When word got to Jerry York that his new boss wanted to be at Conte Forum to see Boston College’s ice hockey team raise its national championship banner before their season-opener, York wasn’t sure it was doable.
Brad Bates’s plate was full already. He was still getting his bearings in Boston after leaving Miami (Ohio) University to become the Eagles’ new athletic director. There were the endless meetings with students, faculty, administrators, alumni, donors, department heads.
Bates also had loose ends to tie up in Ohio. He planned on being in Oxford for Miami’s hockey game against Providence that Friday. On top of that, he wanted to be in Atlanta the next day to see BC’s football team face Georgia Tech. Kickoff was at 3 p.m. The hockey game was at 7. The commitments were stacked on top of each other like Jenga pieces.
“I thought it’d be an impossibility,” York said.
Bates made it work. He flew from Oxford to Atlanta Saturday morning and stayed long enough to see the first half of the Eagles’s 37-17 loss before hopping a flight to Boston. By the time he got to Logan, he was pushing it. A police escort rushed him from the airport to Chestnut Hill. He made it in time to hoist the banner, and York still doesn’t know how.
“He must’ve had a Superman cape on or something,” York said. “That was an impressive first impression for all of us.”
For all the hands he’s shaken, the smiles, and the casual banter, it’s the actions that have mattered most in the seven weeks since Bates became head of the Eagles athletic department. He starts his day at 7 a.m. and spends the next 12 hours pushing through a schedule stuffed with faces to know, people to meet, impressions to make.
He inherited one of the finer programs in the country at one of its most pivotal stages, with the football program struggling, the basketball team rebuilding, and York’s hockey team all the while waving the flag for the school. He studied the challenges before he arrived. But once he got here, the key was showing people he was committed to meeting those challenges no matter how impossible they seemed.
“A big part of the first two weeks is to try and develop trust,” Bates said. “It’s very difficult to develop trust during crises. It’s much easier to have that trusting relationship, then go through a crisis together. So that becomes very significant.
“In time I think people around here will quickly realize that I love Boston College athletics and the focus on excelling, performing, graduating, all those things go hand in hand.”
A father’s influence
Those aims are in his genes. Over 50 years, his father Jim carved out a hall of fame high school coaching career in Port Huron, Mich., that influenced the way his oldest son saw the game. With three boys and a girl, there were always balls bouncing in the Bates household. There was a television, too. But no cable, so whenever Bates’s father watched film, “which was all the time,” Brad recalled, it would screw up the signal. It left a young Brad with limited options. So he’d find himself checking to see what his dad was working on.
“I’d go down, sit on his lap and watch film and he’d tell me what was going on and it showed me the level of complexity and sophistication in the sport,” Bates said “At a very young age, I had an appreciation for the intellect required to really think about how you approach a game.”
When he got to high school, their father-son/coach-quarterback relationship came naturally.
“He listened and he learned,” Jim said. “He was a good leader. He was the kind of guy you would actually want to coach even if he wasn’t your son.”
He soaked in more than just his father’s game plans. He watched the way his dad thought about the game on a larger scale, the life lessons they taught — competition, sportsmanship, intelligence, teamwork.
“He really approached athletics as a curriculum and he did it in very meaningful ways that developed students into leaders,” Brad said.
It was no different in Bates’s case.
“He loved sports so much,” Jim said. “Everything he did revolved around sports. You kind of had an inkling that he would head in that direction.”
When Bates went to Michigan in 1977, he was nobody special. He wasn’t a quarterback anymore. He was a walk-on cornerback trying to grab whatever opportunity legendary coach Bo Schembechler had for him.
“I applied to the university just like every other student at the institution,” Bates said. “I got my dorm room like any other student at the institution. I wasn’t assigned in a particular dorm that the athletes were assigned in. I was the last person to get equipment when I was there.”
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.”
At Boston College, Bates’s resources will more than double. BC generated more than $66 million in revenue this past year. But he’s able to see the program with a wider lens. As soon as Bates arrived at BC, the clock was already running on his most pressing issue: evaluating a declining football program. He was swift in parting ways with head coach Frank Spaziani the day after the season ended and hiring former Temple coach Steve Addazio nine days later.
Nothing about that process was easy. He was cautious about being respectful of the long-tenured Spaziani, but also committed to the school’s supporters. He met with players for feedback about what they wanted out of a coach. He sent letters to season ticket-holders, reminding of the schools mantra, “Ever to excel.” Then he began plotting the course for the program.
“Football in a lot of ways is driving the national conversation,” he said. “You look at conference migration and it’s clearly being driven by football. Is it surprising to me that [in BC’s AD search] they would focus on someone with a football background? Not necessarily. My guess is most FBS schools are going to want people who have some connection with football and football experience.”
At the same time, he’s in the hallways and in the weight room, checking on all coaches and student-athletes. York occasionally runs into him.
“I was kind of picturing it one day,” York said. “What he must undertake in this position at this time — all the new people he has to meet, different people, alumni staffs, secretarial staffs — it’s a whirlwind thing.
“He’s seemed to deal with everything so calmly, so easily. I never saw any type of panic in his eyes or anything that said, ‘This is really difficult.’ He’s just kind of handled it with a lot of poise and a lot of dignity. He’s done it with a lot of grace.”