Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
From inside an office that did not exist three years ago, Rick George has a stunning view of Folsom Field and the majestic Flatirons that rise above it in the distance.
Most pleasing to George, however, is the view of Colorado’s athletic department and how far it has come during his five years as the Buffaloes’ athletic director.
“The first five has come and gone and now we’re focused ahead on No. 6,” said George, who hit his five-year anniversary last month. “It’s gone fairly quickly and, again, mostly good and a few things not so good. Overall, I like the direction we’re headed.”
To this point, George’s tenure has been defined by unprecedented fundraising, construction of The Champions Center and the indoor practice facility (IPF) for football, significant improvements in gender equity within the department, and a strong commitment to the student-athletes.
His efforts have helped the Buffs achieve new heights academically, while becoming more competitive in football and other sports.
The most significant negative to his tenure was CU’s mishandling of domestic violence allegations against former football assistant coach Joe Tumpkin in December of 2016.
There is no doubt, however, that CU athletics is in a better place than it was when George was hired.
“In my time here at the university and all the different positions I’ve had as a dean and vice chancellor, provost and now as chancellor, I’ve hired a lot of people in different capacities,” CU chancellor Phil DiStefano said. “I would put Rick in the top three hires that I made. If he’s not the best, he’s definitely in the top three of the people that I’ve had the opportunity to hire here.”
Need for change
George’s predecessor, Mike Bohn, had an eight-year tenure with mixed results, but did lead CU through the move to the Pac-12, hired Tad Boyle to rejuvenate the men’s basketball program, brought women’s lacrosse to the school and started the Pearl Street Stampede to kick off home football weekends.
Bohn also achieved some fund raising success and, in his final months on the job, in the spring of 2013, presented plans for a $170 million facilities upgrade.
DiStefano believed CU had greater potential, however, and made the move to fire Bohn in May of 2013.
“I knew we really had to step it up if we wanted to be competitive in the Pac-12 with schools like Southern Cal and UCLA, Washington and so on,” DiStefano said. “To me, it meant let’s go out and really bring in a person that – and it’s a cliché about taking us to the next level — but that’s exactly what we had to do to be competitive. Those are difficult decisions, but those are ones that move the university forward.”
To get to the next level, DiStefano said it was important to find someone with a strong business background, as well as an athletic background. CU had never before had such diversity in an athletic director.
“There were some skeptics out there who didn’t think that was ever going to happen,” DiStefano said.
Prior to being hired by CU, George was the president of business operations for Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers. He also previously worked as an executive vice president for the PGA Tour, president and CEO of the Fore!Kids Foundation, and in college athletics at Illinois, Vanderbilt and CU. From 1987 to 1991, he was CU’s football recruiting coordinator and then assistant athletic director for football operations.
In returning to CU to become the sixth full-time AD in school history, George took over a department that faced significant debt.
“It was a major challenge,” he said. “We came in here and we were operating a deficit, we didn’t have (up to date) facilities, we had coaches that weren’t under contract. There’s a lot of things that we had, but we’ve made some great changes.”
The greatest change was the $160 million upgrade of CU’s athletic facilities, including construction of the Champions Center, IPF and renovation of the Dal Ward Center.
In developing the original plan in the spring of 2013, Bohn determined the Buffs couldn’t utilize Franklin Field — located adjacent to Folsom Field — or build the IPF next to the stadium. He also gave no timeline for the project and said $50 million would need to be raised before construction could begin.
Under Bohn’s plan, the IPF would have been built near the old practice fields, close to Boulder Creek, and would have required the removal of family housing units. Construction of the IPF was the third phase of Bohn’s plan. With no timetable, it’s quite possible that still would not be completed.
When hired, George asked DiStefano for one month to review the plan.
“He came back a month later and said, ‘We’re going to change everything and we’re going to get this done in a period of time that is far less than what was proposed,'” DiStefano said. “Most people didn’t think we could have the facility built in the time that we did, but he was able to do it.”
Within three years of George being hired, the entire project was completed, thanks in large part to significant fund raising through the “Drive for $105M” sustainable excellence initiative (SEI).
“It was important to get it done, period, and to get it done quickly,” George said. “Our facilities were outdated and we needed to certainly provide a better space for our student athletes.”
The upgrade was done with more than football in mind. There is now better locker room and workout space for all sports, an increase in the academic space utilized by the student-athletes and a tighter connection between all areas of the department.
“I think this building has been everything we thought it would be,” George said. “We couldn’t do it without our alumni and fans and donors and the support that we’ve received. It’s great to have a vision and it’s great to have a plan and a strategy, but you have to get people along side of you to help you do that.
“It’s something that we collectively did with a lot of people that got behind us in support of this. We’ve got a lot to do, but this was a great step in getting us moving in the right direction.”
Areas of improvement
Other highlights during George’s tenure include:
•Raising more than $100 million in donations in five years. Prior to his arrival, CU had never received more than $15 million in donations in any one year period and was typically under $10 million. “I’m pleased but I’m not satisfied,” he said. “There’s still a lot more we can do from a fundraising perspective.” George hit all five of the fund-raising incentives in his original contract, including one for reaching $100 million by June 30 of this year. George, however, declined the $250,000 bonus associated with that goal, because he wanted that money to be available for other athletic department priorities.
•Gender equity has been a major focus for George, and CU’s female student-athletes now have much better equipment and support than in the past. “I think Rick has been such a great partner to work with when it comes to women’s sports,” said Ceal Barry, CU’s deputy athletic director and senior women’s administrator.
•A balanced budget in each of the last four years.
•Implementation of CU’s first-ever comprehensive strategic plan, which outlined the athletic department’s mission and goals.
•Working with government to get legislation passed that allows for multi-year contracts for head and assistant coaches throughout the department. Prior to last year, only six contracts were allowed for the entire athletic department.
•An increased emphasis on nutrition, as well student-athlete development, not only during their time at CU, but setting them up for future success.
George is beloved by many in the department because of his dedication to all the student athletes. He’s often in attendance at CU events both home and away. Women’s golf coach Anne Kelly said her peers were amazed that George came to San Francisco in May to support the Buffs during the NCAA regionals.
For George, however, supporting and personally knowing CU’s student-athletes is not only a priority, but a passion.
“It’s the single most thing I enjoy, being around the student-athletes and watching them compete and seeing how well they do academically, seeing them walk down the stage at commencement for graduation,” he said. “All of those are things I didn’t have in the other roles I had when I was out of college. Being around young people gives you energy and it’s been a great part of my job.
“We’re doing great things academically, we’re doing great things for the personal development of our student athletes and that’s why we come to work every day.”
While George’s tenure has been mostly marked by success, it also included CU’s mishandling of the allegations against Tumpkin in December 2016. An outside investigation determined DiStefano, George and head football coach Mike MacIntyre failed to properly report the allegations.
In the roughly 18 months since the investigation began, DiStefano and George both said the athletic department has made significant strides in educating its staff and student-athletes on how to handle similar situations that arise in the future.
“I’m really pleased with the way that athletics has stepped up and worked in a very collaborative way with the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance (OIEC), and it’s worked out extremely well,” DiStefano said. “They worked together fine before then, but in the last year both groups have really stepped up and worked much more closely together.”
While mistakes were made during the Tumpkin situation, George said the positive is that CU has learned from those mistakes. There is more face-to-face training from the OIEC with athletics staff than in the past, and training happens every semester.
“The education pieces for our student athletes and coaches have changed significantly,” he said. “We’re putting a lot more effort into that. I think you learn from negative situations as much as you do from being successful all the time. We’ve learned a lot internally.
“I think we’re in a much better place today than we were 18 months ago.”
From the time he was hired five years ago, improving as an athletic department has constantly been George’s goal, and there’s no doubt CU is in better shape than five years ago.
“We’ve made a lot of progress,” he said. “We’re providing more for student athletes than we ever have. We built this great facility and we were able to get coaches contracts, which I think is important for our long-term success.”
The key now is continuing to progress, and George is focused on CU’s future.
“I would like to endow our student athlete development areas,” he said. “I’d like to be able to address our aging facilities; the west side (of Folsom Field) is an area that really needs to be fixed. CU Events Center needs a facelift. Those are the things that I look at in the next five years. The endowment piece is so important.
“We’ve done some really good things in the first five years, but we’ve got a lot of challenges moving forward.”
Brian Howell: email@example.com, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.