By Kyle Garratt
Kirby Hocutt's resume reads like that of someone 20 years older than he is. The 38 year-old University of Miami Athletic Director took over in South Florida in February 2008 after three years in the same position at Ohio University. In this interview, Hocutt talks about the lessons he learned from the great men he's worked with, being a young athletic director in a big program, and cleaning up the image of Miami's football program.
In March, he was named to Street & Smith's SportsBusiness Journal's "Forty under 40" list, which recognizes successful young sports executives. In May, The football program was recognized as having posted a multi-year academic progress rate (APR) score in the top 10 percent. Miami was the only Bowl Championship Subdivision team among the 26 schools recognized that finished ranked in the final USA Today Coaches Poll and Associated Press poll after the 2009 season.
While at Ohio, Hocutt restructured the athletic department's annual giving program, which helped increase fundraising by more than 75 percent. Hocutt helped improve season ticket sales in football by 112 percent and in men's basketball by 50 percent. In his three years at Ohio, Bobcat teams won six Mid-American Conference titles and four head coaches were named conference coaches of the year.
Hocutt, who played linebacker under Head Coach Bill Snyder at Kansas State University, began his career working with some of the most prestigious names in college athletics administration. He was an intern at the College Football Association under Chuck Neinas and associate athletic director for external operations and sports administration for six years at the University of Oklahoma, working with Joe Castiglione. There, Hocutt made vast improvements to the annual giving and capital campaigns. From 1998 to 2005, Oklahoma's annual giving increased from $3.4 million to more than $17 million.
AM: How were you able to climb the career ladder so quickly and become the Miami athletic director at such a young age?
Hocutt: I've been very fortunate in my career to be around great leaders and great universities. I had a chance at the beginning of my career to learn from Chuck Neinas at the College Football Association where I served an internship. Chuck is one of the most respected men in intercollegiate athletic administration. Then I had a chance to spend seven years at the University of Oklahoma and work beside Joe Castiglione, who is the best athletic director in the country. I have been very fortunate to be around tremendous people.
With that, I've always believed in hard work and being passionate about what you do in life. After spending five years as a student-athlete at Kansas State University, I wanted to give back and make sure others could have the same experience I did. I don't look at what I do as a job. I look at it as my passion and a lifestyle. It's something that is exciting and motivating to me each and every day.
What were the most important lessons your mentors taught you?
I learned at an early point in my career that this was not a job to me. I never found myself looking at my watch saying, "When do I leave here?" I spent two years working at the NCAA national office and I really saw it from a national and global perspective and just how expansive intercollegiate athletics is.
When I moved to Oklahoma, I had the opportunity to see and be a part of a tremendous athletics program and all the dynamics that go on behind the scene. Joe was tremendous in letting me sit in the room for important decisions. I was exposed to all the different units of an athletics program and saw his leadership style and was a very small part of the success that program had early in his tenure. As with anything, you take pieces of everything you learn from others and your experiences and you form your own style and way to do business.
How did being a Division I football player shape your leadership skills?
It was a unique situation and time in the history of Kansas State football. When I took my recruiting visit to Manhattan, Kansas, the only thing I knew about the program was that Sports Illustrated had named it "Futility U," the worst college football program in America.
At Kansas State, I saw the vision that Coach Snyder had and the importance of surrounding yourself with talented, good people. They recruited what I would define as a bunch of blue-collar student-athletes, guys who didn't have the greatest athletic ability in the world, but were passionate and committed to outworking everybody.
I learned the work ethic and commitment and desire and passion to be the best you can be. The lessons I learned there are something I still draw from today.
Did seeing Kansas State's reputation turn around influence how you approach managing an athletic department?
Everybody wants to be successful and success doesn't come overnight. It's a process and journey. You have to take satisfaction in continuous improvement and getting better each day, getting better each year. My last two years there we were ranked in the top 20 and went to two bowl games, which Kansas State had not done in I don't know how many years.
The expectation at Miami is different than at many places because it's to simply be the very best in the country. Those are expectations I embrace and I am motivated by the young people who are representing us in competition, the classroom, and the community. They have that drive to be the best.
I know from my time at Kansas State that continuous improvement and the steps Randy Shannon has taken to rebuild this Miami program will be successful. He's building it in a sustainable way. Realize that success doesn't happen overnight, and it's a gradual process focused on continuous improvement. That's what I'm committed to at Miami.
When did you know you wanted to go into administration instead of coaching?
Right away. I wanted to stay involved in intercollegiate athletics and coaching wasn't for me. I don't know why, but it just wasn't. I had an opportunity to get my foot in the door at an administrative unit and have been fortunate ever since. I realized at the end of my playing career that I didn't have the ability to play at a higher level, but I wanted to be involved in sports because that has been my life. I can't imagine myself ever doing anything else.
What were your goals when you took over at Miami?
To return this program to national prominence from top to bottom. To be the best academically, and competitively.
When you look at the fact that the University of Miami received the American Football Coaches Association graduation success rate award this year for 100 percent graduation, when you see our football program being recognized last week as achieving a top 10 percentile score in the APR ratings--we're having tremendous success in the classroom and we are having success in competition. Everyone is optimistic that our sports are building and next year promises to be a great year for the 'Canes.
What did you see that needed to change when you took over and how did you communicate that?
I spent time discussing what we wanted to be and why that was important to us. The foundation of any successful business is identifying what your mission is and what your shared commitments are as a department, and we started there.
It wasn't me as the athletic director, it was us as an athletic department and a team. We went through a number of discussions and revisited and updated our mission statement and developed eight shared goals. We're going to focus each day on pursuing those and being the best in all of our endeavors.
What are the eight goals?
The areas include student-athlete welfare, educational experience, competitive excellence, ethical conduct, financial stability, relationships, employee wellness and development, and the athletic facilities. We have a stated goal for enhancing each of those eight areas, but those are the pillars of our department that we as employees and coaches and student-athletes have said are important to us.
Do you feel you changed a lot right away, or did you ease in?
It's my philosophy that as a leader when you come in, the most important thing you can do is observe and ask questions and move slowly. It's not my style to come in and automatically make changes. As a leader, you spend time with people and listen and learn, then you help cast that vision of where you want to take this program. With the help of everyone else, you set a plan in place to get there.
I came into a department that has some extremely talented individuals and coaches who are committed to their professions. And I say their professions because we are in the profession of intercollegiate athletics, but it's within higher education. They truly believe that we are all judged by wins and losses, but the bigger story is that we are here to prepare young people for success in life. We have a group of coaches and staff who are committed to helping these 400 student-athletes take that next step in life. Our coaches serve as positive role models and mentors and educators and compliment the lessons our young people are learning in the classroom.
How do you get older staff members to follow the lead of a young athletic director?
Age has never been something I consider. People respect your commitment and passion. I am always going to treat everybody the way I want to be treated. I earn respect and trust and I treat everyone well.
I focus on building that vision and strategy to help us become the best in the country and people want to engage because we all have the shared goals and are working together. I don't look at myself as a young athletic director, I look at it as a leadership position that helps set the course and future success of this program. For me to be successful, I am going to need the help and support of all 140 employees we have.
What are your thoughts on major conference realignment?
We're in a very interesting time. The University of Miami is right where it belongs in the Atlantic Coast Conference. We have 12 great institutions that have the appropriate commitment and balance between academics and athletics to the degree that is stronger than any other conference in this country. We're observing it and discussing it and spending the appropriate amount of time on the topic. I'm not sure anybody is aware of what it going to happen over the next two or three years.
What does the increased revenue from the new television deal allow you to do?
Our commitment is to the welfare and the experience of our student-athletes. We're committed to making sure they have the highest quality experience possible while they are at the University of Miami. We are always focused on increasing our revenue streams. When you are afforded those opportunities you are investing back into your program to make sure your student-athletes have the best possible experience. Ticket sales, donations, corporate sponsorships, and conference agreements will all go towards improving our student-athletes' experiences here.
What are the keys to making sure a program like women's golf receives the same amount of your attention as the football program?
We have 17 sport programs and it starts at the top with the leadership within each program and bringing in the right leaders who are passionate and committed to being the best at what they do. We have some tremendous coaches at Miami who are committed to being the best. You bring in the right head coaches to lead your programs. That's the key to making sure that you are committed to each sport you sponsor.
Where do negotiations stand for renewing your football series with Notre Dame?
I'm optimistic we will come to an agreement and lineup on the gridiron with Notre Dame. It would be great for Miami and college football and it would be exciting. I'm excited we're having negotiations and we are close to an agreement. We hope to have it finalized by the end of the summer.
Do you want to play the first game in Chicago?
That's been discussed for 2012. Chicago is an important market for us in many ways--from a recruiting standpoint a lot of our great athletes over the years have come from Chicago, to being a strong alumni base and having some important constituents there. The U is a nationally known brand and mark. We are as much a national program as we are a local program and we take great pride in that. The opportunity to be able to take our program to various locations throughout the country is something we will look to do more.
What are the keys to cleaning up some of the image problems the football team has had in the past?
The only thing we can do is continue doing what we are doing right now, which is recruiting tremendous young men who are doing all the right things in the classroom and in the community. We bring the best athletes in the country in here to represent us. We have a very successful history and a past we are very proud of, but at the same time we have a great story to tell today, and focusing on the young people in our program right now is what we have to continue to do. We have to make sure this country understands that the University of Miami is a top 50 school as ranked by the US News and World Report.
The football team ranked seventh in the country in our APR score. We graduate all our student-athletes, as recognized by the American Football Coaches Association last year. People are serving as positive role models for people in the community. With the talented leadership at the top in our coaches there are great days ahead for us.
What were the keys for achieving the APR multi-year honor?
It's simple. You recruit young people who can compete in the classroom, and our coaches do that. We have coaches who are committed to higher education and understand how important a degree is in the life of a young person. If you don't attend class at the University of Miami, you are not going to compete. Then you put together a top academic support unit as well. We are very proud of that unit, and those are the three simple elements.
What advice would you have for other athletic directors for building a quickly successful career like you have?
Focus each and every day and continue to commit yourself to your student-athletes. Never lose sight that we are here for the athletes we have within our program. We have to continue to focus on their experience and goals and what we can do to support them. They have to remain at the core of our mission each day, and never lose sight of that.
Kyle Garratt is a former Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.