Cal’s athletic department has a poor reputation – how big of a problem is it, exactly?

Rebuilding the athletic department at a public school known for its bureaucracy can't be an easy task

A few weeks ago I learned that there is an organization called ‘Athletic Director U,’ which apparently is an organization founded to “empower the college athletics community.” That’s a little inspecific, but as best I can tell it’s something of a trade organization of college athletic administrators.

More relevant for our purposes is that ADU polled “over 100 sitting Athletic Directors and executive-level administrators” regarding various metrics of athletic department performance and desirability. This was evidently done for every school across the country, and they’ve been releasing information conference by conference. The Pac-12 article came out recently, and if you think these numbers mean something then boy howdy, Cal’s got some problems:

Source: Athletic Director U

Nine different categories, and relative to their Pac-12 peers Cal ranks 9th place or worse in seven of them. Heck, one of Cal’s comparatively good rankings comes in the ‘compliance’ category, which probably isn’t particularly valuable (at least, from my jaded POV) since the NCAA is a dying dinosaur of an organization.

Some of the rankings are unsurprising. Last place in leadership alignment speaks to the ongoing perception that Cal’s campus leadership is at best indifferent and at worst openly hostile to intercollegiate athletics. Cal’s facilities struggles have long been documented, and although I’d argue that Cal has substantially improved football facilities, there are major problems for basketball and other Olympic sports programs.

But other rankings are more head-scratching. Does Cal’s donor support levels and brand perception really lag behind Arizona, ASU, and Utah? Is Cal really behind Arizona and Colorado in a ranking of potential football success?

I suppose, in a literal sense, the answer is yes. This is a presumably objective poll of perception of people within the industry, and while perception isn’t always reality on the ground, perception can have wide ranging impacts. To be fair, this gets into “chicken vs. the egg” territory very quickly. Did Cal spend 10 months with an interim athletic director with no real collegiate athletics experience, then hire that interim anyway, because their crummy reputation made hiring strong candidates difficult? Or does Cal have a crummy reputation because campus leadership was fine with hiring their interim director with no real collegiate athletics experience after 10 months of no apparent action?

Of the nine categories listed above, I think one is worth particular focus. “Perceptions about the alignment of Institutional Leadership (e.g. President, Trustees, C-Suite) in support of the Athletic Program.” So far, ADU has collected opinion data on six conferences totaling 66 different D1 athletic programs. In this particular category, Cal ranks 65th. Only the University of the Pacific over in Stockton is keeping Cal from last place. Only a few major conferences have been added to the data pool so far, but I think it’s fair to speculate that Cal may be perceived by the industry at large as having the single most difficult to work with administration in power conference athletics.

Which leads me to three questions. 1) Is this perception true? 2) If true, how much does it hurt and 3) If true, how can it be overcome?

There is a naïve part of me that would like to believe that academic/athletic relations have significantly improved under Chancellor Christ. She has been decisive it making various decisions designed to support a functional, robust athletic department. Cal’s finances appear to be on (relatively) stronger footing thanks to changes in debt classification, and she has been unwavering in her firm stance that Athletics isn’t some sort of vestigial campus tail that must be tolerated but never embraced.

And while one highly placed person can indeed shift a culture, her positive decision making doesn’t necessarily change the general perception of Cal athletics by the rest of campus, from other administrators to professors, alums, and students. While it’s nice to see top end leadership working in unison, I suspect that it will take years of hard work to bridge the various other divides that exist on campus.

How much does this reputation hurt? That’s probably impossible to quantify. When Cal athletics was perhaps at its lowest ebb in decades, they were still able to hire a conventionally successful, experienced candidate for athletic director in Jim Knowlton. They were still able to find the funding to hire a new MBB coach. They have been able to retain Justin Wilcox, though we don’t really know to what extent he’s had other opportunities. But it’s probably true that negative perception adversely impacts recruiting and retention of both players and coaches, even if it’s probably not possible to quantify exactly how much.

And how can this perception be overcome? I suspect that what Cal athletics really needs is greater financial independence from the larger campus – lower subsidies, lower deficits, no more embarrassing P.R. disasters. But when you’re 24 million dollars in the red and with a stadium financing plan that shows no real sign of being anything but a financial disaster, hope for short term improvement doesn’t feel realistic.

To be fair, Cal’s current leadership seems to recognize the problem. When you hear from Chancellor Christ and AD Knowlton, they’re always saying the right things. And in case you were inclined to dismiss ADU as a meaningless trade organization with questionable data, Jim Knowlton takes them seriously. Here’s an interview he did with ASD, in which is says All The Right Things about building a better relationship between athletics and academics:

From what little I’ve heard, Cal’s athletic department is in better shape now than at any point since at least Sandy Barbour’s resignation. Of course, I’m not exactly super connected, but it’s nice to feel at least a little bit of optimism anyway.

If true, hopefully improving conditions start to filter out to the wider world, and Cal’s reputation will start to climb. Only one direction to go!