Q & A with Tom O’Connor, Director of Athletics
Posted: December 4, 2003 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am
Editor’s note: This weekly question-and-answer column with George Mason administrators appears every Thursday in the Daily Gazette.
Can you give me a brief overview of the Intercollegiate Athletics Department and everything you oversee?
My responsibilities include oversight of the entire Athletic Department, including the academics, marketing, promotions, fund-raising, life skills, community service, and obviously the intercollegiate teams. The Athletic Department also includes all of the athletic facilities and buildings, so it’s an encompassing position that touches a lot of areas throughout the campus. I am also involved with organizations outside of the university, such as the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
What are some of the most important issues your office is dealing with right now?
The issue that always has to be first and foremost is the health, safety, and welfare of the student-athletes, and that includes their academic progress, which is the reason they are attending George Mason. The learning situations inside and outside of the classroom are paramount for us. The second agenda item we have is marketing and promotions, not only from the standpoint of getting people in our facilities to watch our games, but to turn it into a sense of community and a sense of pride for the university. There are many resident students on campus that we want to be able to identify to get involved in their community, and we want the commuter students to feel like they have a place to go and rally around something positive about the university. If we can fill the stands and bring more students in, it will give us a large home-court or home-field advantage.
What are some of the new marketing strategies you have used over the past couple of years?
In the past couple of years we have been doing our best to get the slight fan to become the casual fan, and the casual fan to become the loyal fan. A marketing and promotional campaign has been developing in recent years to change some of the culture issues that Mason has and to identify why people do come to the games, and more importantly, why they do not attend. The Athletic Department is working to target some of our messages toward medium, which may be anything from better signs on campus, giveaways at games, promoting the games in a different fashion, to simply working with the media in a different way. In addition, the Athletic Department has a marketing program and a promotional kit that we use to target in two different ways: toward the older community outside of college and to the students. A huge emphasis for the Athletic Department is to draw students to our athletic contests, which includes the promotions that we do geared toward the student to make them say, “Hey, I’m having a good time, and I want to come back.”
Is George Mason Title IX compliant, and how big of an issue is that right now?
Yes, George Mason is compliant, and Title IX is not an issue with us because there has been a commitment at the highest level at this university and the Board of Visitors to do the correct thing. Mason has never had to look at Title IX as a problem. The university feels very strongly that there is an equal opportunity to participate for all of our student-athletes and also an opportunity for them to succeed. Everything from the budget to facilities is run in a fair way because we have a philosophical commitment to that and support from the highest level.
What are some of the major changes you have seen in the Athletics Department since you came to the university 10 years ago?
The physical changes with our buildings are probably the most obvious, including the Aquatic and Fitness Center, renovations to the Field House, new coaches’ offices, a new academic resource center, the P.E. Building renovation, lights on the soccer field, and upgrades to all of our fields. Our baseball and soccer fields are rated top in the country.
In addition, we have also made some infrastructure changes in the Athletic Department. By doing that, we have been able to hire some talented people and mesh them with people who have worked in the department for many years. It is a good feeling to come into this office every day and feel like there are people on the same page in that they want quality and balance in their respective programs.
What initiatives are you working on for the future?
The Athletic Department is working hard at maintaining what we have and making sure that it is ahead of the curve, whether it be on or off the field. We always take a look at what our programs are and what they need, and improvement is always a priority, whether it is technological advances that are pertinent to our entire programs or our programmatic needs. If there is something out there in the future that is going to help the university as a whole and will add to university life, and add to the Athletic Department within the context of the CAA and NCAA, we will take a look at that.
The Athletic Department’s main focus right now is to improve in everything we do and be the frontrunner in the CAA and NCAA. We want to be on the cutting edge with some of the administrative things we do with our teams. The easiest thing to do when you have success is to rest on your laurels; the toughest thing to do is continue to get better, and we are good across the board, which has a lot to do with our coaches and athletes. We do not want to maintain a comfort zone; we always want to be ahead of the next person on and off the court. I use the words quality and balance frequently, and that is what George Mason is continually working on.
As part of the visual identity project under way now, is the Athletic Department going to change its logo?
We have met with the company working on the university project and expressed our need for an identity change and a marketing change. We asked them to take a look at the department’s entire program, which includes our logo, message, taglines, and mascot. The only thing we asked them not to change were the colors and the nickname. The Athletic Department does not want to be separate from the rest of the university; we also want to mesh with its new visual identity. We know we are a little bit separate because of our logos that have a different message, and the mascots are more marketing oriented than the rest of the university, but we feel it is necessary to have the same look and image baseline.
Do you think George Mason will ever have a Division IAA football team?
I think we have to continue to look at whether or not it is going to happen. My feelings are that it is more of a financial issue. I played, coached, and administered football, so it’s not an issue of not liking football. I think football can add to the excitement of a community on a campus. If we are ever going to add football, we should fund it at the highest level so it goes hand-in-hand with what I have been saying about quality and balance. If we fund the sport at the highest level commensurate with James Madison University, the College of William and Mary, and the University of Delaware, then it becomes a financial issue. Then you have to look at what the priorities are for the institution and the Athletic Department.
We need to look at all of the aspects of adding football from the student activities angle, how it fits into the family, and how it fits in financially. If you take football by itself and you played at the IAA scholarship level–that is really the level the university should shoot for because it would go hand-in-hand with our sister schools–then it would probably be a $2 million a year budget. In essence, there are five or six home games. Is that what the university wants–to spend $2 million for five or six days? I am not saying that in a negative way, just putting it out there for people to put it into context.
There is also the other sense of community and the buildup during the week that you get the residual effect of, but strictly from a dollars and cents ledger, it becomes that issue. That does not include facility upgrades, some infrastructure upgrades, and the Title IX issue–which would then become an issue. When adding football, there has to be interest and sustained interest. Any time you put something into a program or a new product on the market, everybody runs to that. The Athletic Department has to make sure that if we make that great leap that we do the proper studies to ensure that it’s not just a one-time quick market sell.
Have the budget cuts over the last few years affected the Athletic Department?
Sure, we have been affected by some of the cuts and we have rearranged our budget, but we are also appreciative of what we have and that we are part of the university. We are not on an island by ourselves and need to be part of the budget cuts as much as other departments because we don’t want to be left as that island. In some cases, we even reorganized our budget so we were able to give back some money to the university. If it takes a couple of years to get back to the original figures, that is fine because we want to be part of the university completely.
Is there a way to gauge George Mason’s success in all sports in the CAA or NCAA?
There is nothing in the CAA, but there is the Sears Cup that comes out every year and we have fluctuated, but at one point we were the best IAAA athletic program in the country. We are always near the top of the standings, but I like to think we are measured by reality and perception. Reality is that there are measurable benchmarks, but then there are other perceptions that we raise the level of what we are doing. We are very well respected in the CAA and NCAA.
What is interesting to me is that after all is said and done and you go through the wins and losses, the best benchmark of the success of our athletic program is the graduation of our student-athletes. The Athletic Department has an excellent alumni base that is constantly making contributions to society.