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Athletics: Many Alden Report suggestions unaddressed

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, June 23, 2017

It has been a little more than a year since the partial results of, and recommendations from, a specially commissioned independent study of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette athletic department were made public.

In that interim period, UL deposed one athletic director, Scott Farmer, in November 2016 and hired another, Bryan Maggard, early this year.

It has acted on some of the suggestions, but not most of them — partly because of delays prompted by the change at the top and the resulting transition, partly because of a huge looming decision on future conference affiliation and partly because of money and short staffing.

The first of 20 strategic recommendations generated by a six-month analysis overseen by ex-University of Missouri athletic director Mike Alden starting in October 2015 was to formulate a “staffing plan to position UL to compete successfully,” something it suggested should be tackled “immediately.

MORE: Post-Alden Report, UL still seeks multimedia partner | Is Cajun sports mascot dead or alive?

Relative particularly to marketing and branding, the Alden Report revealed a perception that UL’s “athletic staff” was “understaffed and overworked, and, thus, the brand suffers.”

Consultant Alden’s suggested timeline for eight of the 20 recommendations was to begin “immediately” in April 2016. One of the last two, a revised strategic plan for the department, had a suggested start date of October 2016.

On Tuesday, UL announced the appointment of Nico Yantko — who worked with Missouri’s athletic department in development/fundraising for the past six years — for the newly created position of deputy director of athletics for external operations.

More: UL athletics adds Yantko to staff

The new hire, Maggard said prior to the Yantko announcement, will have “oversight” over “marketing, promotions, athletics communications, ticketing operations and all revenue-generation components outside of RCAF (the Ragin’ Cajun Athletic Foundation).”

Beyond that, though, here it is June 2017, and — except for the filling of some lower-level positions, including clerical and academic-support jobs — little seems to have changed.

Staffing is largely the same, no strategic plan is in place  yet.

Why?

It’s all a work-in-progress, apparently.

Maggard said last week that since arriving his focus related to staffing has been on “what we have in place and looking ahead to what we might need moving forward to continue to improve.”

“Keep in mind that the Alden review, with regards to a staffing plan, was always centered around, ‘Should UL look to change conferences? … How does the current staffing plan match up to other Group of Five conferences, or a Power 5?’” Maggard said late during first month on the job. “So those recommendations were based primarily on those criteria.

“Obviously we’re not there yet,” he added at the time, “but what I need to do as the new athletic director is get my hands around the current staffing and identify who would make up my leadership team and then establish an organizational chart that reflects that.”

Asked if by “not there yet” he meant future conference aspirations or staffing needs, Maggard said, “maybe a little bit of both.”

Related: New UL athletic director Maggard 'likes people'

UL currently is a member of the Sun Belt Conference, one of the NCAA’s so-called Group of Five leagues. Power 5 conferences are higher-level leagues, including the SEC and Big 12.

Some Ragin’ Cajun supporters feel the program should long ago have pursued membership in a higher-profile conference, and some — often anonymously — criticized Farmer for that.

Maggard suggested no decisions have been made yet regarding UL’s future conference-pursuit intentions, if any.

That’s tied somewhat to another report recommendation, a revision of the program’s three- to five-year strategic plan — a road map, in other words, for how the Cajuns can get from where they are now to where they eventually want to be.

Maggard said the two are indirectly related “in that our three- to five-year strategic plan will certainly help us plan for the future, and if within that time any type of change in our conference alignment would occur there could be mechanisms in place try to support that.”

With the plan not yet developed, though, that future is uncertain.

“Until we know the course of direction we feel like we should go,” Maggard said with reference to staffing needs, ““it’s kind of hard to sit there and say, ‘OK, we need to go down this path.’”

More: New UL athletic director addresses Sun Belt future

Not all of Alden’s findings were included in what was released publicly; some, including personnel matters, have been kept private.

But part of the study that was shared  included a comparative financial analysis with fellow Sun Belt-member Arkansas State, an average of five Conference USA (Group of Five) schools, American Athletic Conference-member Houston and Big 12-member Kansas State.

At the time of the analysis, UL spent somewhere between $2.54 million and $2.62 million per year on athletic administrative staff salaries and benefits.

Arkansas State spent $2.73 million, roughly comparable.

But the five C-USA schools spent an average of $4.48 million on the same, while Houston spent $7.86 million and Kansas State $13.63 million — all a clear indication that the Cajuns would have to boost their budget considerably, and hire a much-larger staff, to compete in a higher-profile conference.

UL’s entire athletic department expenditures for the 2015-16 fiscal year, according to a 2017 Louisiana Legislative Auditor report , totaled $25,668,326.

Yet, another report recommendation was to implement a communication strategy for UL leadership with “Peer/Aspirational Schools/Conferences.”

That too is tied to determining just what the Cajuns see in their future.

Related: New UL boss eager to get to know Cajun coaches

“My thing is, ‘Let’s implement processes that will allow us to make sure that we’re supporting our student-athletes at the highest level, that we’re positioning our coaches and student-athletes to compete for and win championships,” said Maggard, who came to UL after spending two-plus decades at SEC-member Missouri, including time working under Alden.

“When you do those things in addition to enhancing all of the infrastructure — that includes facilities and staffing and resources — then you start positioning yourself better to be able to start talking about conference realignment down the road.”

Another Alden Report recommendation was to develop and implement starting in August 2016 a plan for mixed-use real estate development “at or adjacent to” UL’s athletic complex, something that was part of a $115 million athletic facilities masterplan initiated prior to Alden’s study.

It hasn’t happened yet, either, largely because cost and  and budget matters also have limited much of which recommendations UL can afford to implement.

Some masterplan projects are all or mostly complete, including an athletic training center/football locker room and coaches’ offices facility, track/soccer facility renovations and a renovated baseball stadium at a cost of more than $16 million.

Seats also were added to one end zone at Cajun Field in 2014, expanding listed capacity from 31,000 to at least 36,900.

But major parts of the masterplan, which was introduced in 2013, remain unaddressed, including additional expansion at Cajun Field and the relocation of UL athletic department offices to the football stadium.

The stadium expansion is proposed in intervals, and if every phase of it were someday built, out capacity could exceed 65,000.

If UL were to remain a Sun Belt member and not have higher aspirations, however, there likely would be no need to add nearly so many new seats.

The department continues to raise funds to subsidize all remaining construction projects.

Maggard said the next masterplan undertaking is expected to be the demolition of the Cox Communications Center, where UL athletic administration offices were located prior to moving to temporary housing in 2016 and where UL’s baseball coaching and sports information offices currently are located.

An athletic complex plaza will be built in place, near the football and baseball stadiums.

The mixed-use real estate project, however, hasn’t come close to happening yet.

Related: Perks, pay detailed in new UL athletic director's contract

With financing and funding matters slowing much of UL’s masterplan aspirations prior to his arrival, Maggard has toiled to tie together his administrative staff during his early months in charge.

Yantko brings a fundraising background.

Maggard also put together leadership team that includes deputy athletic director Jessica Leger, UL’s interim A.D. before Maggard was hired; associate A.D. for internal operations John Dugas, who oversees game operations; associate A.D. for external affairs Rob Stewart, a marketing specialist; assistant A.D. for compliance Tom Burke; assistant A.D. for business affairs Monique Ardoin; student-athlete academic center director Christy Alford; Ragin’ Cajuns Athletic Foundation executive director Jim Harris; and ticket operations director Matt Casbon.

Another of the Alden Report’s recommendations was to reorganize fundraising and development under a senior associate athletic director, which could include moving Harris — who currently reports to the RCAF Board of Directors, Maggard and UL advance vice president John Bloom — to the umbrella of the athletic department.

“That’s just something we need to discuss as a group and evaluate,” said Maggard, who suggested he’d seek RCAF board input before any decision is made regarding Harris’ place in the department’s organizational chart.

Among the other recommendations still to be addressed are long-range financial matters including development of a six-year institutional support plan, implementation of a five-year deferred maintenance plan and development of a three-year rolling budget.

Setting a budget for fiscal year 2018 was Maggard’s finance-related highest priority when he started work in March; the rest is expected to follow in time.

The Alden Report did identify specific institutional-support percentage targets, with a goal of trimming support of the athletic department’s budget by the school from 52 percent in fiscal year 2017 to 30 percent by fiscal year 2024.

Maggard called that plan, as laid out by Alden, “very viable” and “very achievable.”

Also subject to future review are the RCAF’s and school’s newly implemented priority seating plan for football, basketball and baseball.

Maggard said the current plan will remain in place for the 2017-18 school year, and suggested it’s important to prioritize fairness, equity and transparency if any changes are made.



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