A Talk With UH's New Athletic Director: Facilities, Graduation Rates And Selling The Program

Mack Rhoades has been on the job as the University of Houston athletic director for a little over five weeks. He's settling in. He's meeting his coaches and the support staff. He's meeting the players. He's touring the facilities.

And he's been thinking and analyzing and trying to work up a plan that will take a sports program that has long been absent from the national stage and turn it, once again, into a national program.

It's going to take a lot of work.

"We want to build a program, not winning sports teams, but a winning program, so that we can win consistently," he said in an interview in his office last week.

The program building starts with infrastructure, particularly the infrastructure of the two aging facilities known as Robertson Stadium and Hofheinz Pavilion. For the school to compete on a national level -- Conference USA and the major conferences -- the school needs to level the playing field.

"We really need to think long and hard about what's the best direction [with Robertson Stadium]. Is that a renovation of that facility? Is that a complete new facility? That's something after five weeks that I don't have the answer," he said. "We want to make sure that whatever we do it's money well-spent. That it's something that meets our needs two-three years from now, but also 10-15 years from now, as well."

He envisions something like what he was able to do at his previous post at Akron where he was able to build a multi-purpose facility used by the football team, the athletic department, and the entire student population.

But while dealing with infrastructure, he's also pushing to increase the graduation rate of his athletes. Akron had a nearly 70-percent graduation rate by the time he left, and he would like to see Houston get to those numbers.

"First and foremost we have to graduate our student athletes," he says.

How will that happen in Houston? He's not sure yet, but there have been talks. "We've talked internally about the importance of going to class," he said. "You're certainly not going to play if you miss practice. Well, you're not going to play if you miss class....Will we implement a class attendance policy? I don't know yet. We'll see how we handle it without it....We have to have a culture that we're not about keeping our student-athletes eligible, it's about graduating them. I think there's a big difference there."

He's clear on the point that the overall sports department is dependent on the success of the football and men's basketball programs. They're the ones that drive the economics. But he wants very much to build a program for all of the school's 350-plus student-athletes.

"All of our student athletes deserve to have a great experience no matter what team they participate on," he said. "Part of having a great experience is winning. I've never had a student athlete come up to me and say they enjoy losing. So part of that experience is winning. Part of that experience is graduating. Part of that experience is socially growing through our leadership programs. We don't market women's basketball because we do it for men. We market women's basketball because those student athletes deserve to have as big as crowd as we can have for them at their games."

And how will the school get those crowds? Winning is a primary factor. "It's amazing how much fewer complaints you receive when you're winning," he said. "And that's certainly human nature. We've got to take care of our business. We have to win."

But beyond winning, he's looking at how the department markets the teams. Along with television, radio, print, and billboards, he's convinced that the school has to employ the pro-sports team model for selling tickets.

"They're much more focused on calling "x" amount of people every single day for this certain amount of time. So we'll have to develop some type of model of that nature," he says.

He also wants to better tap into the history of the school's sports programs. He wants the school to embrace its past successes. "People still remember Phi Slama Jama," he said. "They know who Hakeem Olajuwon is. They know who Clyde Drexler is. They know who Michael Young is. So those are things that we can use to our advantage."

Mack Rhoades is only five weeks into the challenge of rebuilding the Houston program. And the blueprint is only in the preliminary stage.

But work on the foundation has begun. Improved infrastructure. Improved graduation rates. Improved marketing. A better experience for all of his athletes. It's not going to be an easy, or a quick process.

But right now, Rhoades appears to be up to the challenge.

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