The Ball is in His Court

Sacramento State’s athletic director on the trials and tribulations of his sports program

Back Q&A Sep 12, 2016 By Rich Ehisen

These days, college athletics is as much about big business as competition on the field. We recently sat down with Sacramento State Athletic Director Bill Macriss to talk about the challenges small programs face as they try to compete with the behemoths of big-time college sports.

A lot of people see the athletic director position akin to the CEO of a large corporation. Do you agree?

In His Own Words

— Bill Macriss

My favorite athlete:

Growing up in Chicago, I idolized Walter Payton — still the best running back in NFL history

My favorite sport to watch:

First and second round of the NCAA Basketball Championships

My proudest career moment:

Still to come, when we open a new events center on campus

What I like most about Sac State:

The people — amazing students, committed and caring faculty, and staff and alumni who are passionate for the green and gold

If I could have any other profession, I would be:

Travel guru author of guidebooks on the world’s best hikes for acrophobia sufferers

On the business side, we have 100 coaches and staff working together in support of our student athletes, as well as managing the facilities and being part of the local entertainment business. But so much of this job is focused on academics, on student well-being and welfare, that you’re really a hybrid of the two. You’ve got to be able to run an efficient business — stay within budget, raise money — but you can never lose sight that it always comes back to being part of the university. You’re as much a teacher as an administrator and a mentor. We get these young men and women at a very critical time in their lives. Winning is important, but getting them to graduation, getting them across the stage and preparing them for life after college is more important in the long haul.

A lot of the talk now around college sports is about compensating student athletes. People are thinking about the big schools, not necessarily Sac State. Even so, some of the changes imposed by the NCAA in this area impact you, correct?

Related: Basketball lessons that you can use in the boardroom

Yes. There was a time when the focus of the NCAA was to try to make it an even playing field [for all universities], but the reality is we were never truly on a level playing field. We have a budget of around $15 million. I think there are 24 schools now with budgets over $100 million. It used to be when a rule was set, every school in Division I had to follow it. Now, [those schools] set up rules for themselves in certain areas and we’re allowed to use them if we can afford too, but we’re not required to.

In the past, if an athlete on full scholarship also qualified for financial aid, we weren’t allowed to use [the financial aid] money. For [the student] to use it, we would have to take money out of their scholarship, because they could only go up to the full scholarship figure. Now, they’re allowed to go all the way up to the full cost of attendance, which is roughly $4,000-$5,000 higher than what a full scholarship used to be. So a student that comes in now with a high financial need can actually receive more money to get through school with less of a financial burden than they would have in the past.

The average person probably cannot grasp how complex, convoluted and often contradictory NCAA rules can be.

I would totally agree. I think there is a fallacy that if you’re a college athlete, you’re on a full-ride scholarship and are getting everything you need. Not the case at all. We have over 500 student athletes at Sacramento State and we have 205 scholarships that we split up between them. So they have to work jobs, take out loans, rely on mom and dad — just like other students.

Merchandising has also become a big issue because athletes aren’t seeing any revenue generated by those sales. Is there a scenario where schools can reasonably start to share some of that money with student athletes?

“We get these young men and women at a very critical time in their lives. Winning is important, but getting them to graduation, getting them across the stage and preparing them for life after college is more important in the long haul.”

Are there ways we could get more money into certain student athletes’ pockets based on [their fame] and the success they bring to a campus? I think the simple answer is yes. However, the more complex and honest answer is that you’re also going to be going down a path that’s counter to Title IX, which says we need to be providing similar opportunities and experiences for students regardless of gender, religion or cultural background. So that makes it a little more difficult. As rules are made, the NCAA will be very cognizant of the legal ramifications if we were to enact certain rules that provide advantages to some students, but not necessarily to others.

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Professional sports are all about the players whereas college sports are very coach-centric. What is more difficult for Sac State when it comes to top coaching talent: attraction or retention?

At this level, an athletic director needs to have an eye for rising talent and be a good enough recruiter to bring them in on their journey upward. Coaches and administrators are sort of hired guns. Their job is to come in and focus on what’s important for that university and do their best to leave the woodpile a little higher. Unless you’re at a Bowl Championship Series school, you’re always working with one eye toward what’s next. And so at this level, it’s about finding a talented junior college or Division II coach and giving them support so they can be successful, knowing it will ultimately parlay that coach into a new position at double the salary we can provide. But if you’re doing it right, you will also get a reputation that you’ve got a good eye for talent, so we’re going to be seen by coaches as a place that’s going to help them get wherever their ultimate goal might be.

For a long time, it was traditional in college sports for the big power teams, particularly in football, to schedule at least one smaller school every season. It was a win-win because the smaller school got the big guaranteed pay day and the big school got a fairly easy victory. But that scheduling is becoming less and less frequent. Do you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing for college sports?

I think it is a bad thing for college athletics. The NCAA basketball tournament, for example, is one of the great experiences in college athletics. And not the championship game, when Duke is playing Kentucky. That’s a cool game, but what everybody talks about is when the Cinderella schools have the big upset, when a 12th seed upsets a 5th seed. You know how much money the big school is spending per athlete versus the smaller one, and yet the small school can go out with their scrappy little team and knock off the giants. The smaller school getting that upset — like when Sacramento State upset Oregon State and Colorado in football — those are great moments for college athletics. Those opportunities going away hurt one of the really great things about college athletics.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing Sac State athletics today?

Sacramento State has not come anywhere near hitting our ceiling. From an athletic standpoint, smaller college towns are very passionate about their local school, which can help when you’re trying to develop a culture. In a larger metropolitan area, it’s a little more of a battle because there are so many other things to do. Between the NBA, NHL, MLB and the NFL, people in this region have so many places to spend their entertainment dollars; that’s always going to be a challenge for us. But it’s also an opportunity, because one out of every 20 residents of this community has at some point been at Sacramento State.

For me, the biggest challenge [is] facilities. Right or wrong, facilities have a real impact on recruiting, and some of ours need growth. President Robert Nelsen is very focused on the new science building and then a mid-sized event center that will be able to provide far more than just athletics. We’ve got the great Golden 1 Center coming to downtown and then the next biggest event center in town is really Memorial Auditorium. We need something in that 5,000-7,000 range for concerts, presidential visits, TED Talks, graduations — a myriad of things.