Inspecting the Foundation

If you don't pay attention to the four cornerstones of a solid athletic department, you may eventually find everything crumbling around you.

By Dr. Elizabeth A. Alden

Elizabeth “Betsy” A. Alden, Ph.D., is President of Alden & Associates: Collegiate Athletics Consulting and Managing Partner at Alden-Perry Athletics Search She is a former athletics administrator and past president of NACWAA.

Athletic Management, 13.4, June/July 2001,

Do you ever look back and wonder how you really learned to be an athletics director? Was it by through classes and textbooks, observing others in similar positions, or just generally guessing what your responsibilities might be? Did you operate from the job description you were handed or did you just do your best to figure out your daily responsibilities?

I have been thinking about these questions recently and believe that much of my initial work as an athletic administrator would have been better if I had understood what I now call the “four cornerstones” of an athletics department.

What do I mean by a “cornerstone?” An architect’s definition is “the first stone laid at a corner where two walls begin and form the first part of a new building.” Applying the term to our world, we can define a cornerstone as a significant part of the foundation of an intercollegiate athletics program.

Cornerstones are critical—so critical that they are oftentimes ignored and neglected. However, without them your program will be as stable as a house of cards.

It is my opinion that the following items serve as the four cornerstones of a well-managed intercollegiate athletics program:

• policies and procedures manuals;

• organizational structure reviews;

• personnel and job descriptions reviews;

• strategic planing.

With the above, an athletic director is able to move his or her athletics program forward with the foundation in place and a direction determined.

The Forgotten Cornerstone
When consulting for an athletic department, the first question I often ask is, “Where is your policies and procedures manual currently located?” I worked with one athletic director who was absolutely convinced it was in his office. However it was later found in a box in a storage room. This scenario has repeated itself numerous times—hence my belief that the policies and procedures manual is a “forgotten” cornerstone.

This manual should be a living document that outlines, in detail, all the policies and procedures for every area and component of an intercollegiate athletics program. It is important to note the distinction between policy and procedure, however. The policies are an understanding of the general nature of the area, while the procedures spell out how the policies will be implemented and enforced.

If you don’t have a manual, or haven’t revised it in years, the upcoming summer months are a great time to get this job done. A good way to start is by thinking about this scenario: You have a new head coach in your program. If you could, in one document, share everything regarding the philosophy and general operations of your program with that coach, what would this document say?

Another way to look at it is as a combination orientation guide for new employees and reference book for existing staff members. It must make clear the philosophies and direction of the program, as well as provide basic information (e.g., medical leaves, how to make a sexual harassment complaint, the hierarchy of the department).

I recommend allowing all senior members of the staff to be involved in the creation of the manual. For example, your head athletic trainer can write the chapter on sports medicine and your director of sports information can write the chapter on media relations.

As the senior administrator in the department, it is absolutely critical that you read and approve the final draft of the entire manual. You might also ask the school’s chief financial officer to okay the financial operations chapter and the head of human resources to read the personnel chapter. This helps to ensure that the document follows general institutional policies and procedures.

I also recommend that you invite the college or university counsel to review the manual. Because it is a formal document, it is also a legal one. The athletic training, personnel, and financial operations chapters of the manual especially need a lawyer’s okay, as these are the chapters where you assume the most risk.

Finally, as arduous as it may sound, the manual must be updated annually. Remember, this should be a living document, and thus all information and instructions must be pertinent and up to date.

Internal Workings
A departmental organizational structure review is an instrument whose underlying theme is power. Who has the power and authority to do what in your program? Associated with this are issues of trust, morale, understanding of place, and human resources.

I have found that many intercollegiate athletics programs fall into one of the following scenarios:

• The program is operating under the same organizational structure as it did 20 years ago.

• The organizational structure is based on the model that the only person with staff reporting directly to him or her is the director. No associate or assistant directors have personnel reporting to them, particularly coaching staff.

• There is no solid organizational structure. If there is a change in personnel, the organizational structure changes to adapt instead of maintaining itself in a positive way. This occurs primarily at institutions where coaches have multiple roles, such as teaching, coaching, and administrative support functions.

By reviewing the organizational structure of an intercollegiate athletics program, an administrator can make improvements regarding job function and responsibility, and ultimately, the morale of the entire staff. A review of organizational structure can greatly influence the internal workings of a department in a positive way.

Everyday Worklife
Reviewing personnel and examining job descriptions is the third cornerstone of a well managed intercollegiate athletics program. The personnel review involves analyzing all facets of human resources issues facing you and your staff. This can range from workload and pay equity issues to office space problems.

As an example, I recently performed a personnel review and noted the lack of available drinking water for the staff in one of the athletic buildings. This may seem trivial, but even small matters in workplace environment can greatly affect staff morale.

The job descriptions review should be conducted every few years to ensure that there is equity in job assignments and that people’s job descriptions match their actual work. It is also important to assess whether job descriptions are being used appropriately during the evaluation process.

It is oftentimes best to bring in an outside consultant or a staff person from your human resources office to provide the job descriptions review. This allows a certain level of objectivity, which will likely enhance the findings.

Forward Thinking
Once these three cornerstones are addressed, it is time to begin developing a good strategic plan for your department. Simply put, a strategic plan provides specific direction for all areas in the program. It defines the athletic department’s mission and program goals while outlining how these goals might be reached.

Much like a policies and procedures manual, a strategic plan is a living document. You do not prepare a strategic plan and then put it on a shelf in your office. It must be constantly referred to and reviewed regarding the status of goals and objectives.

I like to refer to the process of creating a strategic plan as the “art and science” of planning. It takes a fine understanding of the institution, the intercollegiate athletics program, and our changing world to prepare a reality-based plan.

If done right, a good strategic plan will also create a sense of teamwork among the staff in the department. And “done right” means allowing everyone to have input in its creation. Staff members can then have a sense of ownership of the plans and be more motivated to work toward them as a team.

Finally, strategic plans are viewed very positively by senior administration. They attest to strong leadership on the part of the director of athletics because the president, chancellor, or vice president can see the direction the program is trying to move and what resources will be needed to get there.

With this last cornerstone in place, you’ll have a great foundation to support your athletics program. And you’ll usually find that annual reviews and updates to the cornerstones are some of the most rewarding work you can do!