New Miami U. AD Sayler: The man and his vision

Oxford is the ninth collegiate job stop for the 43-year-old Sayler, and maybe his last.

“It’s always been a school that I feel I have a shared value system with,” he said. “Miami was always one of those schools that I’ve had circled. If I ever had the chance to make a run at this one, I was going to do it.

“You can see by my resume that I’ve lived in a lot of places, and without a doubt the place my wife and I have always talked about wanting to raise our kids is the Midwest. To us, it’s just the most down-to-earth, wholesome folks, and that’s what we wanted to be around.”

Sayler is filling the shoes left vacant by Brad Bates, who departed for Boston College after a decade as Miami’s AD, and the new boss knows there’s much work to be done.

So be it. In less than a month on the job, he’s rolled up his sleeves and jumped into the red-and-white fray. His primary mission is twofold: Generate more revenue for the athletic department while creating and implementing a plan to improve facilities.

“Some dirt’s going to be moved around, and I look forward to that,” Sayler said. “I think our donors are clamoring for it, and we need to get after it and stop finding reasons why we can’t do things. Whatever it takes for me to see the right people and get the right things done, we’re going to make it happen.”

He recently sat down for a lengthy interview with Cox Media and covered a wide spectrum of topics, starting with his pre-Miami history.

Question: How did you get started in the business?

Answer: I always knew that sports was something I wanted to do. I just wasn’t sure what angle to take. I went through the normal progression of every kid. I wanted to be a player, then I wanted to be an announcer, then I wanted to be a sports agent. I majored in accounting at Ohio Wesleyan and worked a couple years in the private sector, but I was searching for something. The more I talked to people in the business, they said, ‘You’ve got to get a master’s degree.’ So I went to (Connecticut) to get a master’s in sports administration. I volunteered in the marketing office and met kind of my second father Scott Zuffelato, and he got me going. We had Ray Allen and Rebecca Lobo. Our basketball teams were ranked No. 1 in the country at the same time. It was a great time to be at UConn, and I got caught up in it. I loved the atmosphere, I loved the energy, and that’s really where I found my passion for college athletics.

Q: So you basically started from scratch in the business?

A: I didn’t have any in-roads getting started. Everything I’ve done in this business has just been through hard work and networking and working with good people. I have a stack of rejection letters from professional sports teams. I was just trying to get in on the bottom floor with somebody and was having no luck whatsoever. That’s when someone pointed me to grad school. That’s what really set me on my track. My bosses kept telling me how valuable my accounting background was going to be. I didn’t necessarily believe that. Now coming full circle, I think my business background has really helped me. At Bowling Green, Paul Krebs was my first real influence on wanting to become an athletic director. That’s when I found the connection to the student-athlete. It’s where I got the bug to be an AD. My boss at Rice, Chris Del Conte, was also a great mentor to me.

Q: You spent the last 2½ years as the athletic director at South Dakota. How did you end up there?

A: When Chris left for TCU, it was basically South Dakota or go to TCU and continue to work for Chris. He agreed it was time for me to kind of do my own thing. My mentors in this business told me two things: Go somewhere where people care, and go somewhere where you work for the right president. Those are the only two things that mattered, and you notice location isn’t one of those. I actually interviewed for the job at South Dakota in Chicago at a hotel right next to O’Hare (International Airport). He offered me the job that night and I took it, and I had never even been to South Dakota. I took the job because I believed in him, and I knew people cared about the University of South Dakota. It was a great place to start my career as an athletic director.

Q: South Dakota transitioned from Division II to Division I during your tenure. What was that process like?

A: It was great because we were doing things from soup to nuts as far as really putting things in place. The NCAA comes in and does a reclassification process. They look at every piece of your operation and make sure it’s up to the standards of a Division I athletic program, and it gave me and my staff a great chance to really vette through everything that we were putting together. We passed with flying colors, and everything went as smoothly as it could possibly go.

Q: What were some of your accomplishments at South Dakota?

A: Raising money and getting facilities done were important to us, and my president gave me some freedom to do those things. We put in football turf, a new basketball court, new seating in our football dome that we played in. The big gift was obviously towards a new arena.

Q: That was a $20 million private gift, the largest in South Dakota athletic history. How did you make that happen?

A: It came from Sanford Health, a health-care system in the Dakotas. When I got to South Dakota, just like at Miami, I tried to get out and meet people and meet the influential folks. That gift started on the back of a napkin with the CEO of Sanford Health, Kelby Krabbenhoft. We kind of talked about shared vision and shared philosophies. You draw it on the back of a napkin, and the next thing you know I’m showing him blueprints. He’s really been an inspiration to me. He would send me notes telling me to keep fighting, to not let anybody tell me it won’t happen. It’s not often you find someone that has that kind of capacity and belief.

Q: How were your efforts received by the public in South Dakota?

A: The people in South Dakota are fantastic people, but the phrase I use is, they’re pathologically modest. The ones that have resources, you’ll never know it because they’re very simple and not showy. You have to kind of work with them on embracing success. Some of the fundraising success we had came when people said, ‘Why should we give this money? Our coaches are going to get good and they’re going to leave.’ My point was, that’s OK. It’s better than just kind of miring along never really aspiring for great things. Look at Xavier basketball. They’ve had great coaches come and go, but now they have a system in place. Boise State football, Gonzaga basketball, same thing.

Q: What is your vision here at Miami?

A: With our facilities and the state of where we are financially, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be competing for championships in every sport, at least in the top quarter of the (Mid-American Conference). I’ve been at every MAC place, I’ve seen all the facilities, I know their admission standards and everything else, and we’re as good as anybody. The kids are here to have a great experience and go to a great university with an awesome reputation. I love the ‘Love and Honor’ concept. Every staff meeting we have, we’re going to bring in two or three student-athletes and have them start the meeting out by telling us why they chose Miami, what they’re doing and what they plan to do when they graduate. Our whole staff needs to be reminded who we’re here for. I think that’s a powerful message at the beginning of each staff meeting.

Q: What is your philosophy on fundraising?

A: In this day and age, if you’re not in capital campaign mode every day, you’re falling behind. That’s just the reality of the business we’re in. One of the things that was very clear to me in the interview process was that there were a lot of projects floating around at Miami, but not a lot of clarity as to which ones were most important. We oftentimes had donors dictate what they wanted to talk about and coaches had various things they wanted to talk about, but some of those things come and go. We’re setting up a facility master plan here at Miami that we’re going to sell to donors, and it’s going to be from this office. It’s not going to change every year based on the whims of this and that. You have to have a very clear direction and vision, and I don’t know that Miami’s always had that. You have to be able to make the connection with a donor as to why it’s important that this gets done and what it’s going to do for the athletic program and the university in general. When you can make those connections, that’s when you’ve got something special.

Q: Can you talk about the facility master plan?

A: We’ve brought in three architects that I’m getting quotes from already for the master plan, and that’s something we’re going to be going through this spring. I can’t tell you today for sure what’s on that list, but it’s going to be a list of seven to eight projects that we’re going to target and try to get done. We’ll make some choices, then we’ll start the process of sitting down with those architects and vetting through that list and coming up with estimates. They’ll do the drawings for us, and then we go out and sell the vision.

Q: What is your priority?

A: The priorities to me are mainly the buildings we don’t currently have. I’ve spent a lot of time renovating and retrofitting buildings, and the tricky part there is that you end up spending three-fourths of your money on things nobody even sees, whether it’s the plumbing, asbestos, the pipes. There’s definitely buildings we need here at Miami that we do not have. We’re looking at an indoor practice facility and an end-zone facility at Yager Stadium. Locker rooms, training room, coaches offices, meeting rooms for athletes, something they’ll live in every day. We’re looking to have eight suites (there’s currently two) and add some loge seating at Yager Stadium, and also move the press box up a level. Not only to bring a little more modern amenity type of situation into Yager, but also to improve our annual fundraising.

Q: Are you contemplating a bubble practice facility?

A: I’m not a big bubble fan. I think if you know what you want to do, then go do it. Bubbles to me speak of temporary, and I want something more permanent. One thing we will consider is putting a bubble over some tennis counts here on campus during the winter so that not just our team here at Miami can use them, but also our faculty, staff and students would be able to use it as kind of a rec center. We need to try to do some things for the basketball student-athletes. We’ve got to do some things to their area to make it better for them because right now it’s not adequate for Division I. And there are some things we’d like to finish in our hockey arena, things like a weight room and a meeting room for recruits.

Q: Millett Hall is by far the most complained-about athletic venue on campus. Not just because of its age (it opened on Dec. 2, 1968), but because of the atmosphere created by the seats being so far away from the court. What are the plans for Millett?

A: Those have to be planned out in accordance with what our long-term plan for Millett is. I’m getting information about the building from the architects on campus and the expected life cycle of the building. I’m not going to pour a lot of money into it if it’s something that we think is going to be replaced five years from now. If it’s 12 years from now, then we need to make some decisions about things in the short term to get us through those years. Millett will have some piece of our master plan. I can’t tell you how much at this point because I don’t know. But I honestly don’t envision a new arena anytime soon.

Q: How important do you consider football to be at Miami?

A: Realignment is a crazy thing in our business. Clearly football is a driver, and we have got to make a statement that football is important here. Yager Stadium, for the nice venue that it is, the bowels of it are not in my mind adequate for what we need to accomplish with our football program. So we’ve got to make some kind of investment in football here.

Q: The MAC seems to be a very stable conference. Do you foresee any changes in the MAC or Miami’s commitment to it?

A: When you look at the new football playoff model, the MAC has every bit as much access to it as the Big East, Conference USA, Mountain West or the Sun Belt. I think of those five, we’re probably the strongest-knit group. I’m just not a believer in sending your volleyball team across two time zones. I don’t think those kind of conferences make any sense for your student-athletes’ well-being just so you can play football with somebody. Ultimately, once the big super conferences do whatever they’re going to do, I think you’re going to see regionalization with the rest of us just because it makes the most sense. It’s the best thing for the student-athletes, and that’s really what we’re in this business for.

Q: The MAC seems far more likely to expand than to break into pieces.

A: I would definitely agree with that, and I think the MAC would be just fine staying where it is. There’s this rush to add teams, and I think some of the leagues that have rushed to add teams now kind of regret it. The MAC has been very patient, very deliberate, and I think they’ve taken a very good course.

Q: Miami’s athletic budget is a little over $23 million. How much of that comes from the university?

A: I believe it’s somewhere in the range of $15 to $16 million. In the reality of college athletics today, there’s only about eight or nine schools that are truly self-sufficient. Realistically, I certainly hope that we can get our split to around 50-50. We need to increase revenue and grow the pie. That means ticket sales, annual fund dollars, broadcasting marketing rights, things like that. I think we can do a lot more with hockey because we don’t have any competition locally. It’s something at the college level that we could really market and hopefully get some kind of television deal and grow the pie that way. The big chunk of our budget is scholarships and salaries. The other stuff — the marketing, the facility improvements — those are actually pretty small numbers when you get down to them. That’s where your fundraising has got to be the difference. Your fundraising has got to be kind of icing on the cake. We’ve done some fundraising here in the past to help pay coaches’ salaries, and that is never going to happen under my watch. I’d rather ask a donor to give us the money to help us improve the program and put that icing on the cake and really make it special.

Q: When you talk about raising money and attracting more fans, winning plays a huge role in that.

A: No doubt about it, you need to win. If you’re not winning, people aren’t coming, especially at this level. We need to pride ourselves on being a family-value entertainment option and combine that approach with a winning program, and then you’ve got something really special. We have to make a better push, especially in the ticketed sports, as far as winning some games.

Q: Football and men’s basketball are the two marquee programs, and both have struggled in recent years. As you emphasize the need to win, would shorter coaching contracts be part of that emphasis?

A: I think the days of coming in and having a five-year plan are changing. You’re seeing coaches come and go now within two years. At South Dakota, everyone was on one-year contracts, me included, and that was actually a little simpler in terms of dealing with buyouts and those kinds of things. I think you’re definitely going to see a push towards shorter contracts or longer contracts with more flexibility to make changes. I think all of our coaches are working really hard, I don’t doubt that for one second. We as a school need to think about what resources we can give them to help them be successful, and let’s be on a united front and go after it.

Q: You’ve been to several men’s basketball games since arriving on campus, and the average attendance is around 1,300. That has to be troubling to you.

A: It is, and the age demographic is a little troubling for me too. I want to see more families, more young kids. I want to see more folks in the 20-to-35 age group because they’re the next generation of fan.

Q: Miami’s rural location is one problem that you can’t do anything about. How do you approach a problem like that?

A: From a recruiting standpoint, I’d rather be sitting where we’re sitting than in an urban setting. We’ve got a great college campus to recruit to and a wonderful town that’s safe, where parents can send their kids and feel good about it. That sets us up better to win. And if you win, even if you’re in that more remote location, people are more apt to drive to see you. When you’re not winning, the location issue becomes a bigger deal. We need to play to the strengths of the setting.

Q: There’s been lots of talk in recent years about some of Miami’s local rivalries disappearing. What’s your view on the subject?

A: I am disappointed to hear that some of the basketball stuff is getting pulled back a little bit between Miami and Dayton and Xavier and Cincinnati. I used to love watching those four schools duke it out when I was in high school in Dayton. Those are games we need to be playing for our fans, for their fans, for this region. When you have to start playing schools that no one’s heard of, that’s not good for anybody around here. I actually wish there would be a sponsorship available somehow where all the schools could play in basketball and have an annual competition to play for a Miami Valley trophy. I’d love to do something like that.

Q: You’ve already been out talking to a lot of potential donors. What’s been the reaction?

A: I think people are very glad to hear about a vision and a direction for this program, and I’m promising that, so I have to deliver. Brad Bates did a phenomenal job here. I don’t take lightly following Eric Hyman, Joel Maturi and Brad Bates here. Those are three stalwarts in the business. Nothing here is broken. That’s the beauty of it. It just needs a little love, a little different approach. That ownership and belief in achieving something I think has got people curious and feeling pretty positive about where we’re going. This really is a business at the end of the day. We still have got to come in and try to lessen that load on the university.

Q: In a nutshell, what’s your message to Miami fans?

A: We’re coming to see you and we’re coming to build something and we’re coming to get things done and win competitions here. We’re going to graduate kids from here, they’re going to have good experiences, they’re going to get great jobs from here, and they’re going to go on and lead productive lives. When you go out and talk to donors, the ones that are usually the most passionate are the ones that played a varsity sport and really have that blood, sweat and tears into something. That’s why I love going out to fundraise in this business. You’ve got a captive audience and people that really care, and they just want to know that you care and that you’re going to match the effect that they put in to help make the place better. I know the commitment is there from President (David) Hodge and the Board of Trustees, so I’m excited to get everyone on the same page once and for all and say, ‘This is Miami. This is who we are.’