What is the most important factor to the success of your athletic department?
Ask that question to a thousand people in a thousand programs, and the responses would be broad. Players, recruiting, coaching, fundraising, and fans all have a place in the argument. But, for what it’s worth, I say the staff is the ultimate determining factor. None of the above would be possible without the people working behind the scenes.
Needless to say, the further you get away from the Power-5, the more difficult that staff factor becomes. That isn’t to say there is a lack of quality. In fact, I find the staff at lower division programs to be more well-rounded and often more capable in the broad scope of running an athletic department. Where these programs lack is in quantity.
Sacramento State is a perfect example of doing more with less. Originally founded as a commuter school in 1947, they made the jump to Division-I in 1991, but it was around the arrival of Associate Athletic Director Markus Jennings that things really started to take off.
“Athletics fundraising did not really get started until I took over in 2014,” says Jennings. “I took athletics giving from $383,522 to over 1.3 million. That was with a one-man fundraising team and just 20% of my job.” And at a program as small as Sacramento State, fundraising isn’t exactly easy. “Finding donors is like finding a needle in a haystack.”
Despite gains in recent years, Sacramento State’s past as a commuter school still has a way of challenging future growth and opportunities. As Tim Mahan, Sacramento State’s Annual Fund Officer says, “it is hard to connect with donors because past students weren’t on campus so they didn’t go to games. It is important to get the whole community and campus involved including the deans and chairmen of colleges.
“People also don’t realize that FCS is Division-I,” adds Jennings. “Education for all of our alums is what we are trying to get done here.”
Mahan is beginning to see progress though. “I’ve only been here for a year, but you see the relationships evolving. You’re starting to see professors get involved and our student-athletes join student organizations.”
The grassroots efforts with alumni and faculty are an excellent foundation, but to truly find success, a program has to build its brand. That’s no small task when you’re staff is shorthanded. “My biggest issue is manpower,” says Ticket Manager Dallas Smith. “We don’t have the resources or manpower. We also deal with perception issues. Some people don’t even know we have a football team, and you can see the stadium from the freeway.”
Despite this, Jennings still has faith in his team. “Other schools have a nation wide brand while we have a local brand from the Bay Area to Nevada. Once we strengthen our local brand, everything else will follow.”
It’s that kind of drive and belief in the process that keeps smaller staffs like the one at Sacramento State going. “People don’t realize how much work we put in,” says Jennings. “I want to be the one to speak for the little guy. We want people to notice the amount of work our people are doing at the mid-major level. We don’t have the resources that bigger universities have.”
No matter the challenges or size of your athletic department, there has to be genuine trust in the leaders and direction of the program. As long as expectations are incremental and reasonable, Jennings thinks you can find success. “Control the controllables, show leadership, and everything else will happen like it is supposed to happen. I love this institution and the work we have done.”
That’s good because there is plenty of work left to do.
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