in the Red Raiders’ women’s basketball and softball programs surfaced. At a press conference on Aug. 7, in which he unpacked the events leading to the firing of women’s basketball coach Marlene Stollings, Hocutt apologized for the school’s failure to act sooner. Stollings was terminated less than 48 hours after the publication of a story by USA Today and The Intercollegiate, based on copies of athlete exit interviews obtained through public records requests.
Hocutt said he wasn’t able to fully address the situation with Stollings until just before the story came out. What occupied his time? Big 12 video conferences; phone calls with Learfield and Under Armour; and lunches at the Texas Tech Club. His calendar shows a 45-minute, in-person meeting with Stollings on July 6, the day before he took a private plane (a Phenom 300) to suburban Dallas for a round of golf with Tech alum Patrick Mahomes and a couple of Texas financiers.
A few weeks later, as problems continued to smolder, Hocutt again went golfing–this time on a three-day booster junket in Colorado. By late August, his time on the links was interrupted by the pressing need to hire a new basketball coach and, later, a number of (redacted) meetings with lawyers. Notably, Hocutt’s calendar notes several meetings to talk through open records requests; it is unclear if the request for his calendar was part of those discussions. Citing pending litigation with Stollings, a Texas Tech spokesman declined to address the matter.
(Click here to see Hocutt’s calendar.)
David Benedict, Connecticut
On Aug. 5, UConn became the first FBS program to announce it would opt out of the football season–and one of the few to stick with its initial decision. Benedict didn’t make the decision without due diligence: On July 1, his calendar documents a call with philanthropist Robert Samuels, who has held several roles within the upper echelons of the university’s health system, as well as on athletic department steering committees. By mid-July, Benedict was scheduled to talk with IMG, the department’s multi-media rights partner. A “2020 football scheduling” slot soon appears, alongside a board of trustees meeting and head coach conference call. The first of two scheduled conversations with former UConn star Ray Allen falls toward the end of July, when Benedict really gets down to business.
Benedict had a call on July 27 with the advisory firm of Kyle Bowlsby, son of Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby. “UNC” is penciled in early on July 30, as is Old Dominion AD Wood Selig (the Huskies were slated to play both teams early in the 2020 season). Multiple football-labeled meetings take up Benedict’s July 31, including one with the team itself. One day before the Huskies announced they would not be playing a fall football season, calls were set with San Jose State, another scheduled opponent, and the ACC (UConn would have played Virginia in September).
Canceling football was the last domino to fall during a busy summer for UConn, which not only emphasized pandemic response but also lined up CBS for a multiyear home football deal. Benedict’s schedule also included contacts with donors such as one-time trustee and former GE Capital CEO Denis Nayden, and several meetings marked “Big East,” ahead of the school’s official return to the conference on July 1.
(Click here to see Benedict’s calendar.)
Samantha Huge, William & Mary
What does an athletic director do before announcing a deeply unpopular decision to cut sports? Phone the financial backers, of course. On Sept. 2, Huge was scheduled to have phone calls with some of the school’s most important sources of financial support: investor and supermarket heir Jim Ukrob; Maryellen Feeley, the Greenwich, Conn.-based benefactor and one-time W&M field hockey player; and the Kaplan family, whose name christens the Tribe’s basketball arena following a $20 million-plus gift.
The next day, Huge announced that, due to financial considerations, William & Mary would be eliminating seven of its Olympic sports programs. The move was met with broad condemnation and, as her calendar reflects, Huge spent the subsequent weeks hearing from alumni and athletes. Her resignation came barely a month later, on Oct. 6, following a day of consecutive Zoom meetings with head coaches, her communications staff, the school’s provost and president, and “affected” athletes. A week later, Huge was bid a fond (virtual) farewell by her fellow Colonial athletic directors. In a Zoom invite, Drexel’s Eric Zillmer wrote: “Samantha, please join us at 8:00 am tomorrow morning…for 15 minutes to say ‘goodbye’ and shoot the sh … 4 a lil bit. We will very much miss you in the formal CAA meetings but I know we will be friends and colleagues 4ever!”
(Click here to see Huge’s calendar.)
Ryan Bamford, Massachusetts
On Aug. 11, as the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced they would postpone their football seasons, independent UMass did the same.
For Bamford, the weeks and months leading up to that decision were filled with COVID-related meetings with coaches and athletics staffers, ranging from casual coffee check-ins to a department dissection of Congress’s Cares Act. A webinar about “Taking Action in Times of Critical Change,” was followed by a series of “Coaching the Coaches: Racial and Social Justice” sessions, as well as multiple diversity and inclusion summits.
Virtual conversations with donors were sprinkled throughout, but the pace picked up noticeably after the football postponement. On Sept. 21, UMass reversed its football decision, announcing a four-game schedule. Selling the abbreviated season to donors was a clear focus: In the seven-day span surrounding the announcement, Bamford connected with at least 11 such individuals.
(Click here to see Bamford’s calendar.)
Bubba Cunningham, North Carolina
It’s not exactly clear where Bubba Cunningham stands philosophically on athlete endorsement rights–condemning them one moment as a pox on college sports, then extolling his support of name, image and likeness–but this much is certain: The Tar Heel boss (who also serves on the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee) spends a lot of time ruminating on NIL. Of the AD calendars Sportico obtained, none was even remotely as steeped in the subject as Cunningham’s.
Since March, Cunningham had multiple meetings with INFLCRr and Opendorse; remote colloquies with the ACC’s NIL subcommittee; and other NIL-centered discussions with the handful of national athletic director associations he belongs to. On May 22, Cunningham’s calendar shows a Zoom appointment to discuss an appellate court’s recent player-friendly ruling in the Alston v. NCAA antitrust case. Over the summer, Cunningham even chewed the fat with Joe Nocera, the Bloomberg Opinion columnist and anti-amateurism evangelist. “I take his temperature from time to time,” says Nocera. “It’s a useful exercise for me.”
(Click here to see Cunningham’s calendar.)
Gary Barta, Iowa
Barta’s heavily redacted calendar was typical of other AD schedules during the early months of the pandemic, but when a number of former Hawkeye players went public on June 5 with allegations of racism under head coach Kirk Ferentz’s football staff, Barta’s schedule trained its attention accordingly. As more allegations came to light in the following days, the calendar filled with back-to-back “Discovery with UI Officials” meetings, before the department’s first press conference addressing the controversy took place the afternoon of June 12.
Three days later, Iowa football’s strength coach Chris Doyle, the nation’s top-paid collegiate trainer and a focal point of the complaints, was forced to resign. A redacted Sunday afternoon calendar block is likely when a dismissal conversation occurred. Within a week, the first of two “Anti-Hate & Anti-Racism Coalition” calls were on Barta’s agenda.
In the aftermath, Kansas City law firm Husch Blackwell conducted its external review of Hawkeye football. Barta met with the lawyers twice before the July 30 release of its 28-page report, which ultimately concluded that Ferentz’s program “perpetuated racial or cultural biases and diminished the value of cultural diversity.” That afternoon, a quick call with Ferentz and a subsequent press conference blocked off time on Barta’s schedule.
Barta’s agenda becomes increasingly redacted through August and into September; Iowa’s athletic department said the redactions include: “Personal appointments (such as medical/dental appointments, etc.), meetings/calls with identifiable donors or individual students, and meetings regarding confidential personnel matters were redacted, as well as employees’ birthdays and video/conference call passcodes.”
(Click here to see Barta’s calendar.)
Bill Moos, Nebraska
Moos is a busy man–but even time-crunched leaders need to get away sometimes.
For the outspoken AD, who previously worked at Washington State, that meant summering in the great Northwest at the same time Cornhusker athletes were reporting to campus. After several months in his North Stadium office fielding coronavirus updates, staff and coaches meetings, calls about a major partnership announcement with NIL firm Opendorse, and recurring conversations related to the Huskers’ planned $155 million football capital project, Moos left Lincoln on June 19 for Spokane, Wash., where he stayed for the next month.
While his calendar marks him as “out of office” for the duration of the stay at his second residence, a spokesperson said Moos “continued to participate in Big Ten athletic director meetings (nearly daily), athletic staff meetings, and conduct other athletic department business.” Moos returned to Lincoln just before things got contentious between the Huskers and their conference over the start of fall football. Following the Big Ten’s initial August announcement about postponing the season, Nebraska condemned the decision, with head football coach Scott Frost even alluding to the possibility the school would play games outside the conference even if it shut down. After the resulting media frenzy, things seemed to settle–at least if you looked at Moos’s schedule.
(Click here to see Moos’s calendar.)
Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin
With just a few weeks left on his current AD contract, there’s been increasing speculation that Alvarez, the 74-year-old fixture of Badger athletics, may retire at month’s end. His less-than-packed calendar seems to reveal an already laid-back role–with two appointments for virtual meditation (“Train your mind to Let Go”).
However, a UW spokesperson insisted that one shouldn’t read anything into those sessions, which had merely auto-populated in Alvarez’s work calendar from department-wide invitations sent by the Badgers’ on-staff meditation teacher. The spokesperson declared: Barry Alvarez “does not meditate.” A week prior to last year’s interrupted NCAA Tournament, Alvarez was scheduled to fly to Naples to meet with businessman and school donor Ted Kellner, who had previously given $25 million to UW. For the next six months, Alvarez’s lightly sprinkled schedule included meetings with UW’s chancellor, phone calls with his Big Ten cohorts, a handful of media interviews and two visits with someone named Pete Miller to “discuss coaching notebooks & other topics.” Said the spokesman: “I think it’s fair to say this calendar represents some, but certainly not all, of his activities.”
(Click here to see Alvarez’s calendar.)
Sean Frazier, Northern Illinois
As a collective, ADs tend not to be the most tech-savvy professionals, and Frazier admits to being especially bad with computers before being promptly summoned to the virtual realm last March. These days, he says, “I could almost be a mini-IT department.” Unlike, say, that of his former boss Alvarez, Frazier’s planner is bursting with video conferences over the six-month duration. “The biggest issue there was, was making the transition from face-to-face interaction to virtual and trying to keep that pace up which was pretty erratic,” Frazier says. He explained that because Northern Illinois’ Microsoft Team Meetings subscription only allowed for a maximum of four people at a time, it made for additional appointments. Frazier, who was the first African-American athletic director at NIU, has long been involved in diversity initiatives on campus, and his calendar reflects a deeper and earlier commitment to the prerogative than his peers’.
(Click here to see Frazier’s calendar.)
(This has been updated to include material from Ohio State, which Sportico received after original publication of this story.)