Turning the Corner

January 29, 2015
When negative events put a cloud over your athletic department, you can hide in a huddle or look downfield for a clear path. The six schools in this article each found a creative way to turn a crisis into a positive.
By Laura Ulrich

Laura Ulrich is a contributing writer for Athletic Management. She can be reached at: laura@MomentumMedia.com.

Note: This article has been corrected due to a mistake in the second paragraph. The second and third paragraphs are now different from the printed version and stand correct here.

If you think you've experienced a bad day on the job, you should talk to Peter Fields. Athletic Director at Montana State University, Fields may hold the record for most tough blows received at one time by an athletic administrator.

MSU's story begins in the spring of 2006, when the murdered body of a local drug dealer was found in an agricultural field on the school's campus. An investigation revealed that a string of former and current MSU student-athletes were involved with trafficking narcotics, and that scholarship money had been used in a number of transactions. In June 2006, a former football player and a former basketball player were arrested in connection with the murder (and the basketball player later pled guilty).

In 2007, Fields and MSU President Geoff Gamble fired Head Football Coach Mike Kramer, a move that critics were quick to label as scapegoating. To top it off, the arrests and firing unfolded against the backdrop of a newly announced priority seating plan that had some fans up in arms and the launch of a capital campaign.

"This," says Fields, "was most certainly not my strategic plan."

Today, however, Fields sounds like a man without a worry in the world. "When all this happened, my first thought was definitely not, 'What a great chance to improve our department,'" he says. "But there is no doubt that MSU athletics is stronger because of the turmoil we went through. It forced us to re-define our core mission and come together as a staff like never before."

It also forced MSU athletics to think deeply about how to repair its reputation and create a new strategy for portraying Bobcats athletics. What could have been terribly damaging incidents turned into an opportunity to become cutting edge.

When a crisis happens, it's natural to focus on stemming the tide. But what about turning the tide? Are there ways to convert a negative event into something that kick starts creativity, unites your staff, and leaves the department better than it was before? For the six athletic directors whose stories we'll share below, the answer is yes.

With headlines splashed across newspaper pages and Web sites connecting Montana State athletics with drug dealing and violent crime, the biggest challenge for Fields was clarifying to stakeholders that the terrible choices made by a few former players didn't accurately represent the entire department. The question was how to do this. Fields' first step was to listen to his staff.

"Before I did anything, I needed the input of the experts in our department whose job it is to deal with the media," he says. "As an athletic director, it's critical to know when to let others guide you."

Fields leaned heavily on Christine Syme, Assistant Sports Information Director of Operations, who has a background in crisis management. Under her guidance, a special team was formed consisting of a senior associate athletic director, compliance officer, marketing director, student services coordinator, and media relations associate.

At its first meeting, the team assessed the situation using a SWOT analysis, which stands for "Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats." Each member was asked to make a list for each category, and then Syme reviewed the answers to identify recurring themes.

The most frequently mentioned strength was the passion and integrity of MSU student-athletes. "The media was painting our athletes with a broad brush, but only a tiny minority of them had been involved in the criminal activity," says Fields. "The majority of our student-athletes are great kids who are doing everything right."

The most obvious weakness, however, was that the department was not successfully spreading the word about its outstanding young people. "We were giving the media schedules and statistics," Syme says. "Our immediate goal became putting a human face on the athletic department."

Syme challenged her staff to uncover compelling feel-good stories within the department, and they weren't hard to find. The women's track and field roster, for example, offered the story of pole vaulter Sarah Eby, a six-time all-conference all-academic athlete who is preparing for a career in cancer research, motivated by a family history of breast cancer. In men's basketball, junior college transfer Carlos Taylor is working hard toward academic success in spite of personal trauma (his mother had passed away), and can be found serving meals at the local soup kitchen--all while leading the team in scoring.

Syme and Fields also needed a plan for communicating the negative events that had occurred. They chose a strategy of aggressive disclosure. "Studies have shown that when an organization has a crisis, it's best to communicate about it immediately and be completely honest," Syme says. "We needed to say, 'This is what happened, and this is what we're doing about it.'"

Figuring out exactly who needed to get that information was the next step. "We prioritized our stakeholders," Syme says. "Because the department was in the middle of a capital campaign, our number one priority was major contributors who were in the process of giving very large gifts, and Peter talked with them one-on-one."

Next came boosters, followed by the university community, season ticket holders, casual fans, and the general public. Members of the athletics staff participated in making phone calls directly to stakeholders high on the list.

Fields also talked with current student-athletes and coaches. "They were hurt and angry that their reputation had been tarnished when they hadn't done anything wrong," he says. "It was important for me to say, 'I know the community isn't thinking very highly of you right now, but we are aware of the wonderful things you're doing and we're working to correct this situation.'"

In all their conversations, they focused on the message that high standards for student-athlete integrity were the norm. At the same time, they emphasized that the program was taking a hard look at how things had gone wrong, in part by undertaking an independent evaluation of recruiting practices.

The targeted communication worked. A donor whose $1.2 million gift had been in process when the scandal hit called Fields to say, "I have 1.2 million reasons to be angry, and I'm not. I've heard what you're saying and I continue to believe in what you're doing." Other gifts came through as well to make the capital campaign a success.

And in January 2008, the local newspaper ran an editorial that read, "It looks like MSU athletics has turned the corner." A few months later, readers opened the paper to find the headline, "MSU Athletes Already Counter Bad Publicity."

"Reputation recovery programs usually take at least five years," Syme says. "The editorial piece ran two years after our initial crisis hit. We're excited about that."

Using what they learned from the incident, Fields and Syme have established a crisis communication plan for the department. Two crisis teams will continue to exist, one to handle communication about non-medical emergencies and another (which includes sports medicine staff members) to handle medical emergencies. They've made aggressive disclosure a permanent motto, and they'll continue to supply the media with positive stories.

"This kind of planning is essential in today's world because technology has made communication instantaneous," Fields says. "If something goes wrong, you can be sure your constituents are going to hear about it immediately from someone, and that means they also need to be hearing from you."

One morning last December, Amy Molina, Athletic Director at U-32 High School in Montpelier, Vt., sat down at her desk to start her day. As usual, she began by checking her e-mail. Expecting to find the typical messages from coaches telling her the results of weekend contests and perhaps a complaint or question from a parent, Molina instead opened an e-mail from a former football coach that contained a string of photos of U-32 student-athletes drinking alcohol and using drugs.

The photos had been posted on one student's Facebook.com account. The former coach had received them from another student and passed them along out of concern.

Like most other high schools, U-32 had no policy governing the use of social networking sites by its students. "It is new territory," Molina says. "We had never dealt with it and we didn't know of any other schools that had. There was no one we could call and ask, 'How did you handle this?'"

U-32 administrators decided to use one question to guide their response. "We asked ourselves, if this was my child, what would I want the school to do?" Molina says.

They concluded that in-season athletes identified in the photos should be sanctioned according to the athletic department's code of conduct, which prohibits them from drinking or using drugs during their sport season. "That was the easy part," Molina says. "Our next question was, what else should we do?"

Since the photos contained evidence of underage drinking, one option was to let the police deal with the issue. "We decided against that," Molina says. "We wanted to use this as an opportunity to educate kids in a caring way that opened conversations."

To start, each child identified in the photos was called into a private meeting with their faculty advisor and an administrator. "We talked to them about two things: risky behavior and the realities of the Internet," Molina says. "They were really clueless about the repercussions of posting photos and information on social networking pages.

"We explained that while you may think your Facebook page is a private thing between you and your friends, it's not," she continues. "Posting any personal information online is risky, and once it's out there, you can't get it back. We also let them know their online lives are fair game for college admissions personnel and future employers, so posting photos of themselves doing irresponsible things is foolish."

Next, Molina met with each team to discuss the underage drinking and drug use issue. "I asked why they thought drinking and partying had become the norm in our community," she says. "They said that since we live in a rural area, they felt like there was nothing else to do. We focused on helping them see there are a lot of other options."

The meetings also turned into forums for athletes to address the issue with each other. "One athlete turned to her best friend and said, 'The only reason I go to these parties is to make sure you don't get hurt. You drink too much and I'm really worried about you.' Both of them ended up in tears," Molina says. "It's really hard for kids to say these things to their peers, but once we started the discussion, all kinds of things surfaced."

Other student-athletes told Molina they went to the parties but didn't drink, instead monitoring their peers and driving them home. "They said, 'Isn't that a good thing to do?'" she says. "I told them, 'If you were 21 years old, I'd say you did the right thing. But you're still at a party with underage drinking and you're facilitating your friends breaking the law.' I helped them see that a far better choice would be to say, 'I'm not going and you shouldn't either. Let's do something else.'"

With the acute crisis handled, U-32 administrators are working on prevention, emphasizing drug and alcohol education. Molina includes information about social networking sites in each of her preseason meetings with athletes and parents, and a policy is being written to address sites like Facebook and MySpace, as well as broader technology issues like cyber-bullying.

And Molina is also working hard to keep the conversation flowing. "Now that it's all out in the open, I can walk through the halls on Friday and say to our athletes, 'Let's make good decisions this weekend,'" Molina says. "They know I'm paying attention and that I care. If we had handled this in a more punitive way, I truly believe we would have lost kids and wouldn't be able to help them."

As any athletic director who has ever had to do it knows, there is no easy way to tell athletes their program is being eliminated. But at the University of Rhode Island, Athletic Director Thor Bjorn learned that some ways are better than others.

The bad news began in February when Bjorn announced the department was cutting women's gymnastics (while adding women's lacrosse). "As we were going through the decision-making process, we didn't communicate with coaches or athletes," Bjorn says. "We didn't want to cause a lot of anxiety until we knew for sure. Then we called a meeting with the gymnastics team and I told them their program had been cut."

The approach backfired. "It was like a bomb had gone off," Bjorn says. "The fact that they were completely unprepared for the news made the blow much worse. There was a lot of negative fallout, and it really taught me how not to communicate about a program cut."

Unfortunately for Bjorn, he was forced to put that lesson to use sooner rather than later. Within weeks of the gymnastics announcement, he learned that massive state budget cuts would require him to slice the athletic budget by 10 percent. He was forced back to the drawing board, this time with multiple programs on the chopping block. With the gymnastics experience fresh in his mind, Bjorn was determined to approach the issue differently.

"I decided we had to be as open as possible right from the start," he says. "Even before we decided which sports would be cut, we wanted people to know what was happening and that their program might be affected."

Bjorn met with head coaches and the student-athlete advisory board to break the news that cuts were on the horizon. He explained the budget crisis in detail and used graphics to help explain the dozen scenarios the department was considering. "Putting the numbers on the table was important because whenever you're considering program cuts, people wonder if you have a hidden agenda," he says. "This made it clear that it wasn't about favoring any one sport or gender--it was a financial decision."

To further increase the transparency of the decision, Bjorn hired an outside consultant. A private practice attorney specializing in sports law went over each scenario and provided feedback about how the cuts would affect Title IX. "We were able to share this information and her expertise really added credibility," he says.

Following the meetings, Bjorn opened his door to any coach or athlete who wanted to provide input during the decision-making process. "Athletes met with me to share their opinions and voice their frustrations," he says. "I really valued that because it helped me to see the situation through their eyes."

The department ultimately shaved $800,000 from the budget by cutting men's swimming, men's tennis, and field hockey. Once the decision had been made, Bjorn again found himself standing in front of a room full of student-athletes who were about to get the worst news of their athletic careers. But this time, he was better prepared and so were they.

"I knew that the most important thing was for me to understand the human impact of the news I was going to deliver," Bjorn says. "These were not numbers on a spreadsheet--they were coaches and kids whose lives were about to be very adversely affected. It was critical that I empathized with what they were feeling.

"When you go through something like this, it's tempting to distance yourself from it," he continues. "But when you do that, you're unable to communicate in a genuine way."

Although the meetings were difficult, Bjorn stayed with each team as long as it took for athletes to express their anger and disappointment. "I answered every question they had as honestly as I could," he says, "and I looked them in the eye and heard them out when they told me what a terrible decision I had made. They needed and deserved to vent their feelings."

Following the announcements, it became clear that the work had paid off. "I'll never forget it," Bjorn says. "I was walking back from my meeting with the swimmers and feeling pretty bad. A tennis player, who had learned earlier that his own team was being cut, stopped me and said, 'This is not your fault and I'm sorry you're going through it.' Two days later, a swimmer walked up to me and hugged me and echoed the same words. I was blown away.

"On some campuses, it can take six months or a year to work through the questioning and complaints following program cuts," Bjorn continues. "We got through it in a month. Because we communicated throughout the entire process and allowed people to openly express their anger over the decision, I truly believe we healed faster. We're looking to the future and we're well on our way to rebuilding."

Staying positive during a negative situation is tough even in the short term. For Louie Walters, Athletic Director at Scotts Valley (Calif.) High School, the challenge was keeping chins up through an ordeal that lasted two and a half years.

In early 2006, Walters learned that a gender discrimination complaint had been filed against Scotts Valley with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR). The anonymous complaint alleged numerous inequities in the facilities, equipment, and coaching provided to softball players compared to baseball players, and also accused the school of discrimination for failing to form a freshman girls' soccer team when there was interest.

Over nearly two years, Walters discussed the issues with the anonymous complainant through an OCR mediator, repeatedly thinking a conclusion had been reached only to learn that the individual was not satisfied. In January 2008, the OCR opened a formal investigation at Scotts Valley.

A hailstorm of negative press followed. "People had all kinds of misperceptions," Walters says. "I kept hearing that we were mistreating our girls and that we were being sued, which was untrue. It was a difficult time."

From the start, however, Walters decided to view the investigation as an opportunity rather than a problem. "My attitude was, 'We want to be in Title IX compliance and we want to do everything we can to support all our athletes,'" he says. "I saw this as a chance to learn about Title IX and have the experts evaluate how well we were doing."

He worked hard to bring that perspective into all of his interactions. "When I talked to the media, I was as open as I could be and I was careful not to complain about what we were going through," he says. "I also tried to be as helpful as I could be with the OCR investigators."

Walters spread the same message to student-athletes. "During its investigation, the OCR interviewed 400 of our players," he says. "I told them, 'Go in and tell the truth. If you feel you're being treated unfairly, we want to know about it so we can correct it.'"

This May, Walters received a report from the OCR absolving Scotts Valley of discrimination. It had not found any evidence that female student-athletes had inferior resources, and it agreed with Scotts Valley that forming a freshman girls' soccer team was unrealistic because there would be no schools in the area to compete against.

While relieved by the news, Walters is committed to learn from it. For one, he is focusing on communication with parents. "It only took one unhappy person to launch an OCR investigation," he says. "So in each of our preseason meetings, I'm really emphasizing that I want to hear from parents. They are often concerned that their child will be punished if they complain, so I assure them that won't happen."

Walters is also dedicated to continuing his assessment of gender equity in his department. "My advice for other high school administrators is to have a long-term gender equity plan," he says. "One thing the OCR focused on in their report is that we have a history of consistently improving our programs for female student-athletes. Most schools can't build new facilities overnight, but every school can have a five-year plan for making things better."

Walters says that he's a more seasoned athletic director since surviving the past two and a half years. "Having the OCR investigate your program is nerve-wracking, and most athletic directors live in fear of it," he says. "But if you approach it with the attitude that it is a tool that can make you better, it can actually be a positive experience."

More and more boards of education are choosing to fire coaches against an athletic director's recommendation. And the athletic director, of course, must still handle the fallout. That was the scenario this spring for Glover Priar, Athletic Director at Gibson Southern High School in Fort Branch, Ind., where parents successfully lobbied the school board to fire the veteran head boys' basketball coach, Jerry O'Brien.

According to Priar, O'Brien was experienced, successful, and well liked by the community for more than a decade. However, parents went to the school board with complaints about his game strategy. "Coach O'Brien used a slow, controlled game with lots of passing and teamwork," Priar says. "People in Indiana pride themselves on a run-and-gun style of basketball, and some parents disagreed with his coaching."

Over Priar's objections, the school board voted against renewing O'Brien's contract, and Priar's job became helping the team heal from the divisive event. "It was terribly frustrating to watch this happen, but I needed to focus on bringing the players back together," he says. "When I talked to them, I told them that sometimes things happen that are out of our control, but that we need to make the most of the situation. I suggested that having a new coach could be a fresh chance to work hard and prove themselves."

He also spent time talking with O'Brien. "I told him this wasn't the end of the line," he says. "I made sure he understood that I value the tremendous work he did here and I'm confident another great position will come up if he still wants to coach."

Priar's next priority has been finding the right coach to step into the vacancy. "The person we hire will face a tough job," he says. "In our interviews, we're asking a lot of questions to evaluate candidates' ability to work with parents, resolve conflicts, and provide a vision that will get people excited about the program again."

Priar is also using the coaching change as an opportunity to talk with the school board about the process of evaluating and retaining coaches. "A better system is needed for informing coaches when the board is unhappy with their job performance," he says. "Coaches should be given a chance to change things if they are willing. I'm hoping the board will see the need to look at this issue."

Priar says his four decades in the business have taught him one thing. "Whether something is a disaster or an opportunity is completely dependent on your outlook," he says. "When a crisis hits, the first step is not to panic. Then, if you keep the perspective that even the most negative experiences don't last forever, you have a shot at finding the silver lining that will help you turn things around."

When Timothy Hale, Athletic Director at the State University of New York at Oswego, saw his baseball coach collapse on the field, his only concern was getting expert medical staff as quickly as possible. Hale was sitting behind home plate when a ball hit down the third base line struck Head Coach Frank Paino in the head. "It was terrible," Hale says. "He went down like a ton of bricks.

"Our medical staff acted quickly to stabilize him and get an ambulance on the way," he continues. "He was transported to Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, which is one of the best hospitals in the country, so we knew he was in good hands. And then it hit me--our baseball team was set to leave the next day for their conference tournament, and we didn't have a coach."

Like many NCAA Division III baseball teams, the Lakers' assistant coaches were part-time and neither could make the trip. "I stepped in and took care of the administrative work," Hale says. "I confirmed the bus and hotel accommodations and made sure the meal money was taken care of. I also told the team I'd travel with them and help them in any way I could, but my baseball knowledge ends with the second year of Little League. I definitely couldn't coach the games."

At the hospital, Paino was diagnosed with a hairline skull fracture and a severe concussion--serious injuries, but not life-threatening. By later that night, he was able to talk with Hale on the phone. "He told me he wanted Brian Stark, a reserve sophomore outfielder, to coach the team," Hale says. "Brian does not get a lot of playing time, but is one of those players who has diligently studied the game's nuances."

The following day, Hale and the team left for the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) tournament. "We arrived with the worst record of any team in the tournament," Hale says. "We had 14 wins and everyone else had at least 20. We knew that on paper, we should lose two games on Saturday and go home."

But Paino's trust in Stark gave players a newfound confidence in themselves. "At a team meeting Friday night, I told them that everything Coach Paino had instilled in them would come back when they needed it," Hale says. "I reminded them that their coach had utmost faith in Brian to make the calls, so they could trust him, too."

And Stark delivered. "What really impressed me was how he handled the team," Hale says. "Brian knew exactly what to say to each of his teammates--when to lay off and let a guy cool down and when to go and talk to him.

"On the field, he made some calls Coach Paino probably wouldn't have made," Hale continues. "There's something about the brashness of youth, and he took some chances. But every one of them paid off, and we took home our first ECAC championship in a decade."

While asking an athlete to step into a coaching role worked out this time, Hale isn't sure the department should be relying on that concept in the future. "It's generated some discussions between me and our administration about strengthening our assistant coaching staff," he says. "We really need a plan in place for instances when we're suddenly without a coach."
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