BOULDER – On Aug. 12, Rick George hit the ground running. He hasn’t stopped, and his long-range forecast doesn’t offer a hint of downshifting.
On Tuesday, Nov. 19, George observed his 100th day as Colorado’s athletic director. His first official day on the job was Aug. 12, but chances are good that he had his mind on the Buffaloes several days prior. And there was no doubt where his heart was. (Just don’t tell the Texas Rangers.)
In some facets of his new job, George is ahead of schedule. In others, he’s playing from behind. Regardless, his pace hasn’t changed, nor will it.
“We’ve done a lot of things in a short period of time,” George told me on Day 101. When I asked him to hit a highlight or three, he went immediately to the school being (mostly) successful during its fall sports calendar. “Probably the most impressive thing that we’ve done is our sports teams are performing at a very high level; I think people sometimes lose focus of that,” he said.
As of his 100th day, the Buffs’ cumulative fall sports record was 258-76-7. A Pac-12 championship was won in men’s cross country, with the women finishing second. The soccer team advanced to the NCAA round of 32 and plays BYU Thursday afternoon in Tallahassee, Fla. (editor's note: CU defeated BYU, 2-1, and advanced to the Sweet 16). The volleyball team is battling for an NCAA tourney berth. Both golf teams and the tennis team had their autumn moments.
And then there’s football, which is at a modest four wins with two games remaining and bowl eligibility still within reach. Upsetting No. 23 USC Saturday night would make the season finale at Utah on Nov. 30 must-see Pac-12 TV – at least on this side of the Rockies and downslope on the other.
“Football is making progress,” George said, and compared to last season’s one-win nightmare four ‘W’s and the overall state of the program underscore his point.
Of course, the revamping of the football program is not one of the areas that George touts as being ahead of schedule. That project is not to be rushed – and couldn’t be. Ditto for fund raising, although George is full speed ahead on trying to reach the goal of $50 million by early December to kick-start an ambitious facilities upgrade that he and the CU administration believe will eventually elevate the Buffs in the Pac-12.
“It’s still there . . . the first week in December,” George said of the specific date for closing in on the $50 million goal.
I asked if it’s close to coming to fruition, and he answered, “We need to make it come to fruition. Are we there yet? No. But we’re going to work hard to try to get it there, so we do have the approvals we need to move forward. It’s a real important part of our future . . . whether we get to that ($50 million) at this point, unless we get something really significant, I doubt we’ll get to that number. But do we need to get to that number to have this built right now? I don’t think so.”
A shovel hasn’t been put in the dirt yet, but he’s even targeted a date for the project’s completion: 2015. “That’s aggressive, but I’m aggressive,” he said. “Yeah, I would like to get moving on this as quickly as we can. I think the longer we go, the delta grows. I think the sooner we get it done, the sooner we can close that gap.”
I asked him if this is a hard sell in light of the football team’s lack of success over a trying and tumultuous seven-season span. “I think it’s an easy sell, because I think what we have to sell is unique and special,” he answered. “However, some people want to know where we’re going and what our strategic plan is and what we’re doing with facilities before they’ll invest. So it’s a ‘chicken and an egg’ – it’s very difficult. We’re going to go someplace and we’re going to build something people will be proud of. And we’re going to put together a long term strategic plan but it’s very difficult to know where you’re going until you know who you are. It’s taken me some time to figure out here’s who we are, here’s where we are, now where we do we want to be? That takes some time; we’ll be done with it in January.
“I understand some people’s hesitancy in investing in a company that doesn’t have a plan they can get into and support. Once we roll out that plan I really believe that people are going to get behind our vision, where we’re going and how we’re going to do it and they’ll be supportive of that. I think it’s going to take all of us in collaboration and unifying our base for people to say, ‘I can buy into this, I can invest in this.’ And I think they will.”
In that sense, George is asking donors to take a leap of faith. If they want to know specifics of where the Buffs are headed on his watch, they’ll have to wait until January when his strategic plan for the department is rolled out. In truth, that’s early.
“We said previously that would be done on April 1, we now plan to complete that by January,” he said. “We will have a game plan in place for the next 15 years that will be a series of five three-year plans, and those three-year plans will be a series of three one-year plans. We’ll determine who our peer groups (as universities) are, we’ll see where the gaps are and we’ll develop a plan that will help us narrow that gap and become what we want to be – and that’s become a nationally recognized, fiscally responsible athletic department.”
The team fashioning the strategic plan for athletics consists of 34 members that George says “represent all of our constituents.” The formation of that group was among his priorities, as was the formation of an interim structure in the department that made Ceal Barry the senior associate athletic director for internal operations, Jim Senter the senior associate athletic director for external operations, and Kris Livingston the associate athletic director for student success. Former Buffs receiver Lance Carl was hired as an associate athletic director in an external community outreach/revenue generating role.
That structural development, said George, “allowed us to focus on our day-to-day business internally and externally (and) allows me some time and freedom to raise money and develop our strategic plan. So that was something I thought was important to do and we did it at the 30-day mark.”
But, he added, all the pieces might not be in place for the long term: “No, I’m not sure of that yet. And the reason I say that is if you were doing this by the book, you wouldn’t put in any kind of organizational structural changes until your strategic plan is done. And we’re in the process of that. So we’ll evaluate that at the end and make sure that our resources – both human and financial – are channeled in the right way. So I’m not sure if it’s the right structure yet. It just allowed me to make sure that we’re focused on our business internally and externally and free up some time that I could focus on these other two important issues we have.”
One of the very large challenges George faced when he returned to campus for the first time since the early 1990s was reeling in fans/season-ticket holders/donors who, for whatever reason, had become disillusioned and all but disappeared – or at least had faded into the background.
“I think we’ve had some good success with this,” George said. “There’s different people mad for different reasons. It doesn’t matter who sits in my seat, it doesn’t matter who sits really in any seat. It really matters about what we’re doing to make sure our student-athletes have a great experience. I always go back to the one common denominator we all have is the love for the student-athlete, the care and concern we have for the department and/or team, the care and concern we have for the university.
“If we can get everybody focused back on those three things, it really doesn’t matter who’s driving the ship as long as the ship’s going in the right direction. And I personally think the ship’s going in the right direction. You look at that record we just talked about; it’s phenomenal what our sports teams are doing. But I don’t think people focus on that because they get so focused on what is one sport (football) doing? While that one sport is really important in generating the revenue and ticket sales we need to be able to support some of these other things, the fact of the matter is, this is a very successful athletic department.”
But not so much from a fiscal standpoint; George inherited an almost $6 million deficit and he is emphatic that the fiscal house must be repaired. “We can’t operate at a deficit moving forward,” he said. “We have to figure out and be very creative in how we’re going to generate revenue for this department. I think 25 percent of our problem is how we spend our money and why we spend our money, and 75 percent of it is needing to generate more revenue. We should not be 10th to 12th in the conference in our revenue-generating areas. We should be in the top three or four in my opinion. We’ve got to work harder (and) be more creative in how we generate revenue. We need to provide more resources to all of our sports teams and we need to operate in a fiscally responsible manner.”
But first comes the healing and the reunification, which George believes is underway. “We have to bring everybody back together,” he said. “I knew this was going to be a real opportunity for us to bring people back. I still think there are some people out there who have some ill feelings based on a variety of situations, but I think we’re reaching out as much as we can and bringing them back.
“I think in time they’ll all get behind what we’re doing because there will be a clear plan where we’re going . . . I think we’ll have this culture of excellence that will be apparent in the way we do things and people will want to get behind us and support it.”
He hopes it’s sooner rather than later, coming long before his next 100 days are behind him.