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Thinking back, looking ahead: Joel Maturi

Thinking back, looking ahead: Joel Maturi

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Photo by: JERRY E LEE
  Joel Maturi, Minnesota’s athletic director since 2002, announced his retirement earlier this month after more than 40 years in college administration and high school teaching and coaching. During his decade with the Gophers, Maturi combined the separate men’s and women’s programs into a unified athletics department, managed the construction of TCF Bank Stadium to bring football back on campus after years of playing in the Metrodome, and oversaw an annual budget of nearly $80 million. The Notre Dame graduate, who will stay on for another
year during the transition to a new AD, recently reflected on his profession with SportsBusiness Journal staff writer Michael Smith.


Why is now the right time to retire?
Maturi: We have a new president. I had been offered an extension by our previous president, who I had a great relationship with for the past 9 1/2 years, but he announced he was stepping down last academic year. I’m not trying to imply that I’m more righteous than anyone else, but I knew I’d be 67 at the conclusion of my contract and that we’d have a new president coming in. I wasn’t convinced that he would necessarily want me on his leadership team, whoever the new president would be. Once President [Eric] Kaler was hired, we met and discussed the situation. I told him that if I stayed, it’d only be one year, two years. That being the case, he needs to go ahead and get his person in place and he was gracious enough to allow me to be part of that transition.

Looking ahead, you’ll be a special assistant to President Kaler. What do you want to accomplish in the next year?
Maturi marked the football stadium naming-rights deal with TCF Bank CEO William Cooper (center) and former university President Robert Bruininks in 2005.
Photo by: PATRICK O'LEARY
Maturi:
It depends greatly on what the president wants, and I’ll also be very sensitive to the new AD, but I’ll be here to assist any way I can. I have relationships with donors, and that’ll be a major part of my obligation as we look to raise significant dollars. … I think the president wants me to do some research on our challenges here at Minnesota and what to do to fix them. We’re a major institution on an urban campus and we face some unique challenges. We need to evaluate what that means.

What kind of shape do you leave the budget? (At $78.6 million, Minnesota’s 2012 budget ranks seventh out of 12 schools in the Big Ten.)?
Maturi: We’re in the black, but we have no money in the bank. We spend every dime we have. We’re not in the red, but we have no reserve and we have more that needs to be addressed. We’re OK financially. When I came aboard, there was a projected $31 million deficit over the next seven years, and we do not have a deficit. I’m proud of that, but we don’t have the reserves in place, either.

Many ADs talk about the changing nature of the job. Where is this job headed?
Maturi: That’s a really good question. I would hope anybody who gets into this business continues to operate as an administrator at an academic institution, that they have young people in mind first and foremost. No one is naïve about the business model and the need to raise money and develop the brand and sell tickets, but I hope we don’t lose sight of why intercollegiate athletics were created on campus. It’s becoming much, much harder to keep that in mind. The arms race is real, mostly in football, but also basketball. Most would love to maintain a broad-based athletic program, but it’s difficult when you’re doing all you can to support the engine — those revenue sports, football and basketball — with resources to be nationally competitive. I hope all of that doesn’t come at the expense of the Olympic sports.

Photo by: UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA
There are times when you have seemed discouraged, right?

Maturi: When I got in the business, it truly was about the student athlete, and athletics being an extension of the academic mission. Athletics began as a way to provide opportunities to engage the campus and the community and bring recognition to the institution. That’s all still valid, but the business component of the two big sports has changed that. It makes it awfully difficult. … I don’t begrudge the million-dollar coaches, but it’s just not healthy for the overall enterprise. It
lends to the criticism that comes from athletes not being paid, when we admit students that are academically challenged and sometimes act certain ways off the court or field that don’t reflect well on the institution. It’s all fueled by this tremendous financial engine that’s very real.

What's one decision you're most proud of?
Maturi: Most ask if I’m proudest of the merger (of men’s and women’s athletics into one department), bringing football back on campus,
Maturi says anyone who gets into the business of college athletics administration should keep young people in mind “first and foremost.” “I hope we don’t lose sight of why intercollegiate athletics were created on campus,” he says.
Photos by: CHRISTOPHER MITCHELL
running a balanced budget, no major violations. But what I’m most proud of is that we developed a culture here that constantly reminds to do everything to make sure student athletes leave with a degree and a positive experience. I think I’m most proud of that. Don’t get me wrong: I want to win like everybody, but I believe you win with happy student athletes, happy coaches and happy staff.

What's one decision you'd like to have over again?
Maturi: Well, there’s probably more than one, but it usually relates to personnel. Some coaches are more successful than others, and that’s the reality of the job.

Where to the pressures come from?
Maturi: You have to stay the course because there is such an immediacy to everything you do and it’s very demanding. Everybody is looking for that quick fix, and that’s usually not what’s best for your program in the long term.

Lastly, you’ll be remembered as much as anything for getting TCF Bank Stadium built and bringing football back to an on-campus facility. Fair?
Maturi: I think so. It’s had such a huge impact and there are so many benefits to the stadium. We have 250 events in the club rooms; we have weddings, banquets, business meetings, a multitude of events. The university and the community use the facility for a significant number of events. There’s meaning behind that, the way the stadium brings everyone together on campus.