Q&A with Rick George

October 3, 2017


In 2014, approximately one year after his return to the University of Colorado as its sixth full-time athletic director, Rick George implemented the department's first three-year strategic plan.

It marked the beginning of a 15-year vision aimed at making Colorado, "Nationally recognized as a premier athletics program, by providing a world class and holistic student-athlete experience, operating in a fiscally responsible manner while consistently competing for and winning championships."

On Wednesday, George publicly announced the next stage of that vision.

"I am excited to be able to share the 2018-20 Strategic Plan for the University of Colorado Athletic Department," George said.  "Our mission over the next 36 months is that, "CU Athletics will win championships by recruiting, developing and inspiring student-athletes to succeed academically, athletically and personally through leadership and advancing our culture of excellence."

George said CU made several strides and numerous improvements in our recently completed 2014-17 plan, starting with developing core values within the department with the acronym RAPID (Respect, Accountability, Passion, Integrity, Dedication). Further, establishing a long-term vision for CU Athletics.

The previous plan included aspirational but obtainable goals in three main areas: financial, competitiveness, and academic and personal development. Overall, the department finished at 73 percent on track for those goals, including an 89 percent on-track performance in the financial area in the last year of the original plan.

In the new plan, George firmly believes that, "We have the right head coaches (and assistants) in place to help drive the goal: competitiveness with greater focus.  We are creating new programming with the intent of driving better results on the fields and courts of competition as well as the overall holistic health and wellness of our diverse student-athletes."

One of the key focal points within the new plan is to improve the graduation success rate; in the first last plan, the goal was 80 percent of our senior student-athletes.  That mark was reached and exceeded in all three years (83, 86 and 86 percent).  The new goal is 90 percent, which correlates with the NCAA target for the new revenue distribution that begins in 2019-20; those who achieve that level will receive additional monies from the NCAA.

Neill Woelk, CUBuffs.com contributing editor, sat down with George and had an extensive question and answer session discussing the first and second Strategic Plans with the CU athletic director, who recently celebrated his fourth anniversary leading the department:  

Q: Looking back at the last Strategic Plan, the top priority was significantly improve the financial state of CU Athletics. Was that a foundational baseline that had to be established before any other goals of significance could be attained at Colorado?

A: I knew when I came in I made a promise to the Chancellor (Phil DiStefano) that we would get our fiscal house in order. I felt it was a priority for our donors and our constituents — that those who generously donate and support our program could be confident we were  going to handle their resources properly.

That was a priority for us, to get our fiscal house in order. With that, we also needed to raise the revenue and we had to look at ways to do that. We've done some non-traditional things with the stadium clubs and concerts, and a variety of other areas. That was one piece of it.

I give credit to our coaches and staff. We held the line on our expenses. Our goal was to control the expenses we could control, that they wouldn't go up more than 2 percent per year. We've stuck to that. The coaches have prioritized what their needs are within those parameters and it's helped us. As our revenue increases, we've been able to do more things and different things.

But we also had to look at where we could cut that wouldn't impact the experience that we promise the student-athletes. In that regard, we've invested a lot in student-athlete resources to positively impact their experiences here. We added unlimited meals; the NCAA legislated that. We hired a sports dietitian, and we've increased the space for sports medicine, strength and conditioning and academics. We've invested a lot in student-athlete areas — but it was also important that we prioritize our dollars and where we spent those, particularly in the early days when I was here.

Q: Was that financial responsibility paramount in regaining the trust of the university in particular and the public in general?

A: I think so. We had been operating under a deficit for the previous couple of years. I thought it was important that we do what we say we're doing to do, and that's live within our means. We've done that. It hasn't been easy; we've had to make some difficult decisions. But where we are today is that our financial objectives have now become tactical. We know how to do it, we're in the right place, it's worked, it's been successful. We accomplished a lot in the first three-year mission in our financial outlook."

Q: So you've gained the public trust?

A: I hope we have. We've done what we said we were going to do. We balanced our budget the first three years of this strategic plan. That was important to us coming in and it's important to us now. Hopefully they know we're going to spend our resources where we feel like we need them and where the priority is most important."

Q: That first plan had some very specific goals in all three areas, and some of those no doubt raised some eyebrows. What was the thought process behind making those goals so public?

A: I think the plan initially raised eyebrows because I don't think people were used to us being so public and transparent about our goals. We were transparent because I'm a big believer that when you put something out there for the public to see, it holds you accountable. We had some bold statements. We said we were going to be "premier" and we said we were going to be "world class." In a lot of ways we were bold, but we have a strong vision of where we want this program to go over the next 12 years. Being in the conference that we're in, both academically and athletically, it pushes you and challenges you. I felt if we were going to be an important part of this conference, we needed to be bold and we needed our goals to be aspirational but obtainable.

Q: The fiscal responsibility strategic intent was just one part of the first three-year plan. What other areas did you feel were integral to the growth and development of the Athletic Department?

A: The two most important things we did were financial and academic growth. Getting our fiscal house in order was incredibly important. But I think what we've done in the academic area is probably the most important thing overall. (Associate Athletic Director/Student Services) Kris Livingston and the Herbst Academic team have done an amazing job.

Take into perspective that we've been recording GPA since 1994. In that span, we've had seven semesters over a 2.9 GPA — and six of them have been this last three years. That's something we're very proud of. We also had our highest cumulative GPA and our highest term GPA this past spring, which was the completion of our first three-year plan. Our cumulative GPA was a 2.994 for the spring term and our cumulative GPA for all our student athletes is a 2.970, which is the best we've ever had. We're making great progress there and we continue to add resources in that area. We have increased the space significantly, we have added staff, we're doing more tutor sessions and each student-athlete has an individual academic plan, which is important. 

Then, when you look at the health and wellness space and what we've done, we're proud of that as well. We've added fueling stations to all of our facilities. We have two snacks a day for all student-athletes. They can eat together and do things together, which I love. We have a sports dietitian, which is incredible. We're making our own sustainable snacks.

In the areas that touch our student-athletes directly, in that first mission we made a lot of progress in those areas.

Q: You are now entering the second three-year Strategic Plan, with a Mission Statement of, "CU Athletics will win championships by recruiting, developing and inspiring student-athletes to succeed academically, athletically and personally through leadership and advancing our culture of excellence." What was the thought process behind that shift in focus?

A: As we transition now into this next three-year mission, we're going to really focus on the personal development of our student-athletes, and that starts with recruiting and providing the experience we talked about. There are a lot of things that go into that.

Colorado is one of the great institutions in the country. It sits in a backdrop unlike any other. I firmly believe we should recruit the very best student athlete in every sport. We play in a conference that has more championships than any other conference in America by far. A great example is last week we played soccer against the No. 1 team in the nation, football against No. 7 and volleyball against No. 4. 

We're competing against that and we have to set our sights on recruiting athletes that allow us to compete at that level. It's not just their athletic ability, it's their character, how they fit academically, culturally and personally, all those things. We really want to focus on getting the right student athletes here initially, and then how do we develop them while they're here to be great, so when they leave here they are significant contributors to the communities they live in.

Q: The new plan includes a "purpose statement." Why did you feel the need to include that in a Strategic Plan?

A: I think it's important that people know the 'why.' People ask the question all the time, 'Why does athletics exist?' For us, we exist because we want to provide an opportunity for our diverse student-athletes to compete at the highest level. That's in the classroom, in the community, in competition, in life.

Another thing we believe is important is that we foster this emotional connection for our alumni and friends around the world to be passionate about this university and feel connected to it. We also promote the university on a national level when you consider all the exposure we provide on national telecasts. There's a tremendous 'why' athletics exist.

For example, if you went to the Michigan game last year, you saw a tailgate with the Alumni Association,the President's Office, the Chancellor's Office and Athletics. We had 1,600 people there, which means we provided a connection for 1,600 donors and alumni.

Then, what other events do you have on campus that are going to bring 40,000 alumni and potential alumni to our campus? You also have to take into account our students. We provide an emotional outlet for students on campus to take pride in their university and have a social event that connects them and brings them together.

I think it's important that people understand our purpose and why we exist because that question gets asked a lot.

At the same time, our student-athletes are competing at an extremely high level in the classroom and do an amazing job there. We included that Purpose Statement because we felt like it was important that people understand why we believe we exist.

Q: What specific academic goals will you stress in the new plan? 

A: We have now set our sights on a 90 percent graduation rate. We've had 83, 85 and 86. Now our goal is 90 percent. We want to push all of those up. We want our student athletes to excel in the classroom. Certainly the NCAA added to that with the Academic Progress Rate (CU's last APR was 983) and we want to be at that level or better. We want our graduation rate to be at 90 percent, which would put us in a position to gain more money from the NCAA for academic purposes, which would be great.

Q: When you arrived, you talked about establishing a culture of excellence, transparency, accountability and collaboration that would allow CU Athletics to meet its goals and vision. How far have you come in that regard?

A: We'll always continue to build that, but I think we're in a good place today. Our coaches, our staff and our student athletes understand who we are and what we want to accomplish moving forward. There is accountability for all of us and I believe everyone understands that. We measure our success by how well our student athletes succeed, and that's in a variety of different areas. 

Frankly, that's why we come to work every day, is to serve and support our student athletes and make sure we deliver on our promise that we're going to provide a world-class experience. We will continue to do everything in our power to make that happen.

Those interested can see the entire plan at this link: www.cubuffs.com/strategicplan.
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