On ESPN.com: Blake James Has Vision as UM AD
CORAL GABLES, Fla. – The negativity began creeping in slowly, then in great waves, once the NCAA ruled and reality settled in like stifling summer smog all around.
Miami would never be back, not with these sanctions.
It was 1995. Blake James worked in the University of Miami ticket office. He wanted to plug his ears and shut his eyes to the negativity, to stop listening to the doubters. But he was new to the South Florida area, new to the program. Did these naysayers know something he did not? Could they tell him what would happen, even though they did not put in hours working inside the Miami athletic department the way he did, watching former coach Butch Davis, his assistants, athletic director Paul Dee, the players and support personnel?
James wanted to believe in Miami.
James had always believed in Miami. Growing up in Minnesota in the 1980s, he watched the most dominant program in America swagger its way to national championships. The U became a brand recognizable from Miami to Mankato to Malibu. James bought in and decided to go to graduate school at St. Thomas University in South Florida, hoping to begin his career at the U.
So he believed.
Six years after the NCAA stripped away 31 scholarships — dropping what many believed to be catastrophic sanctions — Miami won its fifth national championship with arguably the greatest college football team ever assembled.
James saw firsthand the power Miami holds. It is why he wanted the Miami athletic director job permanently after being named interim AD in October, in the middle of an NCAA investigation that has lasted more than two years and turned into an embarrassment for the governing body.
Not one of his friends asked him why he wanted a job filled with perils found nowhere else, a job that is perhaps the most challenging in America considering the pressure to win football championships, the often tough-to-read and hard-to-sell community, the smaller donor base and the NCAA cloud still hovering ominously overhead.
You have to love Miami to really be in charge at Miami. That much has been made clear over the past three years, with two athletic directors gone before ever settling in. James, however, plans on staying, plans on seeing Miami hoist another crystal ball. The NCAA investigation presents a challenge. But James counters that every job has its challenges.
He knows what Miami is and what Miami can be, regardless of what comes out of the meeting with the Committee on Infractions this weekend, regardless of the ultimate penalties handed down. Miami needs clarity before it can truly move forward.
James, however, already sees the future clearly.
“We’ll be back,” he says. “I remember reading comments that Miami would never be back. Then you look at 2001. … We have the right coach in place. We have a talent pool in this area that is stronger than any pool in the country. When I look at where our institution is nationally, when I look at the fact that we’re a small private school, and I’ll argue in the greatest city in the country, we’ll be back. I’m confident in that.”
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It’s a good thing James is confident, because a steady hand is desperately needed. Football coach Al Golden believes James provides that steady hand, describing him as “assertive, decisive, straightforward and trustworthy.”
Golden should know. He is on his fourth athletic director since being hired in December 2010.
Kirby Hocutt led that introductory news conference. Three months later, Hocutt left for Texas Tech. Interim athletic director Tony Hernandez held the job for two months before Shawn Eichorst was hired. But Eichorst was a short-timer too, lasting 18 months before moving on to Nebraska.
“It can get to a point where it feels like 50 first dates, you know?” Golden says.
With James, though, everything was different. The two worked together while James was involved in development and ticket operations. It was apparent James had a passion for the Canes; he left his job as Maine athletic director in 2010 to take an associate AD job at Miami. With that passion came a real understanding of the program and the community that made him a no-brainer to not just become interim AD but permanent AD.
What’s more, he had relationships with people. Real relationships. The job of an athletic director is all about relationships, building them and maintaining them. Duke athletic director Kevin White, a longtime friend of James, relates one exercise he and several colleagues did during a think tank several years ago.
The goal was to discuss how many people they must build and maintain relationships with, be they coaches, parents, athletes or boosters. When they got to 42, they stopped counting.
“There’s a crazy number of constituency groups that we need to relate to and communicate with, and to be able to do that is really important. But I would say to sustain those relationships once they’ve been created is even more important and, quite frankly, more artful,” White says. “Blake appears to have the ability to not only create a relationship but, more importantly, to sustain one.”
James’ three stints in the Miami athletic department and his various roles there give him added background. Modern athletic directors need to find ways to keep augmenting revenue streams. James has worked in ticketing, marketing, retail operations and as the director of major gifts and corporate sales.
Given all the changes Miami has endured at the top spot, James’ ability to sustain long-term relationships becomes even more critical and theoretically should allow him to overcome the challenges he faces in scratching the various messages that have been delivered by previous administrations.
“The great benefit that I will bring to this position is, as the years go and I’m here, the relationships that you build with the donors, the continued commitment to a certain vision,” James says. “Call it for what it is. Different people are going to have different views on what’s the No. 1 priority and what do we want to do and all those things. When you’re getting all the different messages out there to your donor base, you don’t capitalize to the level that I think you probably could.”
Coaches have gotten different messages too. Golden says he has done four times the amount of work because of the instability. Decisions have been made, undone and remade. Philosophies have changed. Priorities have changed. All the while, frustrations have grown. Golden has enough to do with his football team. He should not have to worry about an issue that cannot be resolved because of disjointed leadership.
“Blake hears my frustration on a topic, and it’s not because he’s not attending to it. It’s because I’ve already attended to it three times,” Golden says. “But that’s in the past. I’m so excited about his leadership and the direction he has us going, and I know I speak for all my colleagues when I say that. It’s incredibly refreshing to find somebody that wants to dig in, that has roots here, that wants to be part of this.”
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So what makes James the right person to lead Miami into an uncertain future? Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork, who has known James for 16 years, relates a story about the first time they met.
Bjork was at Missouri at the time, James at Nebraska. James was tasked with putting on a summer development conference for Big 12 schools. His boss demanded a lot of James and his entire staff. Yet with all that pressure, Bjork never once saw James flinch.
“I’ve never seen Blake get upset. I’ve never seen Blake get rattled,” Bjork says. “To me, there’s no one better suited to be in that role at Miami. He’s seen it from all different levels. That puts him on a path where he understands the challenges but he also understands the upside of the program. That’s what’s great about Blake’s perspective. He’s seen it through all aspects.”
The challenges at Miami are many and all work in concert, exacerbating each other positively and negatively. The Hurricanes need to produce a winner to live up to their outsized standards and attract crowds to Sun Life Stadium. James knows this. He knows what Miami is — a finicky professional sports town that generally supports winners. The Miami Heat sell out. The Miami Dolphins do not.
Miami has not produced a winner lately. And looming sanctions could lead to more downtimes, which could lead to fewer fans at games, which could lead to more apathy than there is now. In 1997, when Miami was at its lowest point following the sanctions delivered under Davis, Miami averaged 28,916 fans at the Orange Bowl. The Hurricanes went 5-6 that year. In 2002, the year Miami went undefeated in the regular season and played for a national championship, attendance shot up to 69,539.
The Canes have won five national titles but none in 12 years — their longest drought between championships.
“Ultimately, my job is to give our coaches the support, direction and structure they need to be successful, and to be successful they need to win,” James says. “And so, yeah, there’s a lot of pressure for me. No one feels more pressure in football than Al does, but at the same time, that’s tremendous pressure and then I have 16 other sports, too, that I’m feeling the pressure on that we want to be successful in.”
And that’s pressure that comes without having all the facts.
James, Golden and the Miami administration have not commented on the NCAA investigation or the coming COI meeting, but it is clear the program has taken a hit as the investigation has dragged on, and so has the perception surrounding Miami.
Outsiders have always seemed to have a love/hate relationship with the program, dating to the infamous fatigues sequence before the 1987 Fiesta Bowl. Miami is about to be hit with major sanctions for the second time in an 18-year span, fostering the negative perception that this is a renegade program that has not learned how to play by the rules.
How to restore Miami’s image, or clean it up even? James is unconcerned. Yet there is a delicate balancing act that exists because Miami is not just a local program in a small college town. Miami is a national program with a national audience. That brand James fell in love with? Miami must continue to cultivate it, despite its recent failings.
“Those that are closer to the program perceive this as a time that we are dealing with a number of challenges but have a great opportunity and a great group of coaches and see this program on the rise,” James says. “I don’t know if that has reverberated around the country.”
What has reverberated is the NCAA scandal. James and Miami have no idea what to expect from the NCAA, nor can they truly prepare for the challenges they will face until they know where they stand. North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham has an idea. He took the UNC job in 2011 knowing the athletic department was going to be hit with sanctions.
Cunningham and James have visited informally on several occasions about the road ahead at Miami, including once in Coral Gables when Cunningham was in town for a women’s basketball game. The best piece of advice he can give?
“It’s probably just a reminder about what’s important,” Cunningham says. “It’s important to provide a great experience to the students. It’s important to operate with integrity and to be open to doing things better, whatever that means at that institution.”
James vows to see Miami through this biggest challenge of all. He convinced everyone around him just how much he means that when he raised his hand and said, “Pick me for this job.”
“He embraced what was going to come along with the position and yet still wanted to be out in front of that, knowing full well the hills that creates to climb,” Golden says. “The love for the University of Miami, the coaches, the student-athletes and living in South Florida clearly eclipsed anything that we’re presented with from an NCAA infractions standpoint.”
James has impressed those around him in his nine months on the job. Opening impressions, though, do not build a legacy. Restoring tradition in the face of adversity does. His true test, and what he ultimately will be judged on, is whether he truly can bring Miami back.