College athletics are one of the primary branding vehicles a university can have; it also unites students and alumni, draws people to the campus and produces graduates who are trained to deal with the pressures and challenges of the business environment. The old paradigm of the college athlete’s talent being primarily below the shoulders is giving way to the recognition that they are in fact some of the brightest and certainly the most focused and disciplined students on campus. That is a major plus for any business recruiter. I recently talked with UCF Athletic Director Todd Stansbury about the impact of their burgeoning programs on the university and the region.
EW: UCF football is in the middle of a historic season. What does that mean to a university and particularly UCF?
TS: Because of the platform athletics has, and particularly football, it begins to permeate the entire campus and community and the impact is amazing. Also, it gives us a stage that a university as young as ours doesn’t normally have. Our partnership with ESPN, happening at a time when our team has been so successful, was perfect timing. Suddenly, we have this incredible media partner through our conference (American Athletic Conference) coinciding with our success on the field. It has had an exponential impact, which we have never had before though we have had many very solid seasons. It isn’t just the game broadcast; it is the whole inventory of ESPN programming that continually highlights your program and achievements.
EW: How was that relationship established?
TS: When we joined the Big East, which later became the AAC, its media partner was ESPN. As things evolved, ESPN retained the media rights. So as a partner, when ESPN talks about the various conferences, it is to their advantage to discuss the AAC, so we have a seat at that table, which we have never had before.
EW: I would think since it is ESPN, you get more coverage than with a typical network partnership.
TS: JJ Worton’s catch was played hundreds of times in a 48-hour period after the Temple game on ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNU. You can’t buy that kind of exposure. As to the impact on the campus, the lowest hanging fruit test is student attendance at the games and they have been showing up in droves. Beyond that, if someone is wearing UCF gear anywhere in Central Florida, people are stopping him or her to share the enthusiasm. Though UCF has played in four out of eight conference championships and won two of them, the buzz about our team has never been this great. We’re five weeks being a ranked team; that’s the longest and the highest in our history.
EW: Explain the impact that the Bright House Networks Stadium and the new CFE Arena have on the university and particularly the students and alumni.
TS: We don’t get to this point without those kinds of facilities. Why? Without those facilities you can’t recruit this caliber of athletes we have here today. It also creates a campus culture. When I travel about the country to meet with UCF alumni groups, it is incredible how young they are. Seventy-five percent of the alums that show up have graduated since we started playing football on campus. It’s a game changer. Also, it gets people on the campus, and when they see it they are stunned; they know we’re at a world-class institution. It has helped UCF transition from where it began as a commuter school to a residential school with students who have the traditional college experience.
EW: Like any business, that kind of capital investment comes with a lot of risk. Explain what went into the process of building those marquee facilities.
TS: Obviously it happened before I got here, but what it requires is an incredible amount of vision by the president. Dr. Hitt deserves so much credit for seeing what this could become. He had a distinct vision of what he wanted UCF to be and part of that was to be a top tier university. He didn’t think UCF could get there without a top tier athletic program since the two go hand in hand. The cliché, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ is so true; student athletes, students, alumni and the community will all come. We’ve only been a level 1A program since the mid-to-late 90s, which is a pretty incredible story.
EW: There are programs you hear about today that 20 years ago were never mentioned, like, say, Oklahoma State University. Has the talent pool grown? What is providing more place settings at the table?
TS: In my experience, where you see that kind of surge, there has been a change in commitment at the university. OSU was given a significant stimulus package by T. Boone Pickens over a decade ago and now you’re beginning to see the return on that investment. Same thing is true at the University of Oregon.We know where we stand in the pecking order because of the age of our school, but eventually our size will play a decisive factor. We have 250,000 alums whose average age is 35 and we’re graduating 15,000 new ones a year. Eventually, that will produce a sizable return, but it will take time. We don’t have a large number of grey-headed donors, the mature donor base; our average alumni age is actually getting younger, not older. Also, 80 percent of our alums stay in the area, which puts us in an enviable position relative to typical universities whose support base moves out of the area.
EW: That number of graduates remaining in this area is staggering.
TS: It is part of the long-term impact of UCF – developing businesses and business relationships, stimulating entrepreneurialism. As a metropolitan university, we are not 50 to 100 miles from a major city; we are 9 miles! When we do a leadership event for our student athletes, say a networking night, the local branch manager doesn’t show up, it is the regional president; it isn’t the local rep for Coca-Cola, it’s the executive over the state of Florida. That is the competitive advantage we bring. From the day a student walks on campus, they are connected to business and community leaders in the region and they can develop relationships with leaders in their field. For four years they are engaged in the community. They won’t have to graduate and move to find a job; they are building their resumé with real world experience from the outset.
EW: You’re building a reputation of producing market-ready graduates. How did that begin?
TS: I was incredibly fortunate that the athletic director of my alma mater was Dr. Homer Rice; he was a visionary who developed the “Total Person Program” back in the early 80s. He believed that our responsibility was to develop young people beyond what they did in their sport. Most of my ideas have evolved from what I learned as an undergrad, then as an administrator under him at Georgia Tech. Today it is a very deliberate program to ensure all our students get the maximum benefit – from the marginal student to the ones going into pre-med. We want them to hit the ground running and be competitive in the job market just like they have been in athletics.
We have a unique carrot-and-a-stick in athletics that enables us to squeeze young people into being more than what they think is possible. With Dr. Hitt’s mission of being America’s leading partnership university, we have an opportunity to link students with the community, through programs like Junior Achievement and entrepreneurial development organizations. This is one of the things that really sets our program apart and it is only going to get better.