This summer, Cyclone Fanatic is taking you inside Iowa State athletics in a different way. We call it our "Conversation Series." In part five of our series, I sit down with the man in charge, Iowa State athletics director Jamie Pollard to discuss his first eight years on the job, facilities, the state of the Big 12 Conference and more.
Cyclone Fanatic’s Conversation Series
Part 1: Iowa State assistant men’s basketball coach Matt Abdelmassish
Part 2: Iowa State women’s basketball coach Bill Fennelly
Part 3: The Voice of the Cyclones, John Walters
Part 4: Iowa State football strength & conditioning coordinator Yancy McKnight
CF: I run a little sports website for a living, don’t have kids and still feel like there aren’t enough hours in a day. You’re an AD at a Big 12 school, have kids, travel all of the time and still manage to do your job and be a good dad. I’m curious about how important balance is in your life and how you get everything done that you have to do in a given day?
JP: It doesn’t feel like I have balance (laughter).
CF: But it seems like you do.
JP: But think about yourself. It probably doesn’t feel like you have balance either. Just like there is never enough time in the day but I think it comes back to if you are a type A or type B and how you process it. Type A people, it probably doesn’t matter. You are always going to feel like you are on this treadmill and even when you have downtime, you fill it with stuff that you probably shouldn’t be filling it with.
I think it is really important to, just on a personal level, it is so important to figure out how to be really good at whatever you decide you are going to do and make priorities in your life. My particular case, my priorities are this job and my family. I can’t say that one is more important than another and I don’t mean that in a shallow way. It’s just that I’ve found a way to make them both priorities and I’m going to try to be the best athletics director that I can be and I’m going to try to be the absolute best dad that I can be. And as a result, there are other things that have to fall by the wayside. I don’t golf anymore. To speak of, I haven’t played one round of golf yet. I actually cringe when some donors want me to go golf in July because it sucks up a lot of time and I don’t play enough now. It’s not a priority so I’m not going to be good at it. As a result, you want to focus on, ‘What am I really going to put my passion into?’
At the same time, I say that and my passion is being a dad and being an AD. Those are why those two are priorities. You find a way to schedule your life in a way that allows you to do that and it works. But I don’t have a lot of outside friends either because I don’t have time. Do I regret that some? Yeah, but it is about choices in life. I always say that to have a friend, you have to be a friend. I don’t have a lot of time to be a friend and so as a result, I get back what I put into it right? I don’t have a lot of personal friends outside of acquaintances that I have through work. That probably bothers me a lot but I don’t have enough time to do something about it. I’m fine with that.
CF: There are only 24 hours in a day right?
JP:Yeah. Does that make sense? We all live life with some degree of regret. That would probably be one of my regrets. That is an area of my life where I don’t feel like – it is a weakness in my life. But it is a weakness because I made the other two my priorities. In trying to create a little bit of balance there, I joined a men’s group a few years ago at Cornerstone. That’s been beneficial but I still am not all-in because I’m too into these other two. Both of these other two right now don’t work in a box so to speak. To say that you want to be the best athletic director, there isn’t something saying that you have to work 20 hours. It is what it is. And to be the best dad that you can be, well, there is no end to that.
CF: Speaking of being a dad, your son Thomas recently won the 3200 at the Drake Relays in April. How proud of a moment was that for you and your family?
JP: It was cool because one, it is your son. Two, our family is track geeks. We took a family vacation last week to the NCAA track meet in Oregon. That’s what our family does. Next week I am at the U.S. Track Championships in Des Moines. So that fact that your son does something in something that your family is already really into and then it happens at Drake Stadium and the Drake Relays. It was kind of a trifecta of feel-good. And I know how hard he works and I know what that meant to him.
CF: Coming up in September, you’ll have been at Iowa State for eight calendar years. I remember a lot of talk at the time about changing the culture here. It wasn’t always from you either. Everybody seemed to talk about it a lot. Now, I look around this campus and things look completely different. You have a sold out football stadium. Season ticket sales are through the roof. Has that culture changed?
JP:The culture has changed. The culture has changed. And it has been really fun. It has been fun to be a part of it. It has become, I think, bigger than any of us ever thought it could be. I use the word ‘generational.’ Most significant organizational changes happen as what I call a ‘generational change.’ You can look back on that historically but many didn’t live in that generation. They will go, ‘wow.’
I’ll give you an example. As a kid, I mean as a small kid, the Green Bay Packers were horrible. I grew up in Wisconsin and they were horrible. Can you remember when the Packers were horrible?
CF: No I cannot.
JP: I lived through that generational change but I didn’t fully fathom it because I didn’t have any part in it. I just observed it. I was with somebody yesterday who is a huge Packer fan and we talked about that. I’ll bring this back to Iowa State and you’ll get what I mean. I said that I remember a day specifically, I was in high school coming home from cross country practice. My best friend was in the car behind me. On the radio, the Packers announced that they had picked up and traded for John Jefferson. Most people probably don’t even know who John Jefferson is.
CF: I have no clue.
JP:John Jefferson was part of Dan Fouts and that group. He came to the Packers so they had James Lofton and John Jefferson and Lynn Dickie. That was the start of the Packers having any relevance. Prior to that they had been horrible. That was 1982. So it hit me. In 1982, when I was a kid from 82 to the early 70s, the Packers stunk. They were horrible. Dead last all of the time and basically from the mid-80s on they have dominated. You don’t know any different. How do I take that forward to Iowa State?
We are living in and I am seeing a generational change. Iowa State is relevant. We had 20,000 season ticket holders eight years ago in football and we are probably going to have 42,000 ticket holders this year. We are all living through a generational change and some day, kids are going to grow up that aren’t going to remember when Jack Trice Stadium wasn’t sold out. Think about that.
I have people say, ‘I remember the Missouri game.’ It was Thanksgiving Weekend with the Big 12 North Championship on the line. I wasn’t here then but I’ve had enough people tell me about it, how there were 37,000 people here and how embarrassing it was. Well we’re at 13 straight 50,000 crowds. I know that we all want to talk about the south endzone and blah, blah, blah. But I always look at Nebraska and how many sellouts have they had for how many decades? We don’t know any different but there is probably somebody at Nebraska who is 70 or 80-years old who remembers when it wasn’t. We are in the middle of it and that is pretty cool stuff.
CF: I can really see it on our message board. We have a lot of college kids who hang out on the site and they don’t remember the “gold pants days.”
JP:The hot tub in the endzone right?
CF: Oh yeah. Do you see that too from the generation that is going to school here now?
JP: A little bit. It is still happening but that’s kind of when I reflect back now and say, ‘Okay, it is going to be eight years.’ The change, the generational change. I couldn’t have anticipated that eight years ago. It is really fun to be a part of it but it is also more than fun. It is like we are all a part of it. We are a part of changing history. That history is changing in this state. When I go out I talk about the demographics of Iowa and where Iowa high school kids are going to school now. We have twenty-some thousand of our 30,000 going to school here. That’s more than any other school in the state. There are more Iowa State graduates living in the state of Iowa than any other school in the state. And we’re probably going to be the largest school in the state this year. Those are three monumental demographic changes. I look at that billboard (points at a poster of the one that was hung near Iowa City back in the day) from 2005. It was tongue and cheek but it is happening. It is coming true. It is coming true. That’s pretty powerful.
CF: Which leads me up to your current roster of coaches. I look around and I see a group of people who you can genuinely tell love Iowa State. They love it here. It is their home. When you factor in that, the on-field success, season tickets and the fact that the Big 12 is finally stable with increased revenue and better facilities, is Iowa State as well positioned as it has ever been for the future in your opinion?
JP: That’s not for me to say. Historians say that. It would be self-serving for me to say that. Is this the most well positioned we have been since I have been here? No question about it. But I wasn’t here in 2000 so I can’t speak. There were some neat things that happened in 2000. We didn’t sustain it. There were some neat things that happened probably in the 70s when Coach Majors was here. So I don’t think that is fair for me to say. I can only speak of the time that I’ve been here and during that time, we are solid right now.
Yet, we have to keep pushing forward because I also recognize what we ask people to do and the nature of the industry that we are in. You can’t rest on your laurels because of people’s patience. We are in a different time of our society. The ability to sustain it is going to be a challenge but that’s okay. We have people who I think are up for that.
CF: You already brought up the south endzone. With this new Big 12 money, everybody wants to know what is next? I realize that there is debt to pay off. There are higher salaries that require attention. Do you have some sort of a facility checklist that you are checking things off when you get them taken care of? How do you go about making decisions as to what facility to tackle next?
JP: Great question. There is a lot more strategy and thought that goes into that then most people probably think about. Other than the south endzone, the really big ‘we’ve got to do this projects,’ have been checked off if you think about it.
Go back to us needing the academic facility. That has paid off because our academics have been awesome. We needed to do something in this stadium for fans. The concourses, the restrooms. The scoreboard. All of that was done and look, it has paid off. There are 40,000 ticket holders and 50,000 people at these games. In large part because they love Coach Rhoads and they love what is happening but it is also part of the overall atmosphere that has been created. I look at that as an investment that has paid off. The investment of the basketball facility is paying off. The big things we had to go do, we’ve done. Are there still other projects that need to be done to help our other sports programs? There are. We tackled the golf facility. That was big. We are still working through some stuff with track and cross country. We tackled the wrestling deal. We’ve got some little things that we’ve got to massage and then we’ve got to come back through and say with the academic center, I think we are going to have to expand it.
Then at the same time, you are also looking at sustaining the operation that you have. Our teams have what they need to recruit, travel and to do all of that stuff. But we have to keep the right coaches. Our two biggest risks are football and men’s basketball because those two coaches are the lowest paid not only in our league but kind of in our profession. We have to continue to be able to feed that beast so to speak so that they want to stay here. Are we ever going to pay them the type of money like the top in the Big 12? Probably not because that’s just not who we are and I don’t see us ever having those kinds of resources. Those other places continue to spend it too. But we need to be able to make our coaches feel wanted and respected. If we do that then we will continue to have good results. And how you put all of that together on long-term basis really drives then how you bite off that (points at the south endzone).
Think about it. That is half of everything that we have done. Everything that we have done going back to the Hilton scoreboard, the concourse, every project that we have done, which is 100 and some million dollars. That project is half of all of that stuff combined. That puts it in perspective as to how big that is. Truth be told, that one doesn’t have a direct impact on how well the football team plays. If you were to ask Paul, that’s why we did the football building. The football building could have been the endzone but that was more valuable. That (the football facility) in the long run will help us do that (bowl in the endzone). That (the endzone) probably wouldn’t have helped us do the football building.
CF: Let’s talk about the Big 12 and get an update on what’s going on within the league. It doesn’t seem like very long ago that the league was being discussed in multiple doomsday scenarios. I’ve heard you say a lot about how the league now is a lot like a family when maybe it wasn’t before. What’s the difference when you go down to Dallas now and everybody gets together to talk compared to five years ago?
JP: Well there is a book or a movie that needs to be about some of the meetings that I was in. I’m thinking of who some of the actors should be to play some of the AD’s. It was really interesting to be in the room. It was also, frightening isn’t the right word, but Iowa State – we were hanging on. We had the tiger by the tail and we were holding on for dear life. It was humbling and yet we came out of it. There was some relief that we came out of it but not it is a degree of excitement because the landscape is pretty solid now at least at the highest level for the foreseeable future that anyone can predict. Now we are going to start to see how this all plays out.
I always said before that we always felt very comfortable about the philosophy of 10. But it felt like nobody wanted to believe us and that we were only saying that because we were 10. Some of that was true. It was the whole playing poker and you are dealt the cards you are dealt. You play with the cards that you have. But now we are going to get to see how that plays out and people don’t have to say that we really should be 12. Well it doesn’t matter because we are at 10 and here are the virtues of 10. I really like how that feels because I am watching what is playing out in the Big Ten and right now in the SEC about the discomfort fans are having about who they are playing and not playing. They haven’t even done it yet. What is going to happen the first time that Nebraska wins the Big Ten and they don’t play Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State? How is that going to feel? We are already experiencing it in our state when people are saying, ‘Do I really want to buy season tickets when I’m not getting to see those teams play?’ Yet in our game, we are getting to see those teams play. You sense a sense of family. I had worked here five years and never visited Oklahoma State because they were never on our schedule. There is more interaction when there are only 10 of you in a room. It has been enjoyable because you feel like you are in it together. I think that is going to be very helpful.
CF: Now this is strictly subjective on my part but I always say that in 20 years from now, people are going to look around at each other and say, ‘What in the world have we done to college sports?’ I feel like they are all going to wish it were a bunch of 10 team or smaller leagues. What would you say to that? Am I way out in left field on that?
JP: No I don’t think you are out there. Do I think that everybody will go back to 10 team leagues? No. And do I think the model that we are in will stay 20 years from now? No. You can look at history and history is the best indicator of the future and history would say that’s not what is going to happen right? Philosophically, maybe we will all yearn for a simpler day. We do today. Think about it. I-Pads. I-this. I-that. How many people say, ‘Gosh, think back to before we had all of this when I could get away from it?’ You can’t get away from anything now right?
We talk about it with the media. There used to be a day when we could have relationships with the media. Now it’s about who can get the story first, not who can get the story right. There will be a day – and it is kind of already happening – but there will be a day where people say, ‘Yeah you know what? It was great when it was eight or when it was 10.’ What I am excited about is that we don’t have to say that yet. Our champion will be determined on the field.
I was at Wisconsin when they went to the Rose Bowl and they didn’t have to play Ohio State. Yeah, it was an advantage but they didn’t play Ohio State. That’s why they won the Big Ten. Now that is going to look simpleton when there are four or five schools that you didn’t play. I think that is what is going to be fun about the Big 12 – to see how it plays out.
CF: The guy who fascinates me and I’m curious to learn more about is Chuck Neinas. He kind of just swooped in there and appeared to save the day. He’s a very well respected man who everybody rallied around. Tell me a little bit more about Mr. Neinas.
JP: I think first you have to say that it is about being at the right place at the right time. In fairness to Dan Beebe, much of what we implemented in Chuck’s time, Dan had on the table for a year and a half to two years. It just was, we weren’t ready to do it. There was a lot of other stuff happening and he just happened to be the wrong leader at the wrong time. You could argue that it is kind of like Greg McDermott. Greg McDermott didn’t wake up one day and was a bad coach. He is a great person and a great coach. It’s just that his time wasn’t right. Todd Lickliter’s time wasn’t right at Iowa. Dan Beebe’s time wasn’t right at the Big 12 yet much of what we implemented – equal revenue sharing, Dan was trying to get. Grant of rights, Dan was trying to get. I’m not here to defend Dan and I’m taking nothing away from Chuck.
Chuck came in at the right time where there was a fractured conference, a need for us all to quit bickering and figure it out. Chuck was very soothing because of who he was and he was able to just lead us through that process. And likewise, Bob Bowlsby is awesome. But he picked it up at the right time and he is the right leader for us at this time. Now, with the Champions Bowl and some other things, he has been to take what was solidified and say, ‘Okay, now let’s go exploit this.’ Every organization needs the right leadership at the right time. I am here at the right time. Had I been here at a different time, it might have had a whole different outcome.
There is the old saying, ‘Choose wisely when you take a job.’ Always take a job that you can make better. Sometimes somebody gets the chance and they have to do it because that is there chance but everybody can also go, ‘This is the wrong time to take a job.’ Chuck followed what was perceived as someone who wasn’t doing a good job. Yet Dan had put everything in place and led us all to the trough. We just didn’t drink it. Chuck got us to drink it. Had Chuck been in there, maybe Chuck wouldn’t have gotten us to the trough. I don’t know.
CF: Let’s talk a little wrestling. This controversy with wrestling and the Olympics has been going on for months now. How closely are guys like you watching that and how will that impact wrestling at the Division I level should it be kept out of the Olympics?
JP:Well first of all nationally, wrestling had kind of solidified itself at the college level. There had started to been a push back, not at the Division I level but at some other levels, where membership was starting to grow again. It wasn’t significant but it had kind of bottomed out.
I kind of view them as completely separate tracks. The Olympics piece was very disappointing and unfortunate. I don’t know how that will ultimately end up. From what I see from afar, it is going to be baseball/softball that gets a stay of execution or it is going to be wrestling gets a stay of execution but not both.
To me, baseball has a lot of other opportunities with Major League Baseball and the World Baseball Classic. Wrestling really needs the Olympics. But if they don’t and it gets dropped, it is sad but it just changes the paradigm. I’m not one of those people that says it will kill college wrestling because if you take that premise, then you’re killing college wrestling because we don’t control what happens with the Olympics. So you’re basically saying that you’re going to let somebody else kill it. I’m not ready to say that. I think that college wrestling is a great sport. It’s a big sport for Iowa State. Whether it is in the Olympics or not is not going to impact if Iowa State sponsors wrestling. The paradigm will change but most kids that are in our room and that want to stay and wrestle in college probably aren’t going to make the Olympics anyway. But they could make a world team or they could make Pan-Am team. All of those opportunities will still be there. There just won’t be an Olympics, which would be sad. But it will be a paradigm change.
CF: Let’s get hypothetical here and assume that the sport is saved and stays in the Olympics. Could you see some sort of a comeback or a bounce back at the college level because of that?
JP: I don’t expect that either. I separate the two. I don’t think that drives that. I don’t think that ultimately it hurts it at a macro level. I don’t want to believe that the sport is that fragile that that change is going to kill it. I think that the sport is awesome. It is one of the most successful NCAA Championships that we have. That NCAA Championship is not contingent on if there is wrestling in the Olympics. Does it enhance it? Absolutely because you get to see some of these kids who will go on and win like the Jake Varner’s. Whether if Jake won a gold medal or not, to me, isn’t the reason all of those people were at Wells Fargo for wrestling. I think that the sport is strong enough and can sustain itself regardless of what happens with that decision. But we still need to fight for that decision because I think that it is something that is beneficial to the sport.