His freshman season, he was nowhere to be found in the team photo. None of the walk-ons were.
“They just assumed all the walk-ons would quit,” Bates said.
More often than not they were right, but Bates was different.
“He’s a special man,” said Lloyd Carr, a Wolverine’s assistant at the time. “And a great leader.”
By the time Bates was a senior, he was the only walk-on left. He earned a scholarship his last year. More than that, he earned a spot in the team photo — second row, fifth from the left. Being able to look at college athletics through glamour-free lenses has been an advantage throughout his career.
“Being a walk-on,” he said, “definitely gave me an appreciation for what that experience was like whether you were an All-American or whether you were the last person on the team.”
Fresh out of Michigan, he took that perspective with him to Vanderbilt as the school’s strength and conditioning coach. It was before the age of specialization, so he worked with every team in the program.
“You see that the tennis player that’s not going to make the starting lineup works just as hard as the All-American basketball players and you appreciate and respect how committed they are and how passionate they are,” Bates said.
At the time, C.M. Newton was the Commodores basketball coach and he kept a watchful eye on Bates, noticing his intelligence and ambition, but also the way he connected with the student-athletes.
“He’s very, very bright to begin with,” Newton said. “He was totally committed. He loves student-athletes, loves to be a part of their lives. He understood what the student-athletes were going through.”
When he left to become athletic director at Kentucky, Newton kept tabs on Bates. He watched him get his doctorate and eventually dive into a career in administration at Vanderbilt as an assistant athletic director, then ultimately take the reins at Miami.
“I think he really blossomed and he’s one of the better athletic directors in the country in my opinion,” Newton said.
Over the years, Miami has had a line of strong athletic directors from Joel Maturi to Eric Hyman, and in his 40 years working in athletic administration, Donald Crain was close with many of them. As the vice chair and eventually chairman of Miami’s board of trustees, Crain watched the way Bates worked when he was surrounded by the school’s top minds.
“He was somebody you wanted to have in the room when you had a difficult problem to solve,” Crain said. “He was a great thinker, problem-solver and a good team member, somebody that you could count on to support a decision even if he didn’t agree with it.”
Crain noticed Bates’s gift for raising funds. Seven years ago, Miami administrators, students, alumni, and trustees started the “For Love and Honor” campaign with a mission to raise $500 million for the university. To date, the campaign has raised more than $464 million. Of that, athletics raised $53 million – the second highest total among the various departments behind the school of business — putting $20 million toward athletic scholarships.
“He always met his goal and then some,” Crain said. “It was because he was a good spokesperson for athletics.”
Beyond the championships, bowl games, and graduation rates, Bates was able to stabilize Miami’s program by raising money, making it consistently competitive in the Mid-American Athletic Conference. Miami had one of the higher budgets in the MAC, but it was still modest at best. The school reported $27 million in total revenues for the fiscal year ending this past July, according to the US Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education. By comparison, the University of Virginia brought in just over $81 million, far and away the most in the ACC and one of the highest totals in the country.
“He had to make due with a tight budget at all times and he was able to accomplish a great deal with challenged financial circumstances,” Crain said.
Bates was creative about it, Crain said. In order to finance the 10-year extension for hockey coach Rico Blasi, which quintupled his $100,000 salary, Bates reached out to former RedHawks in the NHL to put together a “coaching investment fund.” He began seat licensing in the club section to support the hockey team and took the same approach across the board in order to better compensate coaches and keep talented people at the university.
“His biggest overall challenge was to create and continue a competitive, successful Division 1-A program on a limited budget,” Crain said. “I think he accomplished that through a lot of means, hiring good people, working very hard, thinking outside the box, and marshalling his resources very well.”Continued...