If you spend enough time in Texas, you’re bound to hear one or two phrases that, if not unique to the Lone Star State, are certainly more plentiful within its borders. For instance, during a prolonged hot stretch, it might be “so dry the catfish are carrying canteens.” Or, upon being welcomed into someone’s home, you might be invited to “put on your sitting britches.” If you’re a particularly loquacious person, a native Texan may refer to you as a “chin musician.”
As these unprecedented times force us to scale back our operations, readjust our budgets and reevaluate our fiscal realities, I’m reminded of another phrase, one whose application I believe will be crucial to the long-term success of college athletics: If it ain’t broke, break it.
Across the country, higher education institutions and their athletic departments are scrambling to respond to what in many cases is a truly existential threat. To this day, universities large and small continue to furlough staff, lay off employees, institute salary cuts, implement hiring freezes and, in the most heartbreaking cases, eliminate sports. Obviously, this is not the way any of us envisioned beginning this academic year, and I think we can all agree that our current operational calculus is less than ideal; however, if necessity is the mother of invention, then we have an opportunity here to emerge on the other side of COVID-19 stronger, more nimble and more versatile than we entered it. These past few months have forced us to get creative with staffing, to find innovative ways to save and raise money, and to look increasingly toward technological solutions for efficiency — in other words, COVID-19 cracked our business model. I suggest we break it by keeping versatility, financial responsibility and technological solutions top of mind.
If you ask 100 people who was the best baseball player of all-time, you might get 20 different answers. If you ask those same 100 people which player they would choose if they were starting a team from scratch, they may give you 20 completely different answers. The reason for that is because in baseball, as in life, nothing happens in a vacuum. Context matters. Babe Ruth might be the best home run hitter of all-time, but if there’s no one on base, those home runs are relatively harmless. Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson may guarantee you two to three wins in a postseason series, but that doesn’t matter if you can’t generate enough offense to win regular season games in which they don’t pitch. If you want to start a team, and you get to choose who to build it around, you want someone who can do everything well. On that front, I believe one player rises above all others: Mickey Mantle, the five-tool player against whom all others are measured.
Even before the pandemic, I emphasized the importance of versatility to our department heads. At the end of the day, every one of us has to find ways to create value. That was important before the pandemic, and now, during a time when our departments are facing hitherto unforeseen pressure, it is vital to our survival. Being valuable means you have the ability to do multiple things and accomplish multiple tasks to help the department achieve in a time where we know resources — both staff and financial — are going to be limited.
When confronted with the current reality, the first thing we did was evaluate which of our staff members had the ability to cross over into certain areas. For example, if you have an individual in the compliance department that has an academic background, can that individual help by taking over a sport from an academic oversight standpoint? It’s important for ADs and our executive teams to know the strengths of our personnel so that when the landscape shifts — as it often does — we can respond quickly and effectively, thereby saving time and resources and maintaining value.
In our current situation, this principle of versatility equaling value is perhaps most important on the external side. By nature, colleges and institutions are vast, sprawling enterprises, and, by extension, so are athletic departments. It takes time to slow the machinery and it takes even more time to point it in another direction. Unfortunately, that time is not a luxury most of us can afford, and so we need to be versatile enough to mobilize and ask ourselves what we can change right now to improve our situation. For us, we leveraged our ticket sales unit to help us with additional donations. If someone says they’re not interested in tickets, which would certainly be understandable right now, maybe they’d still be interested in making a donation to help us achieve the best possible experience for our student-athletes.
Similarly, we have transitioned to a flat organizational model with our external unit to where our digital, social media, video, media relations and graphic design teams are collaborating and cross-promoting. No one individual is going to be responsible for video or social media or graphics because that’s where we have to be, and I don’t know if that will (or even should) change as we move forward.
Whether the question is as grand as launching a human being into the air with such great velocity that they land on the moon or as granular as keeping condensation rings from staining our tables, ours is a species of problem solvers. In fact, we’re so good at it, that most of the time, the problem being solved was only a problem to the person who wanted to solve it. Case in point: Seven months ago, to the vast majority of humanity, “zoom” was something The Flash did in comic books. In fact, if you searched the word in Google, you likely would’ve been informed of the definition (how embarrassing). Try searching the word now. You won’t even glimpse the definition until you’re a dozen or so pages in (along the way you’re likely to find that Zoom CEO Eric Yuan has made $12B since March), and when was the last time you went 12 pages deep on a Google search?
If you’re like me, it’s almost hard to imagine a time when Zoom wasn’t an integral part of your workday. It went from being an item of convenience to one of necessity. It had already solved a problem that most of us hadn’t yet known existed, and now I can’t foresee a future in which Zoom or its subsequent iterations aren’t part of our daily routines. Why? Because it affords us a level of operational efficiency we were unaware we were missing.
Another technological solution whose value has become exceedingly apparent over the past several months is the Teamworks platform. Even before the pandemic, Teamworks’ ability to consolidate, organize and update our schedules, workflow and communications was a game-changer. Now, like Zoom, Teamworks has made the transition from being an item of convenience to an item of absolute necessity. The efficiency with which we can communicate as an athletic department, especially in a world where face-to-face interaction is difficult, is critical. This is especially important considering the speed with which news and information is changing. If I need to disseminate information or give direction to a particular unit or coaching staff, I can do it from anywhere at any time. From March 20-April 1 alone, we had 2,095 messages, 6,845 Teamworks sessions, shared 200 files, and 185 forms complete. In short, Teamworks not only makes doing business easier, in a lot of ways it makes it possible.
Without a doubt, though, my favorite feature Teamworks brings to the table is a level of accountability, starting with me and stretching all the way to our student-athletes, for whom the platform provides assistance with time management, academic organization and athletic responsibilities. The lives of our student-athletes, who are balancing fully loaded athletic and academic schedules as well as trying to fit in some time of their own to enjoy being in college, can quickly become chaotic. What I love about Teamworks is that it empowers them to visually confirm their agendas and take ownership of their day. The same goes for our staff and myself. Given the speed with which the world is currently moving, that’s something we need now more than ever.
In a lot of ways, the pandemic is starting to feel like Groundhog Day. Sure, we address different issues on a daily basis, but each morning we wake up beset by a financial uncertainty so frustratingly incalculable that it threatens not just the way we do business, but the very business itself. It is within that context that all of our decisions — student-athlete welfare aside — are framed. It would be great to wake up tomorrow and have everything back to “normal,” but I think we must be honest with ourselves about the following questions: Is returning to business as usual even possible? And if so, are we sure we really want to?
Here I’m reminded of two more sayings, although I don’t believe either of these individuals ever visited Texas. The first is from Indira Gandhi, who observed: “History is the best teacher, who has the worst students.” From where I’m sitting, the financial fallout from COVID-19 is a three- to four-year issue for us, and if we don’t use that time to learn and to evolve and become more efficient in our operations, then we will have squandered a chance to improve ourselves as an industry because, as John Adams said, “Every problem is an opportunity in disguise.” On this score, however, it may be out of our hands. As we’re already seeing, this moment may be less about learning from history and more about adapting via natural selection.
What specifically this adaptation will look like from the standpoint of financial responsibility remains to be seen, but Wisconsin Chancellor Rebecca Blank may have provided some foreshadowing when she told the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions that “I think it is somewhat outrageous that the highest-paid employee in many states is their state university college coach.” I won’t pretend to know how that conversation will play out, but I do believe that, at the very least, athletic departments around the country are taking a hard look at all potential redundancies, luxuries and other cost containment measures.
Here at Stephen F. Austin, we underwent an exercise where we asked our team to inform us of everything they would like to have in order to do their jobs. Then, we had them outline everything they need to do their jobs. Areas involving student-athlete welfare were non-negotiable, but it provided us with some insight as to which employees’ skill sets were versatile (and therefore particularly valuable) as well as how best to allocate our resources, two areas whose importance cannot be overstated as we move forward into the new normal.