BOULDER – As the guy he answered to at Colorado in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s famously said, “Things have changed.”
Rick George is about to discover how much.
When he uttered his oft-repeated line, former Buffs football coach Bill McCartney was referring to the food chain in the old Big Eight Conference. McCartney’s CU team had supplanted Nebraska as the league’s top predator – and that’s as far as we’ll step back into that day.
George, then in his late-20s, was Mac The First’s assistant AD for football operations. He returned to Boulder Wednesday as Mac II’s (Mike MacIntyre) boss, having signed on as CU’s new director of athletics. Things have changed, indeed.
What George steps into in 2013, both locally and nationally, bears little resemblance to what he left when he waved so-long to college athletics in 1998. Since then, he’s remained in sports but in different positions at different levels – a factor that played well to the CU search committee.
“I’ve been in sports all my life and never done anything else . . . I don’t want to do anything else,” George told athletic department staffers about an hour before his introductory press conference in the Byron White Club Room at Folsom Field.
George had prepared remarks to deliver to the athletic department staff but instead chose to “speak from the heart.” He called Wednesday “a great day for me . . . it’s great to be back home.”
In a career built on athletics, CU was George’s second stop, with Illinois – his alma mater – being the first. His last college stop was Vanderbilt, his career path then taking him into golf and baseball at the executive levels from 1998 until he begins his new job at CU next month.
But all the while, his and wife Nancy’s eyes were on returning to Boulder and CU, which he called his “dream job.” There were other dreams as well: Topping the list was to be a general manager in the NFL, with an athletic directorship – preferably at CU – not far behind. An all-star resume probably would have made George a prime NFL GM candidate had he pursued an opening in that sport.
Had that happened CU’s search for an AD might have turned in another direction. But those who knew George when he was in Boulder and have stayed in touch with him since the first go-around knew his passion rested at the foot of the Flatirons.
“It’s great to be back,” he told the press conference. “There’s no place I’d rather be . . . my wife and I have been working for this for 30 years.”
In the late ‘80s, George left a lasting impression on Darian Hagan, then an option quarterback in Los Angeles that McCartney believed could be a program-changer for the Buffaloes. Turns out he was right, and George was the point man in CU’s recruitment of Hagan.
“He was the natural sales person who made the first phone call and introduced the University of Colorado to you,” Hagan recalled. “He sold Coach Mac’s vision, then it was up to the coaches to close the deal.
“The first thing that attracted me to this place was (George’s) passion and his energy. He was a guy who didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. He was persistent and energetic in everything about the university.”
In that respect, George hasn’t changed even if the university and the college landscape have. What’s more, the changes haven’t been subtle, more like a tire iron to the temple. Since George left Boulder, Buffs football has bobbed three times under four coaches and finally gone under. Basketball has flourished of late; skiing and cross country are still winning national championships, but the athletic department is hobbling along at a significant deficit.
I asked George how his perception of how things might have changed at CU since his departure in 1991 and this was part of his answer: “That would probably be a good question for 60 days from now, when I’ve been here and been spending 24 hours a day trying to get us better . . . it’s Colorado as I remember it – a great institution with great student-athletes and a great future. I firmly believe our best days are ahead.”
Still, when he officially begins work next month, he’ll find the job description of that AD job he once dreamed about is very different. Athletic directors now are nine parts businessmen and one part of whatever else the position requires, with fund-raising abilities bold faced on their resumes.
CU needs an efficient, high-powered and tireless fund raiser to make good on a facilities improvement project initiated by George’s predecessor, Mike Bohn. George & Co. need to hit a $50 million target by early December, and George calls that “doable. Heck, yeah. We’ll hit the ground running and hit that goal . . . I know what I’m capable of doing with great people around me.”
Pay attention to that; team work and unity are two ingredients that George values greatly. “I want everybody on the same rope, tugging in the same direction,” he said at his press conference. “I don’t have all the answers, but the people around me do.”
An hour before, he told the athletic department staffers: “What I’ve heard and seen is that it’s kind of splintered here . . . I’ve heard it’s a splintered Buffs Nation. We’ve got people who are pointing fingers.”
And later at his press conference when asked about divisions: “I’ve got a pretty good sense of what’s going on . . . change is sometimes very difficult, but good when you look back at it historically. I think Mike Bohn did a good job; I’ve got a lot of respect for Mike. Now it’s my responsibility to take this athletic department to another level. I’ve heard about the division . . . it’s all about team, working together, getting everybody on the same page. I’m a firm believer in that.”
Those who know George best say his passion and energy haven’t dwindled through his nearly three decades in athletics. Winning is as vital to him now as then: “I’ve never played a game – even with my daughters, who are now 24 (Christi) and 28 (Jenni) – to finish second.”
As expected, George speaks highly of Mac The First, noting that McCartney’s attention to family and detail have stuck with him since he left Boulder. "I learned a lot from Mac, but I'm my own person," George said. His introduction to Mac II (MacIntyre) came Wednesday morning, although both men say they might have unknowingly crossed paths when they and their families lived in Nashville and Dallas at the same time.
George spoke with men’s basketball coach Tad Boyle by phone Wednesday and met women’s coach Linda Lappe before her team began practice for next month’s European tour. George also visited with other CU coaches who were in town and on campus.
After wrapping up his duties with the Rangers, George will return to Boulder on Aug. 11 to attend a football practice, then will officially begin work the next day. He says CU staffers will find “a leadership style that is personal . . . I’ll get to know everybody (and) everybody will know their roles and everybody will be accountable.”
Hagan believes him: “He’s very open, very honest. He won’t hide behind closed doors . . . he’s well-deserving and I’m really glad he’s here.”
Things have changed in Boulder, but so has Rick George in the two-plus decades he’s been away. The CU athletics department is poised to reap the benefits.