There is newfound stability in the ACC head-coaching ranks, a nod to not only the high-quality hires who have come into the league, but also the idea that these programs are no longer viewed as "stepping-stone" jobs.
Where the turnover has come is on the athletic director level. During the past year, four athletic directors have departed for other jobs. Three spent three years or less in the ACC. Two spent less than two years in the ACC.
There is one thread that ties most together: Each cited a desire to be in a much more familiar place. When Mark Coyle left Syracuse for Minnesota after just 11 months on the job, he gave family reasons. Mike Bobinski left Georgia Tech for Purdue to get back to his roots in the Midwest. Scott Barnes left Pitt for Oregon State to be closer to family and his native Pacific Northwest. The only outlier is Boston College athletic director Brad Bates, who announced Monday that he was stepping down to join a consulting firm based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
What followed the Coyle and Bobinski departures was another similar thread. To fill the open jobs at Georgia Tech and Syracuse, the schools turned to alums with long-standing ties to their respective universities. The Jackets hired Todd Stansbury, and the Orange hired John Wildhack. Pitt is still looking to replace Barnes, while Boston College must find an AD who understands where the Eagles fit into the landscape given a much smaller athletic budget.
A trend appears to be forming, especially when you begin looking a little bit deeper. Going back to 2013, seven athletic directors have been hired in the ACC. Four had ties to either the university or area where they landed. All four remain in those jobs today: Blake James at Miami and Whit Babcock at Virginia Tech join Stansbury and Wildhack in that category. In all, six ACC athletic directors had previous ties to their respective programs.
So is this all a coincidence? Or is there a growing trend toward hiring athletic directors with program ties as a way to gain stability and the nuance needed to address the unique challenges that face every athletic department?
“I don’t know if that’s the trend, but I think what institutions hope for is that stability, and when you have that, a lot of times you’re hiring somebody who is familiar,” Barnes said. “For us, we want this to be a destination place. There are all types of reasons we think it is. Is it a trend? Every institution has a different view, but I do believe that a lot of folks are looking for leadership, continuity and stability.”
Stansbury also described Georgia Tech as a destination job. He departed Oregon State after just 15 months because the pull of his alma mater was too strong. (In what is absolutely a coincidence, Barnes replaced him at Oregon State.) Stansbury not only played football at Georgia Tech in the 1980s, he learned under athletic director Homer Rice, one of his first mentors in the business.
“I just knew that if I passed on it this time, it may never come back around again,” Stansbury said. “That’s what it really came down to. If I’m going to do it, now’s the time, and this has been the goal all along. I remember the day I left and walked out of the athletic department, and so the day I walked back in 22 years later was a pretty surreal experience.”
The most dramatic exit belongs to Coyle, who took the Minnesota job while the ACC spring meetings were going on last May. Football coach Dino Babers was caught so off guard, he had no idea what to say. Wildhack brings the complete opposite profile to the table: a Syracuse loyalist who remained close to the program during his many years working at ESPN.
Though he never worked in an athletic department previously, many of the skills Wildhack used to negotiate deals and lead his various teams at ESPN have translated perfectly to his new job. His ability to understand what makes Syracuse run has been instrumental as well.
“I did do my due diligence and research on this,” Wildhack said. “While it’s certainly a place I care about a lot, I wanted to make sure that if I do this, we can have the success that we all want. One of the things I’ve tried to do is take some of that culture at ESPN and instill it here. The staff has been very receptive to that.”
Stansbury described another added benefit to being at his destination job: a different view to future planning.
“It’s the end of the road, so your purview changes a little bit,” Stansbury said. “You’re at a place where this is where you plan to stay for the rest of your career, and I think it does make you a little more reflective on the decisions that you make today. You are the one who’s going to inherit them down the road, so you want to make sure you’re making good decisions.”
To be sure, there is not one cookie-cutter formula that works, and where a Power 5 program rates has plenty to do with the job applicant pool. Fresh perspectives are welcome, too, especially at programs where new vision and direction are needed.
But in these specific cases, it’s completely understandable why so many of these programs opted for somebody with long-standing ties. Especially since an athletic director’s job increasingly relies on fundraising and tapping into the community and alums for more and more support.
It has worked for Miami. James got his very first job working in ticket sales at Miami. Before he was elevated to athletic director, Miami went through two athletic directors over a four-year span. Now, the Hurricanes have much-needed stability at the top.
In the end, that’s what any athletic department wants. Someone familiar with the fabric of a university’s culture may be better suited for the job.