Like most extraordinary salesmen, Norwood Teague has a knack for the appropriate tenor and cadence of communication. When you ask him what his priorities are as the director of athletics for the University of Minnesota, his response is as organized and succinct as a PowerPoint presentation, but the bullet points are coated in the honey of his native North Carolina drawl, and appealingly scuffed by the genuine passion he brings to the endeavor.

“One, you have to set the vision for what direction you want to go. And you have to sell and articulate that vision, not just to outside stakeholders but internally as well. Secondly, you have to hire great people, especially coaches. If you do that, you’re headed in a great direction.”

Teague pauses a beat, but what comes next isn’t an afterthought. “And then you have to raise money. You have to raise money and you have to build a constituent base behind you, to help it financially.”

Hired in April 2012 to replace Joel Maturi, Teague wasted no time setting and selling his vision. His first words in his first interview after the hire, with Mike Grimm of the Gopher Radio Network, were “The sky’s the limit”—his description of the prospects of Gopher athletics. Less than two minutes later, explaining why he was such a good fit for Minnesota, he stated frankly, “I learned early on that the U really needed a fundraiser. That’s where I grew up in college athletics.”

The days are long gone when administration can be the primary duty of an athletic director at an NCAA Division I university. Today, an AD must negotiate the multibillion-dollar contradiction of motivations that comprise college sports. It is a playing field chalked out by federal gender equity laws and grade-point eligibility on one side, and the lucrative cultural mania of March Madness and the FCS football championship on the other. Meanwhile, the competitive recruitment of talented teenagers and wealthy “stakeholders” is relentless, ridiculous, and absolutely necessary, if you want to keep your job.

Make No Small Plans

On July 10, one year and 22 days after he took over, Norwood Teague appeared at the monthly meeting of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents. Nearly two hours into the agenda, Teague delivered a 15-minute presentation on the innocuous-sounding subject of the facilities assessment plan for Gopher athletics. When he was finished, Teague had mapped out the first phase of what is to become the “athletic district” on the U of M campus. It will be a comprehensive overhaul, with a physical scale and financial weight foreign to any plans his predecessors have offered in the long history of the land grant institution.

Specifically, over the next six to eight years, Teague wants to construct a new academic center and “training table” dining area for student-athletes, along with a football complex, women’s gymnastics practice facility, Olympic indoor-sport practice building, men’s and women’s basketball practice building, and wrestling training facility. Total cost is estimated at $190 million, all to be raised from private sources. That sum is more than double Teague’s 2014 operating budget of $84.5 million, and it is more than twice the size of the $86 million in private monies tapped to complete TCF Bank Stadium just five years ago.

Longtime followers of Gopher sports were shocked. On the Sunday-night dinosaur cave known as The Sports Show, hosted by WCCO’s Mike Max, local sports media oracle Sid Hartman fumed, “I think whoever advised them to ask for that kind of money made a bad mistake. It scared the boosters right away. Ask for $50 million or $60 million.” Patrick Reusse chimed in that Teague and company would “be better off going over there and trying to get the Legislature to pay for half of it, just like they did the football stadium.” Max finished: “I just don’t know who you tap.”

But Teague does not believe in half-measures, in the conservative play that carries an easily obtainable price tag. During his first year on the job, he restaffed key positions, importing people who share his aggressive optimism. He brought with him from Virginia Commonwealth University Assistant Athletic Director of Marketing Corrie Sears, who had previously worked as director of marketing at the University of Nebraska. (Many elements of the U facilities plan borrow from Nebraska’s.) Teague’s new media relations pro, Chris Werle, has been a vice president for global communications at Estée Lauder and helped launch the X-Box Games division while working for Microsoft.

Most notably, Teague hired David Benedict to be his executive associate athletic director and unofficial right-hand man, jobs Benedict held under Teague at VCU.

Benedict believes in the turbo power of positive thinking. He acknowledges there is “a healthy dose of skepticism” among the Gopher fan base, and that “some think our facilities plan is too ambitious. I don’t think it is too ambitious at all.

“Maybe it is because I am coming from an outsider’s perspective, but I look across the river at downtown and I know we have over 20 Fortune 500 companies. We have the most successful privately held company in Cargill. We are just trying to achieve the same level of success as those folks across the river, and I don’t see why we and our fan base shouldn’t expect that level of achievement. What is different about the university than Cargill or Best Buy or Target or General Mills?”

Benedict hammers home the pep talk with a particularly bold claim. “Frankly, I don’t think there is another Big 10 school that has the community in its backyard that we do. Therefore, I’m not sure why any other Big 10 institution can achieve more than we can.”

Behind the Numbers

Current reality presents a formidable rebuttal to Benedict. The funding and construction of TCF Bank Stadium was a magnificent achievement for the Gopher program—the first college football facility that seats at least 50,000 completed in more than 50 years in this country. But that’s still less than half the capacity of the home stadiums used by Big 10 rivals at Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State.

Yes, the Twin Cities possess a vibrant array of corporations unmatched in the environs of any other Big 10 school, with the likely exception of Northwestern, near Chicago. But a bustling metropolis also means more places for donors to spend their money. A Gopher game in one of the three major revenue-producing sports (football, men’s basketball, and men’s hockey) may not even be the lead item on the local sports page. Contrast that to Ohio State; according to U of M athletic department Chief Financial Officer Tom McGinnis, who worked there for many years, “you don’t schedule anything against an Ohio State football game, whether they are at home or on the road. You don’t get married, you don’t do anything. And when Ohio State plays at home, the people in that stadium would make the fifth-largest city in the state.”

This disparity goes straight to the bottom line. Ohio State has the largest 2013 athletic budget in the Big 10, at $142 million, compared to Minnesota, which is slightly below the middle tier, at $84.5 million. Part of that is because Ohio State carries 36 sports programs, the most of any athletic department in the Big 10, while Minnesota is tied for fourth, with 25. But the success of sports at Ohio State generates enough income that the athletic department helps fund other areas of the university, a rarity among colleges nationwide. The situation in Minnesota, where the central administration will allocate approximately $7 million dollars to athletics in 2014, is far more common.

Teague’s critics believe a grandiose, marketing-driven approach is discordant with the state’s heartland modesty, if not the shibboleth of passive-aggressive “Minnesota Nice.” But even if they are accurate, the prevailing trends in Division I college athletics are not going to be curbed by steadfast adherence to a parochial culture. Across the country, as university athletic departments vie for streams of money from media outlets, sponsorships, seating licenses, and other booster-oriented revenues, they have to employ more corporate methods to succeed. This is especially true in the Big 10, where Commissioner Jim Delany has put the conference ahead of the curve, establishing its own television network and successfully courting new member schools based on the size of their media markets rather than their location.

For the most part, the conference is sharing this newfound largesse equally among its members. The assumption is that less-successful member schools will leverage the money to beef up their programs and improve the overall caliber of athletic competition.

Consequently, the challenge facing the Teague regime is not whether his approach is culturally appropriate for Minnesota; it is whether he can cajole and otherwise bend the prevailing culture enough to help the Gophers keep pace in this high-powered environment.

Like what you just read? To receive business news directly in your inbox each Tuesday and Thursday, sign up for our free e-newsletter, Briefcase, and be sure to join the conversation by commenting below.

comments powered by Disqus