A lot of golf and a little baseball helped prepare CU Athletic Director Rick George to lead all sports, not just football.
President and CEO of the Fore!Kids Foundation. Executive vice president and chief of operations for the PGA TOUR.
President of The Champions Tour. Chief operating officer of the Texas Rangers. As Rick George settles into his latest dream job—Director of Athletics at the University of Colorado—he is drawing on formative experiences from all those heady stops along the career path that in August 2013 led him back to Boulder, where 25 years earlier he had served as recruiting coordinator and assistant athletic director for football operations for coach Bill McCartney during the Buffaloes’ run to the 1990 national championship.
“Pretty early in my career I said I wanted to be an AD or a general manager in the NFL,” he muses in his Dal Ward Center office. “Never got either one of them until 13 months ago.”
Quickly then, he acknowledges: “No question. Every place I’ve been, I learned something that prepared me for this.”
From managing a successful nonprofit to operating a thriving golf tour to running a $270-$280-million payroll, George accumulated the kind of experiences that appealed to CU Chancellor Phil DiStefano when he decided to make a change in the athletics director position. Given the university’s continually rising $62 million athletic budget, and knowing it needed new facilities, DiStefano says he was looking for someone who had a track record in the business world and also knew athletics.
“Rick’s name came up many times,” the chancellor says. “I knew Rick when he was here as recruiting coordinator under coach McCartney. I had followed his career, and knew he was doing very good things from the standpoint of business acumen—having an understanding of how to raise money, get more sponsorships. With The Champions Tour, he increased sponsorships and increased the revenue coming in. He did that same thing with the Texas Rangers. He really turned that organization around.”
Now 54, George didn’t concern himself with fundraising or other sports when he was at CU in his late 20s. After working as a football recruiter for his University of Illinois alma mater, he came to Colorado to head up recruiting and football operations for McCartney. Period.
“When I was here with football,” he recalls, “all I was worried about was 11 Saturdays and the bowl game. We had a mission and Mac had a vision, and we worked to that. Somebody asked me, ‘Did you have to deal with this or this or this,’ and no, I didn’t. We met with the director of admissions, and that was pretty much it. Now, there’s so much more.”
George’s new job requires that he show an interest in all sports involving CU student-athletes, and he has found that he enjoys soccer, volleyball, lacrosse, tennis—you name it. He went to a cross-country invitational at Stanford, and is excited that CU will host the PAC 12 Women’s Golf Championship in April at Boulder Country Club.
“I have more respect for all our sports,” George says. “I’ve found I love them all. It’s fun to be around the young people who are busting their tails and representing us in such a great way.”
CU women’s golf coach Anne Kelly has experienced first-hand George’s commitment to the sport to which she has devoted her energies since 1997.
“He doesn’t have a lot of interaction with our team because he’s so busy,” she says. “But he knows our players, and he knows how we’re doing.”
Kelly tells how George, new on the job, spent four or five hours at the team’s annual fundraiser, meeting everyone and greeting the team. “The next year, he couldn’t play but he bought a foursome to support us,” she says. “It’s nice to have an athletics director who has a background in golf and understands all the outreaches through golf.”
“When we talked about hiring him, it was to work on the facilities and make sure we could compete in the PAC 12, especially in football,” says DiStefano. “But Rick knows more about the Olympic sports than I think any other AD I’ve known at CU. Not only does he know the coaches, he also knows the studentathletes. He’s very busy, but if he’s in town he’ll be out supporting whatever team is playing. I applaud him for that.
A practice George brought with him from the PGA TOUR has contributed greatly to his interaction with CU’s student-athletes.
“Meeting with players and hearing them out—we did a lot of that at the PGA TOUR,” he says. “Whenever I would go on the road, Tuesday was a player day because that was a practice day. So that day I spent the whole day doing nothing but visiting with players, hearing what their thoughts were. Then, later, we would always take a group of younger players and older players to dinner to get their feedback, their input on what we were doing.”
George does the same thing with CU’s student-athletes. Twice a semester he meets with the team captains of every team, about 40 people.
“What I try to do is share what we’re doing in our department— here’s what our goals and objectives are; here’s what our core values are; here are my expectations of you as a captain; your expectations of me as an AD should be this. We talk through all of that. And I get their thoughts on their needs and concerns, to make sure we’re providing the experience they need.”
PGA TOUR Commissioner Tim Finchem (pictured below with George and Coloradan Craig Stadler) sees those meetings as an example of the communication skills that George exhibited with golf professionals.
“Our players are essentially independent contractors,” Finchem says. “They are responsible for themselves, versus being in a team situation. So they have their own questions, their own issues, their own interests. Rick was very effective at earning the players’ trust by establishing a personal connection where they were comfortable dealing with him and talking about any concerns they might have related to the TOUR.”
BUFFING IT UP
What a difference more than two decades can make.
Dal Ward Center—price tag $14 million—was under construction when George left CU for a coaching opportunity at Vanderbilt in January 1991. Dal Ward opened eight months later, heralded by the university as a “multi-functional, state-of-the-art structure” that was “one of the top facilities anywhere in college athletics.”
By the fall of 2014 it took a small army of flagmen to direct traffic around the construction site next to Dal Ward as work proceeded on what has become a $156 million project to expand and modernize the CU athletics complex. The scene symbolized how things changed in the quarter-century since George was last there, and how things are changing, more and for the better, now that he’s back and in charge.
Past its prime, Dal Ward and adjacent Folsom Field must be upgraded— then exploited—if George is to elevate the CU sports program to across-the-board PAC 12 competitiveness. This he has to do while balancing the Athletic Department budget. It’s a lesson he learned with the Rangers, who won two American League pennants while he was right-hand man to club president and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan.
“Being at the Texas Rangers really gave me more of a sense of big budgeting and being responsible for the whole thing,” George says. “If you don’t hit the budget there, somebody’s writing a check. And you don’t want your owners writing checks. So we looked at how we could monetize our business, and we created an entity there called Rangers Enterprises that was really focused on non-game day business.”
So, fresh off his Texas Rangers experience, George immediately put the brakes on the original, less ambitious version of the athletics complex project that had been presented to the CU Board of Regents six months earlier. He says he needed more time to evaluate the entire project.
He sought input from all corners of the athletics department—including the cross-country coach, the women’s ski team and the head of sports performance—and incorporated many suggestions. The revised project now includes renovation of 78,200 square feet of space and the addition of another 306,000.
Added will be club seats, loge boxes and other premium seating at Folsom Field, and an 8,000-square foot Touchdown Club in the north end zone; a 100-yard indoor football practice facility, with a six-lane, 300-meter perimeter track; a high performance sports center; locker rooms for sports teams that didn’t previously have them; upgraded sports medicine, strength training and study facilities; and an enhanced dining area called the Champions Club that will be more than just the athletes’ training table.
“We’re going to be able to monetize the Touchdown Club on a daily basis, and during game days,” George says. “We’ll also utilize the Champions Club on game day.”
George also hired Lance Carl, one of his recruits who was a key figure in CU’s landmark 20-10 upset of then third-ranked Nebraska in 1986, “to focus on non-game day business.”
Last October’s preseason game between the Nuggets and the Portland Trailblazers at the Coors Events Center was Carl’s idea, a preview of coming attractions as he focuses on bookings when the current construction is completed.
“We want to emphasize what we are doing on non-game days to generate core revenue, nontraditional revenue, that helps pay the bills,” George says.
Developing new sources of income is essential, but George knows football will always generate the most money.
“One of the things we have to do a better job of is providing more resources for all of our sports,” he says. “How do you do that? The reality is that football has to be successful. That’s just the fact. It has to be successful. It’s vital to all our programs.
“And so we’re talking about getting football going in the right direction, where we’re getting closer to that 50,000 than 40,000. When you put 50,000 people in the stadium, the ticket revenue you generate, the exposure you generate, the corporate sponsorships you generate, the donations you generate—are significant.”
MAKING IT RAIN
George spends more than half his time fundraising. He is in Denver often, meeting individuals and groups, and he hits the road a lot. Golf can lubricate those relationships, but he admits his game is a casualty of his schedule; he’s a 16 and trending upward.
What is headed in the right direction, however, is the perception of the university’s sports programs.
“When I came in here, there were a lot of people who were mad about something. What I tried to do was to get everybody focused on ‘Why do you love CU?’ It really centers around the student-athlete and what these young people are doing in the classroom, on the playing surface, out in the community— how they represent us.”
Now, he says, people are asking, “How can we help?”
Still, it’s different now than it was 25 years ago.
“Back in the day, there were donors; today there are investors in your program,” he explains. “They want to know what you’re doing. They want to know how they can invest, and see what their investment does. What we’re showing them is we graduate 83 percent of our student-athletes; we had an academic performance rating of 983, and seven teams had a thousand; we won the PAC 12 Humanitarian Award for what our student-athletes are doing off the playing surface; we had 15 of our 17 sports teams go to the postseason. We’ve just done some really good things, and we’ve got a vision for the long term that develops facilities that allow us to provide for student-athletes.”
DiStefano attributes George’s success as a fundraiser to a character trait he first spotted in George 25 years ago, when DiStefano was a dean.
“I knew Rick as a member of McCartney’s staff,” he says. “What always impressed me was the recruits he brought in, after they quit playing for Coach McCartney, still keep in touch with Rick. That tells me there was a great deal of trust. I’ve had a number of people say that to me. He’s someone who is trustworthy and has a great deal of integrity. When people have that kind of trust, they are more willing to give their support.”
Some have second-guessed CU’s entry into the PAC 12 Conference. George calls it “a great move,” and backs up that belief with several compelling reasons. Without mentioning well-documented financial benefits, he cites shared research capabilities with the 11 other conference schools, a large alumni base on the West Coast, and the reach of the PAC 12 television network, which enables parents to watch the sons and daughters compete.
Local golf fans will realize a double benefit April 20-22, when the women’s golf conference championship comes to Boulder Country Club.
“Anyone who comes out to watch will see many of America’s best women amateurs,” Anne Kelly says, noting the added attraction of free admission. “The PAC 12 is the toughest conference in women’s golf. Nine of the 11 teams in the conference were selected for postseason play last year. Seven of the 11 were in the national top 20.”
George still has his 1991 Orange Bowl badge, a memento from the national championship game. But, he says, “I’m not a big believer in going back to the past. I’m more a believer in looking at your opportunities, and how are you going to outcoach and outperform other teams?”
As inspiration, he doesn’t recall the exploits of Coach Mac or Charles Johnson, but of Tiger Woods at the 2007 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
“I remember giving him the trophy on the green at Firestone after Rory Sabbatini had made that comment about Tiger being more beatable than ever. Rory led by a stroke after the third round, and Tiger wound up beating him by eight strokes. I remember thinking, ‘Man, that guy’s a competitor.’
“At CU, we’re trying to create a culture of being competitors and winning championships—in all of our sports.”
Contributor Denny Dressman, a member of the Denver Press Club Hall of Fame, has authored five books (comservbooks.com). Colorado AvidGolfer is the state’s leading resource for golf and the lifestyle that surrounds it. It publishes eight issues annually and proudly delivers daily content via www.coloradoavidgolfer.com.