Community Interview: So how does conference realignment *actually* work?

We chat with Russell Wright of Collegiate Consulting about realignment, hiring a new AD, getting into this industry, and more.

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3) I’m taking a week off from our Community Interview series since I’m going to be in the hospital late next week for a day or two. Nothing serious, but I might be a bit too loopy to edit anything. Extra Points will publish three days next week and then resume a normal four-day-a-week publishing schedule. Thanks for understanding!

Our Community Interview subject for this week is Russell Wright of Collegiate Consulting. If you’d like to be a future Extra Points Community Interview subject, please fill out this form, and I’ll get back to you soon!

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Reader Max asks:

How homogeneous are college athletic programs when it comes to hiring consultants? Would you say that every D-I school gives more or less the same importance to a consultant team in its decision-making? Is it something that they have to appear to be doing in order to give the right impression to schools in their conference? Are consultants hired for lacrosse and other Olympic sports or is it just for football and basketball matters?

Russell: There are absolutely consultants out there that do just one thing – we have come across hockey consultants and lacrosse consultants and Eddie Fogler’s firm (former USC MBB coach) just does basketball coaching hires. In addition, there are consultants, who focus on Title IX/Gender Equity; Facilities; Compliance/Rules.

With nearly all of our projects, consultants are hired for a comprehensive examination of athletic departments. If a firm’s input is taken into account whole-heartedly – that truly depends on the culture of the administration. We’ve worked with programs that have really needed, even depended on, our data to make those hard decisions and we’ve also worked with programs that weighed our input evenly with administration, alumni and boards of trustees’ input. Because it is our name, and my name, behind the report, we are absolutely and brutally honest (even as we have seen, when they don’t like what we have to say).

Reader Levy asks:

When a head coach gets hired, there is usually a ton of attrition among assistant coaches and other staffers. Does this happen when ADs change as well? Do they clear house to bring in "their guys?" Should they?

Rusell: On the coaching side, that is almost always a YES to completely new assistant coach and support (DOBO) staff brought in. Occasionally an assistant coach may be retained, but that is few and far between, and more likely to happen at the D-II level than D-I.

On the AD change, it seems somewhat cyclical. A few years back, you would see a new AD come in and completely want his own senior staff (and it would look like a corporate reorganization); but now we’re seeing changes made to senior staff, but you will absolutely have existing Sr. Associate or Associate AD’s who do remain with the new AD.

I’m a big big big fan of not making personnel changes in the first-90 days, so a new AD can get the “lay of the land” first and then decide if the existing senior staff aligns with your goals, objectives, mission and go from there. I don’t think a new AD should ever automatically mean, “hey, senior athletic staff, start packing your bags.”

Reader David asks:

What do you look for in and what qualities do you expect from a D-II AD candidate?

Russell: First, the right applicant must be able to work with limited budgets and staffing. They have to be well-organized, adaptable, and be able to wear multiple hats at once. A worthy candidate also has to have to creatively develop solutions where the finances don’t exist. Collaboration with the entire institution must exist, as well as with D-II athletic standards. No athletic program can be a “silo', and that’s especially true at the D-II level.

And now, your conference realignment type questions

 Reader Derek asks:

What do you think the next five years has in store for the Big 12 and will the conference survive? What does the league NEED to do to survive and thrive in the future?

Russell: The Big 12 fascinates me. A few years back, the former OU President (David Boren) asked institutions to submit membership proposals as they strongly considered expansion, and then a few months later, they reversed course.

Texas still has a “sweetheart” agreement with the Longhorn Network in relation to the other nine institutions and at some point, I think that has to be addressed. Last year, just as the pandemic hit, Big 12 schools received just shy of $40 million (which does exclude Texas’ Longhorn Network revenue). The loss of Texas A&M, Mizzou, Nebraska and Colorado absolutely hurt; but the Big 12 has been able to rebuild. In my opinion (and this is just my opinion); I think they need to add Cincinnati, give West Virginia a travel partner (as well in MBB and FB) and take another look at BYU.

Reader Danger asks:

During a conference realignment process, which is more common: school administrations reaching out to conferences, or conferences contacting schools?

Russell: As we have been part of this first-hand, it candidly is almost a 50/50 split, usually it’s an intermediary (i.e. us, an AD or President) that will make the initial “off-the-record” contact, and if mutual interest, then (still) “unofficially” put the two parties together; but there is no official protocol.

Reader Steve asks:

Do you think West Texas A&M would be a WAC candidate for a 14th school, and are they likely to move to D-1 in the next few years?

Russell: We did a fundraising project a few years back for WTAMU as part of the construction and opening of Buffalo Stadium. They met a lot of criteria – great leadership, great competitive success, great facilities, and in addition they have a 10,000-plus student body and supportive alumni and fans.

I think they’re a great candidate to consider for a move to Division I and geography-wise a nice fit with the Texas WAC schools as well as NMSU and Dixie State. The pandemic makes it a much harder discussion and a departure by any Lone Star Conference football school really hurts that league. After all, only seven of the 15 schools in the LSC play football.

Reader Hoover asks:

The last round of mass realignment was driven by "cable subscribers" If one had to speculate, what will be the driver of the next big round?

Russell: Outside of anything that could happen in the P5, it will be driven by geography, schools seeking institutional fit, and sports sponsorship alignment.

We have been front & center on this for the past year, and the common theme we heard from everyone is “if we’re not at the best place for us right now, what is the best place and what will it take.” In addition, we hear schools asking us “we don’t look like XYZ schools in our conference, is there somewhere else we might be better in alignment?”

I believe everything you have seen the past 12 months (MEAC losing four schools; Southland five schools; OVC two schools) will continue across FCS and I-AAA and will start “sprinkling” into the G5.

And finally, a question from me:

How the heck does anybody get into college athletic consulting anyway? If you weren't an AD yourself, how does a firm convince anybody else to listen to you?

Russell: My route into this wasn’t traditional.

I came from the third-party/vendor side. I was the 12th hire at a company called FANSonly, which then became OCSN, which then became CSTV, and then became CBS Sports Online. We created, produced, and published schools’ Official Athletics Web Sites (we were actually the first ones to do this in college athletics back in 1996).

We had upwards to 250 clients (all DI) and on our trips to campuses, we would hear not just about issues with the athletic websites, but about everything else within athletics. I started keeping notes, and in 2005, I wrote a white paper about a consulting firm and submitted it to CLC (Derek Eiler) – I had been an intern there. Luckily for me, it had been something he had been discussing with other partners of theirs, and in 2005, with a partnership of myself, CLC, Strategic Marketing Affiliates, and NACDA, we got this up and running.

SMA gave us cash infusion; CLC gave office space, equipment, and operational support (accounting, IT) and NACDA gave me a golf shirt. I wasn’t a former student-athlete or administrator, but I knew a ton of people in athletics from my decade at FANSonly and started with that group and that’s how we got the business going.

Also, we made the decision to offer services to the entire spectrum of the NACDA membership (DI to NJCAA) and we still do that to this day. Schools hire us, not because we’re the smartest people in the room (although, my twins have told me I am 😊); but because we are completely objective and unbiased and so many times, the schools or conferences, need a neutral third-party to confirm or dispel what “they are thinking.”

We back everything up with data, data and more data. We want every recommendation to be supported by the data, but we also make sure that every stakeholder group has an opportunity to weigh-in and give their opinions and know/believe that those are going to be taken into account.

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