BEHIND THE SCENES: Mark Hollis – Athletic director at Michigan State University

Mark Hollis, 53, has been the athletic director at Michigan State University since 2008. A 1985 MSU graduate, he was an administrator with the Western Athletic Conference and an assistant and associate athletic director at the University of Pittsburgh before becoming the Spartans’ associate athletics director for external relations in 1995. His tenure as AD coincides with MSU’s emergence as one of the nation’s premier college athletic programs.

As a successful business executive with a strong product and brand, solid finances and a talented team of lieutenants, if you lectured in the business school, what would you suggest to students?

Understand what you do and what you deliver and don’t stray from that. There’s the old marketing adage, “stick to your knitting.” It’s a reminder that we have to be what we are. In our case, we are part of a great university and part of a great community. What is it that you want to do to distinguish yourself from others; find something that others are not and really excel in that.

And about yourself – what do you tell students about your obviously successful career?

You know, my dad was a minister, a teacher and a lobbyist; an interesting combination. The one thing I learned from him, is the greatest way to manage is to listen, be aware of your surroundings and to know the desires of your customer, employees and those you serve.

From Jud Heathcote, the greatest thing I learned was anticipate everything. Prepare and have compassion for those that surround you and understand that mistakes are going to occur — it’s not the end of the world.

How do you pull together a department where coaches and staff focus pretty intently on their individual sports?

Ensure that everybody has the same global overall mission. We created our own mission statement when I started as the athletic director. It’s no different than if you are in a hospital. You would hope that when you ask a janitor what the goal of their job is, that their response would be that their job is to save lives, not just to sweep floors.

We want our staff to have an understanding that the job is not just to fill out a stat sheet or coach a wrestling team, that there is a greater cause and that you are a very important part of it.

Isn’t that tricky because of what you do – live by wins and losses?

By the public you are judged by wins and losses. As an athletic director, I evaluate coaches’ wins and losses, academics and the impact on young people’s lives. A perfect example would be our swimming coach. Absolutely no chance to win a Big Ten championship given the state of the facilities that we have at Michigan State, yet we have an individual that is going to Cambridge to study on a Churchill Scholarship.

We have better facilities for soccer and we have some competitive success there. And we have a Rhodes Scholar. Those are success stories that don’t get written about in the paper. They are not in the win-loss column, but they are to us. We work to reinforce the greater good and the greater good is taking young men and women and putting them into society better than when they came.

Can you discuss the relationship between innovation and success?

Many times at Michigan State, myself included, we tend to get agitated trying to keep up with other individuals. When the focus is all about that rather than trying to create something unique and something different, you can get very frustrated. Michigan State had to come to a position where we redefined ourselves as something that’s uniquely different. One of the great things is when you achieve success like the Rose Bowl, the way the university and athletics collaborated. The “Spartans Will” campaign came out of that, branding in southern California and then nationally in airports. Athletics got to be part of something that was bigger than just athletics.

You seem to be creative with events that set MSU apart from other schools.

Those events are not just circus and sizzle. Every one had a cause. It made them real. The hockey game that we had at Spartan Stadium, the first of its kind, happened when Michigan was economically depressed. We were trying to come up with something that would give hope, excitement, enthusiasm. The same with playing basketball with Kentucky in Detroit; we wanted to create an MSU presence in Detroit, but do it for a city that was really struggling.

We are looking to do things in Greece, something that could be a spark plug for a country that is struggling right now, having the Spartans and the Trojans play. If USC and Michigan State can play a basketball game, yes it’s going to bring brand recognition to those two schools, but it’s also being done with the purpose of saying here’s a country with a great history.

Who cooked up the idea of a Trojans – Spartans game? Was that you?

Yeah. That’s me. I’ve always been that way – an only child. You have to be creative. It’s a gift, and a curse.

MSU’s sports success must make key members of your management team attractive recruitment targets.

Being in a Big Ten conference and being the family type of program that we are matters. We are a destination school, a place where people want to be. I’ve been here since 2008 as the athletic director, since 1995 as an assistant. Most everybody working by my side was with me in the 90s. That’s unique. Some of it’s the athletic department, some of it is the university and some of it’s the community. People want to be here. We make up for some of the compensation things with other benefits of togetherness.

How do you allocate resources to the different teams?

We have a budget of about $100 million, which has grown exponentially. Specialization has caused a lot of that. What’s happened in our industry, is more people making more money based on the market. That has decreased the ability to spread those dollars across 25 sports. Back in the day you had a trainer and an equipment manager and that was about it. In today’s world you have video coordinators, nutritionists, psychologists, strength coaches and speed coaches. Every one of those individuals comes at a cost.

A typical sport at MSU other than football, basketball and hockey has a net loss of between $650,000 and $4.5 million. The SEC averages about 17 sports. Their focus was to reduce opportunities and put more into football. The Big Ten conference has been more opportunity based.

Is there a ceiling on revenues?

I’m concerned about the ceiling. I think we can see it. The concern that I have is every decision we’re making, well not every decision, but the predominant decisions we’re making, are based on television and not sitting in the stands. What are we doing for the 70-plus thousand that are coming to Spartan Stadium? Is it a good experience? Some of it is and some of it we are still very much challenged with.

If you were going to coach what would be the sport?

Basketball. It’s what I grew up with and what I played in high school. I understand the game and the emotions of the student athletes in that sport probably better than others. I love ‘em all, but that’s just the one that I grew up with.

This conversation with Mark Hollis has been edited for space and clarity.

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Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten is an award winning writer and editor. He has been executive editor of the Lansing State Journal, the Burlington Free Press in Vermont, and was the financial editor and a columnist for the Baltimore Evening Sun. He is the current president of the Michigan Press Association. His wife, Maureen Hirten, is director of the Capital Area District Library.

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