Q&A with Earl Edwards

Athletic Director, University of California-San Diego

By Staff

Athletic Management, 12.5, August/September 2000, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1205/qaedwards.htm

Earl Edwards does not shy away from a challenge, which is good, because this year he will lead the University of California-San Diego athletic department on a path into unknown territory. His first challenge is taking over the Athletic Director title from Judith Sweet, who stepped down one year ago to move into a faculty position at the school. Sweet lead the school to national prominence in the Division III ranks, including a Sears’ Directors’ Cup in 1998, and also served as the first female President of the NCAA.
Edwards’ second challenge is leading the athletic department into the Division II ranks. The school begins D-II play this fall, joining the California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA).
Having previously served as Associate Athletic Director at UCSD from 1987-1993, Edwards was Athletic Director at Division II East Stroudsburg University for the past seven years, coming back to UCSD on March 1, 2000. He is also a current member of the NCAA Division II Management Council.

AM: Why did you decide to make the move over to UC San Diego from East Stroudsburg?
Edwards: The big reason is that I enjoyed the seven years that I had here, before, as the associate athletic director. I really didn’t have plans on leaving UCSD until I decided that I wanted to become an athletic director. At the time, with Judy Sweet being the AD here, it didn’t look like that was going to be a possibility, so I left and went to East Stroudsburg. But when I had the opportunity to come back, I jumped at it, especially with the school moving to Division II.

What made you decide, seven years ago, that you wanted to be in the top spot?
After being in athletic administration for 20-plus years, I reached that point where I thought I was ready to lead my own program, to be in more of a control situation. Once I made that decision, it was becoming more and more difficult to be satisfied as an assistant or an associate. When I felt that I was ready to make that move, East Stroudsburg happened to be the place that gave me the first opportunity, so that’s where I went.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing you in this new position?
It’s a big difference going from Division III to Division II. In addition, we were independent before and now we’re going to a 12-team conference. I think the biggest challenge for us will be whether we can compete at the Division II level, although I believe that we can, particularly in certain sports.
The other challenge is just trying to educate the community on the difference between Division III and Division II. My focus for the next year or so will be on trying to market the program more, publicizing that now we’re Division II and that it’s much more competitive. We can give our fans a great entertainment package, and there will be more rivalries than we had in the past, especially considering that most of the 12 schools in our conference are from California.

What motivated the jump to Division II?
It was felt that it was time to move up to the next level primarily because of the university’s size. We’re at 19,000 and we’re soon going to 30,000. Most of the schools at Division III are much smaller. One of the schools that was in the CCAA recently left, so we had an opportunity to move into a conference. Also, we just wanted to step up the athletic competition level. So the university asked students and faculty to vote on the issue, and it passed.
When I was here before, back in the early ’90s, we did some research on whether we should make the move or not. At the time, it was determined that we should move to Division II, but the economic climate was such that it wasn’t financially feasible, so it was put on the back burner until the climate got better.

How are you going to find the new funding necessary for athletic scholarships?
You’ve hit on one of the things that is going to make it more challenging for us. Out of the 12 schools in our conference, we’re the only one going non-scholarship, which was a decision that was made by the university. They agreed to move to Division II, but to do it without scholarships. A lot of it has to do with the concern of some individuals that, by going to scholarships, we may end up lowering our academic standards. It’s not necessarily true, but it’s the belief that they have.

Is Title IX an issue in your department?
No, for two reasons. We don’t have scholarships, which certainly helps us in terms of equity, because when you traditionally look at scholarship dollars, quite often there’s an imbalance in male versus female. And the fact that we don’t have football helps us tremendously in our goal to be in compliance with Title IX. It’s not really an issue. We treat everything on an equitable basis in terms of facilities, budget, equipment, and so on.

Do you think that you might add football?
I would say that the likelihood of that is between zero and never. That’s been brought up many times, and the climate is such that nowhere in the near future do I anticipate football being part of our program. Without football, the financial burdens of running an athletic program are lessened, and from an economic standpoint, it makes it much easier to implement Title IX.

In replacing Judy Sweet, how do you give people confidence that you will continue the winning tradition established under her but also exhibit your own leadership style?
Once you educate people on the difference between Divisions III and II, it will be quite clear to them that, in the beginning, we won’t be able to continue the tradition of national championships. But we do intend to use that winning tradition we’ve developed in the past as a foundation to get us back to that level. It’s clear as we talk to people and they recognize the difference between the two, that the expectation will be different.
My leadership style is very different from the former athletic director. I’m much more hands-on in terms of talking to the coaches, being very involved with the community, and getting with people. Without question, her style was very effective as far as getting things done with success, but I don’t really see that as an issue. We’re so different that people won’t make that comparison.

How do coaches sell UCSD to recruits?
We are a great academic institution, which a lot of people aren’t aware of. For example, this incoming freshman class has a GPA of 4.05 and an average SAT of 1350. We have great facilities, and I don’t think there are many places in the country that can beat our location as far as climate. When you put all those things together, we feel very confident that we’ll be able to attract athletes who will be able to compete at the Division II level.
One of our Ten Commandments is that when we say student-athlete, we really mean student first and athlete second. That’s the way we operate; everything starts from that premise.

In what ways can an athletic department improve the welfare of the student-athletes?
I think there are a number of things. When I make decisions for my department, the first thing I look at is, “How does it impact the welfare of the student-athletes?” It can be anything—the hiring of a coach, how we travel, equipment we buy, services that we offer—but if I can’t answer that in a positive way then it’s not something I’m going to do, or it’s something I try to improve on.
Then I look for things that we may not be doing. For instance, personally, I think getting athletes very involved in community service projects helps them understand society and how it works. It also gives them more of a global approach to how they do things. I think that is helpful in terms of their welfare, and that’s why, for us, it will be a major priority in the upcoming year.
In addition, I look at hiring more support staff. We’re getting ready to hire a compliance/academic coordinator for our athletes so that this person can focus more on the academic side of what our athletes are doing.
We’re also going to join the CHAMPS/Life Skills program. This is another area that will help the student-athletes, not just in their career here at UCSD.
I also try to come up with ideas that are unique to UCSD. For example, we’re getting ready to set up a collaborative effort between us and the sports medicine program here, where they’ll work more with our athletes in terms of their research. We will look at injuries, eating habits, cardiovascular endurance—there are a number of things we’ll be able to do. This collaborative effort will certainly help our program to become better in terms of performance, and should also help the welfare of the student-athletes.

Do you have a favorite part of being an athletic director?
I would say, without hesitation, that it’s meeting all the people that you get to meet. I like the interaction with the student-athletes, the coaches, the faculty, the community, and the media. In fact, if I had my choice, I’d much rather interact and meet people and talk about different things than to be involved with some of the administrative and bureaucratic stuff that goes along with the job.

Do you have any thoughts about how to get more women and people of color into higher positions in athletic administration?
I think that creating mentor programs is one idea to look at. A good system would be internships set up specifically to encourage the individuals from minorities, as well as women, to get involved in the program. I also think that we, meaning athletic administrators, need to do a better job of communicating or networking regarding people in those categories that we’re aware of.

So you think the “old boys’ network” is still alive and well?
There’s no question, particularly if you look at the numbers. There are very few minority administrators at the Division II and Division I level—and the same goes for women. But, when you look at the number of minorities who participate in athletics, there’s only one answer, and that’s the current hiring practices. We just talked about this at an athletic directors’ meeting. When we talk about diversity, many people will say that it is a beneficial thing for everyone because it’s all part of the educational process. But also, from a global perspective, diversity is the way that society is moving anyway and we should be a part of it.
But as we sit around and talk about it, the real impact of change will never take place until the presidents, the people who are the real power, say, “Hey, this is a high priority and this is the way it’s going to be.” And if you look at any industry, corporate or otherwise, the only time diversity has really increased is when the people at the top say, “This is a high priority and you will do this.” I believe that’s what it’s going to take at the athletic side as well.