Brad Bates had that feeling. You know the one: the feeling that something is missing, but you’re not sure what exactly.
When he got to his first home football games as Boston College’s new athletic director, it became clear quickly.
“Well, yeah, what was missing were people in the seats,” he said with a laugh.
Bates knew before he took the job in October there were game-day deficiencies on and off the field, and once he settled into his office overlooking Alumni Stadium he set to work on them. He fired Frank Spaziani after a 2-10 finish, hired Steve Addazio and a new staff to work with him and then started working on off-the-field issues.
The Eagles held town-hall-style meetings with season-ticket holders to find out what they could do to improve the game-day experience (beyond, you know, winning more games), starting with football but touching on all other sports, as well.
BC has announced expanded tailgating options, new hospitality tents outside Alumni Stadium before football games and a new student ticketing plan.
“A big part of this is designed around, we need to create a waiting list,” he said. “We need to sell out our events. There’s a resource side to that, clearly. But it can’t be exclusively focused on the money and resources. It’s gotta be focused on giving the people that are supporting our students by coming to our games the greatest experience of a college game day we can possibly provide.
“We’re competing against a lot. Not only are we competing against the local professional teams and our ACC counterparts, but there are a lot of ways you can spend your entertainment dollar in the city of Boston. If people are going to invest in us, there oughta be a return on investment to them where they leave our stadium saying ‘Wow, I can’t wait for the next game.’”
The garage off Beacon Street, usually packed with cars, was sparse. The vast majority of the offices in the Yawkey Center were dark, doors closed.
It was midmorning on a Friday, and the Boston College campus was unusually quiet.
But Brad Bates, his schedule full, was in his office.
So what if it was Good Friday at a Jesuit school? The work doesn’t take days off for holidays, even if most people do.
The Eagles’ new athletic director hit the ground running in Chestnut Hill. He didn’t really have a choice in the matter.
He knew that there was a lot of work to be done behind the scenes, upgrading facilities and building in processes to ensure the department moves in the direction the university wants. And he knew there was one more thing to do, one thing that might be most important.
“On top of all that, you gotta meet people and develop relationships,” Bates said. “It’s very difficult to develop relationships with people when you need them or during a crisis. And so a lot of my focus has been on getting to know people within the BC community, whether they’re on campus or off campus.”
And so Bates has become a common sight around campus, showing up at practices and games, and has met with people from all over the university and from the general Boston community.
The early reviews have been glowing.
Andy Boynton, dean of BC’s Carroll School of Management and part of the search committee responsible for hiring Bates, called him “high energy” and a “natural leader.” Former colleagues of Bates at Miami (Ohio) have said they believe BC is “very fortunate to have him,” and that BC “couldn’t have found a better person to run their athletic department.”
If Bates can take BC athletics where the school wants it to go, it’ll be because of where he’s been.
BC’s new athletic director started from the ground level. Below ground level, even.
Lightly recruited out of high school, Bates thought he would probably land at a small in-state college. But he didn’t want to have to ask himself “What if?” So he and his parents went on a visit to Michigan, with the younger Bates hoping to meet with an assistant football coach. Maybe.
To his great surprise, legendary Wolverines coach Bo Schembechler took time out of his schedule to meet with Bates and his parents personally. That sealed the deal, and Bates enrolled and joined the team as a walk-on.
After his playing career, he moved into a job as a graduate assistant. Then he became strength coach at Colorado, then Vanderbilt. At Vanderbilt, Bates moved from coaching to an assistant athletic director post.
That set the son of two school teachers on a path toward a leadership position in athletic administration, as he ultimately made his way to senior associate athletic director at Vanderbilt before leaving to become Miami’s AD.
During his decade with the RedHawks, Bates oversaw a fundraising campaign to help renovate the football stadium and build a new ice hockey arena and softball field. Of Miami’s 18 teams, 14 won at least one conference title in his time there.
Approaching the one-year anniversary of his hiring at BC, Bates has already made a potentially tenure-defining hire in Addazio and is developing a strategic plan for the department that he hopes will both outline the BC athletics vision and define how to achieve it.
“Essentially we can make every policy decision based on two overarching questions,” he said. “The first one is, how does this help our students grow? And how does this help us win championships? Because I think the two are somewhat redundant. Winning championships I think [is] developmental and formational. That will be the overarching focus.”
Bates knows that if his teams are winning championships, it’s not only good for the teams and the department.
“Sports in our society are highly valued. They inherently have a marketing aspect to them,” he said. “And if you’re having success and your students are leaders in the community it’s a very effective and successful marketing vehicle for the entire university.
“If there are scandals, if you’re not having success, that can be a negative marketing vehicle. So the way the entire institution is branded, whether this is right or wrong, often is how their athletic programs perform, both on and off the field.”
Others acknowledge that fact, as well.
Boynton, the Carroll School dean and a renowned strategy expert, has gotten to know Bates very well since his hiring. When the new AD set out to develop his strategic plan, he didn’t hunker down to draft it himself -- he reached out to anyone he thought might be able to help, including Boynton.
“I think that there’s not a person on this campus that hasn’t been impressed,” Boynton said of Bates. “There’s no one from the leadership team on down that hasn’t been impressed.
“He really fits well at BC, where we need to win and develop student-athletes. … He understands the context of BC -- it’s not gonna be win at any cost. But we can win, we have great assets.
“Brad is someone we all believe can lead athletics into the future.”
For BC football, the future is underway.
Addazio and his staff have re-energized the program, pumping up recruiting and working to establish a winning mindset among the holdovers on the roster.
During the offseason, Addazio wanted to redo his office and the Eagles’ locker room in Alumni Stadium and to give the football offices in the Yawkey Center a facelift with new carpeting and paint. He also wanted to upgrade the video system the team uses, which he called antiquated.
All those requests were met.
“That’s pretty expensive stuff,” Addazio said of the new video system. “We upgraded all that. That’s great -- we’re right where we need to be there. So the administration is real committed to going about the business. ... They totally understand the fact that we’re gonna upgrade where we need to upgrade.”
The money for the new video system came from the department’s deferred maintenance and equipment budget, Bates said, money set aside last fall in anticipation of the transition.
When Saturday’s opener against Villanova rolls around, a number of other changes will be apparent to fans in Chestnut Hill -- including expanded tailgating options and new hospitality tents outside Alumni.
Bates said students have responded well to BC’s new “Gold Pass,” student ticketing initiative. The passes cost $175 and include entry to all BC’s ticketed athletic events, including football, men’s and women’s basketball and men’s ice hockey, on a first-come, first-served basis until student seating reaches capacity.
Coming off the 2-10 finish in 2012, ticket sales are down. Bates is undeterred.
“We traditionally experience a slight decline when Notre Dame is off the schedule and that has been perpetuated again this year,” Bates said. “Our gauge is a sold-out Alumni Stadium and we therefore will not be satisfied until we have a waiting list.
“We are continuing to implement new initiatives to attract fans regardless of the outcome of the games, but it is fair to say we have continued work ahead.”
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.