Thursday morning, Iowa State athletics director Jamie Pollard joined Cyclone Fanatic publisher Chris Williams for an interview recapping the last 14 days in Iowa State athletics. This is a full transcript of that interview (with some very minor editing for brevity and clarity).
CW: Alright, Jamie, well, you have such an interesting viewpoint of just everything. Not just your experience after living in it for the last six months, but, my thing, is your were on the ground floor in New York City on the NCAA Tournament committee when this was all starting. I remember talking to you when you were coming back from there and getting your opinions on all this. I’m just curious, could you have imagined flying back in March that we would be in this spot now with college football and this virus and everything that’s gone on over the last six months?
Pollard: Absolutely not. No way. Maybe some of the health experts knew that it could be this long and open-ended, but I think all of us back then, you know, we were dealing with the reality of, ‘Did we just cancel the NCAA basketball tournament and all spring sports?’ The fall seemed like so far away at that time. I just think of everything everybody has gone through during the last six months and here we are on the eve of football and in some ways, it’s hard to believe we got here.
CW: No doubt about that. It just changes all the time, too. That was my thing, as well. How have you adapted to that? I know you’re a guy who likes to have things planned out. You have to be organized in a position like yours. It just seems like every couple days the goalposts move just a little bit. Just navigating through that, what has been your game plan just from a leadership standpoint?
Pollard: It’s been extremely hard. I’m not saying anything that everybody else who’s trying to navigate this isn’t dealing with. You know, numerous example after example where you put together what you’re going to do and then you go to do it and it’s already changed before you’ve announced you’re doing it. Then people think you’re an idiot for what you announced. It’s just really, really hard for everybody right now. But, it is what it is. You’ve got to brush yourself off, get back up and forge forward because it wins if we don’t keep pushing.
CW: Iowa State is now days away from hosting a 2020 football game, which, you acknowledged, we didn’t know if we would necessarily get here. But, it wasn’t easy. The last seven to 10 days have been very difficult, I know, for a lot of people. I thought about you, I’ve known you for 15 years now, and I thought about you last week when everything went down from your announcement on fans, you were going to let 25,000 of them in, it was a University decision, to that getting reversed just a couple of days later. The first thing I thought was, ‘Oh no, this is not good. This is like the most anti-Jamie Pollard thing ever,’ because you’re always getting out in front of things, right? How did that process play out? Can you walk us through it? Because, again, just with my knowledge of who you are, I knew that was incredibly difficult.
Pollard: Let me say several things. First, football, other than the obvious of whether the Big 12 is going to play or whatever was going on, the football part of it has been fine. I can’t say enough about Matt Campbell, his staff, Mark Coberly, our football players. They’ve done yeoman’s work sacrificing, doing the right things to get us in a position that we can actually have players on the field and play a game.
The part that you’re talking about is can we put people in the stands to watch those games? I think back to six months ago when we identified five principles that we were going to abide by to move forward. One of those principles, it was the second principle, was for athletics to stay aligned with the university, okay? We’ve been in lockstep with the university all the way. As I reflect upon what went down over the last two weeks and why that was probably the most frustrating and disappointed that I’ve ever been since I’ve been at Iowa State, is because we got burned by being aligned.
I wrote down some reflections because I know I’ll have to talk about this numerous times over the next several weeks. I’ll just share this with you. Ames needs this university, right? Ames is not Ames if Iowa State’s not here. This university doesn’t exist if we don’t have students, okay? I don’t have a job if there are not students here, okay? So, the university decides to bring students and some in this community get upset by that. Well, you can’t have one without the other. The university needs the students. They need that tuition revenue. They need those kids in town. They don’t need them just deciding to take online classes because if they did, why are they coming back here?
So, the university implements a 50 percent classroom attendance and the faculty are upset with the university administration, because the faculty want people to work at Fareway and Hy-Vee so they can get their food and they want people to be doctors and nurses so they can be served, but they don’t want to be in the classroom. Not all faculty, but some of the faculty. Along comes athletics because we’re getting closer to having a game so we’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do.
We present three attendance plans. No fans, 25 percent, 50 percent. Obviously, financially, it’s better for us to have 50 percent than 25 percent or no fans. But, the university wants us to be aligned with them, so we aligned with them. That meant let’s do the 50 percent. The first version of the 50 percent, nobody was comfortable with what it looked like. That was basically people just have the seats that they had, so we went back and our ticket office worked tirelessly for a week and re-sat the entire stadium with those that had continued to keep their tickets. That was where the 25,000 came from. It was 30,000 at one time, but 5,000 people had peeled off, and we even said that it would be below 25,000 by the time we get to Sept. 12, it would probably be around 20,000. Well, I can tell you, if we played today it would be 20,400. It wasn’t even going to be 25,000.
But, we stayed aligned with the campus, because that was one of the principles and I think we should be aligned with the campus. Campus asked us to stay aligned with them and do the 50 percent model. Then, our students did exactly what you expect students to do when you bring them all back. They had two weekends of partying.
What happened, Chris, was the first week they had a three percent positivity rate, the second week a three percent positivity rate, the third week it went to 13 percent, and the fourth week it was 28 percent. Well, that weekend when all that information was percolating, campus was debating going online only. We made the decision no fans to stay aligned. Over the weekend, campus decided that they’re going to stay in person. They’re going to keep kids in the classrooms, so they need us to have fans because it would look bad if they stayed on campus, but we said no fans. So, we made the decision, again, jointly. I played a part in that because I could have said, ‘Absolutely not,’ but why would I? The campus wanted us to have fans and, obviously, it was in our best interest to have fans. So, we moved forward and we made that announcement on Monday. So, people that think we should have said 12,000 are all the ones that think they were going to be part of the 12,000. There would have been 12,000 that would have been told no.
What I can tell you is this, what happened in that next 24 hours is the faculty and this community abandoned President Wintersteen. They abandoned her. She really was left with no choice but to reverse the decision. I didn’t like it. I was disappointed that people she’s been colleagues with for 40 some years abandoned her and left her out there high and dry. She had to make that decision and we support it.
Well, then, athletics gets blamed for being irresponsible. Wow, all we did was try to work out way through this with the campus and stay aligned and we get blamed for being irresponsible.
Then, the regents want a new budget. Well, okay, what does that budget look like? Now it’s not $17 million (budget shortfall) it’s $30 million. The regents want to know are we going to drop sports like Iowa? Well, I’m sitting here as the leader of the athletics department, ‘Wow, I’m going to have to publicly say we’re considering dropping sports, that Matt Campbell’s going to have to get another pay cut,’ when none of the faculty on this campus have taken a pay cut yet. Not a dime. People in this community, I’ve said it before, they didn’t want a mall, but they want new retail. They didn’t want a swimming pool, but they want a place for their kids to swim. They want people to take care of the elderly, but they didn’t want a healthy lifestyle facility. They want conventions in Ames, but they voted down the convention center. They want a university, but they don’t want students. They want us to have a football team, but they don’t want fans.
So, we put out there what we thought, I stood up for our staff and said, ‘Well, if we’re going to put sports on the line then we outta put arts on the line.’ Well, now you see what happens there. The faculty and the community go crazy because how dare this institution take away art. Well, I didn’t hear any of those faculty or staff say, ‘How dare you take away the wrestling program,’ or ‘how dare you take away the swimming program.’ That’s what’s frustrating. There are just so many people, especially in this community, that want to point fingers and have no solutions. They just have answers, but they don’t want any of the solutions to impact them. That’s just not reality, folks.
So, that’s what made this last couple weeks so difficult, because people just weren’t being reasonable. They just weren’t being reasonable. I get why people thought we shouldn’t have fans. I get it. They want to make it in a silo without any other consequences. The world doesn’t work like that. None of us can run our own finances at home that way. It’s not how you deal with your kids. There’s consequences for decisions.
I think what’s just fascinating to me is they’re perfectly fine if the consequences don’t impact them, but as soon as it impacts them then they get vicious, they get overly self-righteous. You watched it play out. That’s why we put out there about the performing arts center. I knew we weren’t going to shutdown the performing arts center, but those people needed to understand the consequences, too.
CW: So, just a little of my background, I don’t even know if you knew this, I was a theatre major at Iowa State for a while. I got out of there, but the arts are very important to me. I can also understand it because I’ve been in that crowd for a really long time. It was a really big part of my life for a long time. It still is. What was frustrating to me watching the backlash last week was it seemed like the community, not in all cases, I don’t want to speak for everybody. That’s a dangerous thing to do, but many folks who aren’t necessarily sports fans were the same ones who were so upset about having fans in the stands were the loudest about the CY Stephens deal. What I found was not many people really understood how it was set up under the umbrella of the athletics department. I think like your diehard Iowa Staters understood that, but I don’t think, broadly, many people understood how athletics took that under its wing a few years ago and how you were really doing the arts a favor, right?
Pollard: Absolutely. Absolutely. The alternative was, well, we’ve seen the alternative, the building hasn’t had a dime put into it for years. It’s an embarrassment now. These people that say, ‘Oh, it’s a landmark. It’s the building of the century.’ Yeah, it was the building of the century 100 years ago. I challenge any of those people. Have they even been in the building in the last couple years?
The fascinating thing, Chris, and it just goes back to the society we’re living in. I didn’t respond back when these people write me and say, ‘Well, you don’t like the wrestling program or you don’t like our swimming program.’ I’m not accusing them of that, but they accuse us of not liking the arts program. It’s fascinating that these people can be so overly self-righteous about their beliefs versus other people’s beliefs.
Nobody disagrees that the arts are important, but there are people who think wrestling and swimming and golf are just as important just like they think faculty on this campus are important. There’s decisions that have to be made and there’s consequences for those decisions. There’s just people in this community that are oblivious to that. That’s what got exposed here in the last week. Maybe that needed to get exposed.
Keep in mind, this is that same community that several years ago Dr. Leath offered up a plan of $30 million for a $45 million convention center for this city and all they had to do was vote for the $15 million and they turned their backs on it. They voted it down and they said if the university wants a convention center then let them do it. Isn’t that interesting? They want their cake and to eat it too.
CW: Which is why last year, I can’t remember if it was in spring or the middle of the football season, whenever it was, you came up with that plan—
Pollard: For the entertainment center.
Pollard: Correct. Many of those same people lobbied that they don’t want the entertainment center. You’re just going, ‘Okay, that’s the solution, folks.’ The solution for them is, ‘Let’s just keep it the way it is and we’ll all die together.’ Because that’s what’s happening. Now, COVID has said, ‘Well, you don’t get to die together. Somebody’s going to have to die first.’ Now, you’ve got to decide who is going to die first. Is it athletic programs? Is it faculty programs? Is it the arts?
When that question had to be answered, then it’s a whole different perspective, isn’t it? It’s fascinating. I’ve never been associated with a community that is like the city of Ames.
We’ll figure out how to keep pushing forward and find a solution, but things are painful to get done around here, because you’re fighting people over stuff that you scratch your head and go, ‘Why are we arguing over this?’ But, you know, that’s life. We’ll push forward. There’s a solution out there. Somehow, someway, we’ll figure it out.
CW: Isn’t this a little bit, too… I don’t know the politics of Ames, so I’m fully ignorant here, but I’ve been commentating on sports and COVID for six months now. I feel like I can somewhat put myself in your shoes in this sense, and Dr. Wintersteen, where it doesn’t really matter what you say or decide, you’re going to have half of the population upset with you.
Pollard: Oh, no doubt, but, Chris, that’s public leadership. That happens whether you keep a coach or you don’t keep a coach. Whether you raise ticket prices or don’t. I mean, think about it, ‘Give Matt Campbell whatever he wants.’ Okay, well, you give Matt Campbell whatever he wants, but then, ‘Why did you raise ticket prices? You’re all about the money, Pollard.’ You’re going, ‘Okay, did you think I have a tree in my office where I just grow the money?’ But, that’s public leadership, whether you’re city council or Kim Reynolds, you’re school board. I mean, look at all the issues right now, what Des Moines Public Schools is going through. Public leadership is a challenge.
CW: I just wonder, too, if what you’re describing up on campus and in Ames right now, it just seems like a microcosm of our entire country. It’s just in a smaller setting. Is that accurate?
Pollard: Oh, in my opinion, absolutely yes. People are either all the way on this side or all the way on that side. Both sides think they’re the only way things can be solved. Like most things, the way to solve it is to meet in the middle and somebody gives… I always say, ‘The best negotiator is the one who understands the other side’s got to win, too.’ In our country right now, neither side wants to let either side win. That’s why we have such a vicious political process right now. So, yeah, you’re right.
CW: Real quick, I don’t want to leave any loose ends here on the CY Stephens thing. Can you just explain how the athletic, I don’t think a lot of people, I see this like, ‘Well, the athletic department shouldn’t be in charge of the arts.’ Can you explain to the people why that came about?
Pollard: So, here’s all that’s happened, Chris. In 1988, the university outsourced the management of the Iowa State Center. So, since 1988, there’s been various companies that have managed the Iowa State Center, okay? Throughout that time period, the Center could not operate by itself, stand-alone, like the athletics department, and balance its budget. There is a shortfall. The shortfall right now is to the tune of roughly a million dollars a year. That’s maintenance, utilities, trying to keep the building open. That’s not even counting the deferred maintenance that hasn’t been addressed in that facility.
In 2013, long before athletics took it over, the university commissioned a study. That study recommended $30 million of improvements that needed to be done to CY Stephens in 2013. That’s where we got the $25-$50 million dollar number, because, the 2013 (number) with inflation would be a lot more than $30 million. We said there’s an additional $25-$50 million.
So, a year ago, campus was dealing with tremendous budget cuts because of declining enrollment. Dr. Wintersteen had multiple, multiple sessions with university leaders. Every meeting tried to come up with different ideas for solutions. One of the solutions that was offered up was, right now, that management company was reporting to the vice president of the university. We said, ‘Why don’t have you have that management company report to athletics and we’ll put it as part of a whole collaborative effort to build an entertainment district and we’ll have athletics and event staff try to figure out if we can operate the building more efficiently or buildings more efficiently and try to reduce some of that subsidy that university is providing.’
On July 1, 2019, the oversight, the oversight of the management company rolled over to athletics. The million-dollar subsidy from the university stayed with the Iowa State Center. So, all athletics is doing is just overseeing all that instead of the finance person on campus. We went through and figured out how to carve Scheman out and put Scheman as part of our events staff that runs Hilton and Jack Trice, so we’ve been able to get Scheman now up and running without a subsidy and have a plan to do some renovations at Scheman, add parking, that’s part of the whole Hilton project.
We had the entertainment district project which was to hopefully bring in an outside investor, the outside investor would help build the convention center, build a hotel, it would spew out revenue from tax abatements, having the city not collect tax on it and use that revenue to hopefully renovate CY Stephens and, hopefully, get out of the subsidy for the university, so the university could take that million dollars and redeploy it for faculty salaries, student programming, not for athletics, but for the university.
COVID hits, everything falls by the wayside and now we’re all left trying to figure out how to make choices. Well, one of the choices that was made, was the faculty saying, ‘I’m not going to support Dr. Wintersteen if she allows there to be fans in the stands for football.’ Okay, well, that’s a decision that gets made. Now, there’s decisions that need made about sports sponsorship and further payroll cuts for staff in the athletics department.
Keep in mind, not one faculty staff member has taken a pay cut, yet. But, Matt Campbell has taken close to a million-dollar pay cut, including his bonuses. So, all I did, was put on the table, well, if we’re going to consider dropping sports and consider me having to go back and ask coaches to take another pay cut, a second pay cut, then the university, maybe, outta think about not funding the million dollars that they’re putting in to keep arts open in this community.
Now, we saw the revolt on that. It was really easy to say, ‘Get rid of fans for the games.’ But, ‘Whoo, touch my arts center and now I’m upset.’ That’s just the reality of where we’re at. Campus has decided, you know, we’re going to try to figure out how to not touch the arts. I didn’t have anybody say we’re not going to touch the sports or we’re not going to touch our coaches’ salaries so we’ll keep pushing and try to figure out other solutions. That’s an overview of what happened.
CW: One point I would make, too. I remember when you first started here, the conversations we would have about athletics and you just trying to get to a point where you could be self-sufficient. You remember those days?
Pollard: Yep, and we did it!
CW: Yeah, I know.
Pollard: I would go with you a step further, Chris, because I hear people say, ‘Oh, it’s shameful that you guys didn’t even have a rainy day fund.’ People don’t write me if you don’t know what you’re talking about. You know what? We’ve got $45 million right now in a rainy day fund. $25 million of it is already encumbered for the sports performance center, so you can’t use that. So, we’ve got $20 million that we’ve got to try to figure out how to use to keep this place afloat and anything above that we’re going to have to take money from the university to do. It just amazes me. I wouldn’t think to write somebody and something I don’t know about. Apparently, there are people in this world who just feel they know everything and feel that their opinion is so important that they need to write and also be vicious when they write.
CW: One other point that I’ve kind of been making for months now is, I guess I always failed to understand, and this is where I would question the faculty a little bit, well, one point I would make without Iowa State, what are your home values worth in Ames? Right now, Ames and Iowa City, it’s not a fluke that home values in those two cities are the highest in the state of Iowa. Two, is I would think if Iowa State didn’t have students on campus that enrollment would drop even more, right?
Pollard: Absolutely. Absolutely. That’s the fear in higher education across the country. Not just Iowa State. Why do you think all these campuses brought all these students back? Without them, think of it, my good friend is the AD at Oregon (Rob Mullens) almost all of Oregon’s student population comes from the state of California and they pay out of state tuition. Why would they do that if they were all going to be online, right? Iowa State is no different. Not to mention, I go back to, Ames needs the university and the university needs students. If the students aren’t back, whose paying all the rent in all these apartment buildings that are built around here? When those landlords, when those community members, don’t get rent, then they’re not going to be able to pay their mortgages. When they don’t pay their mortgages, there’s going to be banks that… It all backs up. People who want to make decisions in silos just don’t get it.
CW: The last point I would make and I’ve made this on behalf of you, I hope you’re okay with it, I’m sure you will be, this notion, and this is where I’ve had a hard time the last few months, is if you think we should be playing football or sports or even have students on campus or whatever that you want my grandma to die. I’ve made the point for you, Jamie, you live in a house where you have a preexisting condition. You have a son who has a preexisting condition. You’re not this COVID denier. You’re very concerned about public health. I think you can be everything. I’ve just tried to make that point on behalf of you because I know you so well over the years. That bothers me. That’s the stuff where you just get accused. If I think the Big 12 should be playing football, I have people tweeting into me that I don’t care about public health and I want people to die. It couldn’t be further from the truth and I know that’s the case for you, as well.
Pollard: You’re right and thank you for saying that and thank you for defending me, evidently, so thank you, Chris.
CW: Well, it’s true, you come from a house where you’re very concerned about this, right?
Pollard: Anybody who says I’m not hasn’t been around me for six months. They haven’t seen what I’ve done or not done, right? I’m going to go back to this, and I’m going to say this and then people, the haters, will say, ‘Why did he say anything about Iowa?’ But, let’s use that as an example. We just announced this morning every volleyball, soccer and football player passed their Wednesday Big 12 test. Last weekend, we didn’t 619 tests and we only had one student-athlete positive. We’ve done 2,598, now I’ve got to in the ones from yesterday, so we’ve got 2,700 tests we’ve done and we’ve had two percent, we’ve had a total of 51 positives of all those tests since June 15.
Iowa, two weekends ago, had 93 in one weekend just from a sample size of 500. Why is that? Do I think our practices are any different than Iowa’s? No, the difference is Iowa’s not playing sports. Those kids have no structure, no motivation to adhere to the protocols that are necessary to live and thrive with COVID. Our student-athletes, our coaches, our athletic department is showing how it can be done.
So, when people saying you’re making a choice, no they’re not. If you want to thrive, there’s ways to do it. Wear a mask, wash your hands, don’t go to parties, don’t hang out in places where you’re putting yourself and everybody else at risk. That doesn’t mean you can’t have sports. Heck, our kids, they’re obviously not getting it from coming to practice and being in sports, because the positives are zero. Look what’s happened in the high school sports in the state of Iowa. Where it’s happening is when people just disregard any responsibility for doing what’s necessary. Then, you have the numbers go up.
Quite frankly, our student body, I’m not going to blame them, they did exactly what people thought. Here was another factor though, Chris, I’m kind of digressing on you, but back to that decision of why we decided to stay in class that weekend and decided to keep us going forward…
We knew when everybody was saying Ames was a hotspot, that was the result of testing done, targeted testing done, on people that we knew had gone out to bars and parties two weeks prior. We knew that by Sept. 12 the numbers were going to be back down. Loe and behold, they’re back down. The decision needed to be made that day because you had to implement it.
Well, guess what, we’re now two weeks later, and the positivity rate’s way back down. There’s no positivities in our athletic department and there’s no reason we couldn’t have played Saturday with fans. But, the decision was made two weeks ago, loud and clear, by the community. So, now, let’s talk about that. Here’s what’s going to end up happening, Chris. We’re going to have to make another decision about the Oklahoma game. That decision can’t be made the day before the game. That decision’s going to be made two weeks out.
So, guess what happens? I’m going to guess over the next week the positivity rates are going to continue to go down and we’re going to watch there be fans at games all around the country, including NFL, and people are going to say, ‘You need to have fans.’ So, we’ll make decisions, most likely, let’s hope, that we get to say we’re going to have fans for the OU game. Then, we’ve got to go two weeks and hope there’s not a big rash of positivity in our student body or somewhere because people then will say, ‘You guys are idiots for going forward.’ So, that’s the challenge that we face right now with how you started this interview. Things change daily. They change daily. That’s what has made it so hard to navigate.
CW: For one, I appreciate your transparency through the process. You were one of the first to get out in front of it. Thank you for your time. I know you’re busy right now, clearly, with the first game coming up on Saturday, but I think this clears up a lot of things for a lot of people. I hope it does, at least.
Pollard: Well, I’ll just end with this, because this is what Matt Campbell and I talked about last night. I reached out to him and said, ‘I couldn’t be prouder of our coaches and our student-athletes. Not only because of what they’ve committed to doing over the last two and a half months to get us to this spot. They’ve shown us how it can be done. They’re also on the verge of being incredibly inspirational, because when we play Saturday, or when our soccer team plays Friday night, the therapeutic value to all of us, to have some kind of normalcy is unbelievably overdue. I wish more fans could have been here to get to be part of that therapy in person, but hopefully, many of them will get that therapy by watching the game on TV. Let’s hope for a huge Cyclone win and that Saturday we can all feel like we’ve taken a giant step forward in trying to get back to some normalcy.
CW: I just have to critique you here. Could you have scheduled an easier opponent for the first game?
Pollard: (laughing) Which side are you on here? I go back to South Dakota then it was Ball State and it was kind of last man standing. Let’s just be grateful I didn’t choose (Louisiana) Tech or SMU because we wouldn’t be playing, right?
CW: This team is really good, I’m doing my prep. It should be a really good game. It will be a fun game on Saturday.
Pollard: Well, you know what, Coach Campbell and I have joked if strength of schedule is going to matter at the end of the year to get into the College Football Playoff, we may end up having the best non-conference strength of schedule in the country this year, so let’s beat the Ragin’ Cajuns on Saturday and then hope they go undefeated the rest of the way and win the Sun Belt. We’ll be very well positioned from a strength of schedule (standpoint). They’re a really good team. Their coach is a really good coach, you know, Chris. He’s got a great pedigree being at Clemson and Alabama. Yeah, you’re right, I would have rather played somebody who would have rolled over for us, but, you know what, our kids are up for it. I think we’ll play really well on Saturday and it will be fun to see what happens.
CW: Appreciate your time, Jamie. Thank you.
Pollard: Alright, Chris. Thank you.