Q&A with Clarence Underwood

Michigan State University

By Staff

Athletic Management, 14.4, June/July 2002, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1404/qaunderwood.htm

In his first year as Director of Athletics at Michigan State University, Clarence Underwood saw his men's basketball team take the NCAA title, the football team win the Citrus Bowl, and at least one athlete from each sport attend their respective NCAA Championship. And the last two years have been as illustrious for Michigan State athletics.

His dedication to the university and its student-athletes has spanned 23 years, during which time he also served as Assistant Athletics Director for Academics, Associate Alumni Director, and Assistant Athletic Director for Compliance. Seven years as Deputy Commissioner of the Big Ten drew him away from his alma mater only temporarily, as he was named MSU's athletic director in 1999. That year, he was also honored by the National Consortium for Academics and Sports as one of seven recipients of the National Student-Athlete Day Giant Steps Award.

This summer, Underwood will retire from athletics. In this interview, he talks about the importance of building personal relationships, MSU's approach to coach retention, and student-athlete welfare issues.

AM: When you took the AD position, you stated that you would retire in three years. What were your objectives for the program in that short time frame?

Underwood: One goal was to unite the staff by establishing more collegiality in the department. I also wanted us to focus more on the welfare of student-athletes by treating them with respect and promoting progress toward degrees and graduation. I wanted us to work with integrity, improve our public image, upgrade our facilities, improve our gender equity percentages in proportionality and financial resources, generate additional revenue, and maintain a balanced budget. All of these goals were met, plus many others.

Throughout your career, you've worked with a number of athletic administrators. What, in your opinion, makes a great AD?

Firstly, the best ADs have people skills. People are involved in every activity, event, and decision we make, so you must be able to relate to people, understand people, and empathize with people as well as communicate well.

Great ADs also build internal and external relationships. You have to know how to work with individuals on your staff, within the university, and outside the university, because that is very important to team building.

Successful ADs also help staff manage and meet their goals. A lot of times, we assume that because people are experienced and have been with a program for a long time, they know how to do everything. But every day is a new challenge. New quirks come up in their jobs, and you have to be able to help staff establish new goals, keep them motivated, and then give them the resources and leadership to meet those goals.

I also feel you need to have "funnel" vision. That means the ability to be open and creative and evaluate new initiatives. You can't just have tunnel vision, where you see things only one way.

How do you build those relationships?

A lot of people assume relationships come naturally. But it's actually something you have to work at. And that starts with your integrity. You have to be honest with people.

Strong relationships also come from socializing together. Staffs need to meet outside of work and do things together, including their families, to find out what kind of people they are. If you don't do that, there are fewer bridges between administrators and staff, problems build up, and people deviate from the norm and try to find resolutions elsewhere.

How do you do this?

We rely on staff to find opportunities to socialize, but we also have planned activities. For example, in a couple weeks we're going to have a noon-time tailgate at Jenison Field House for all our staff. We have food catered, we provide music, we hold raffles, and it's a fun event. We have those kinds of activities three or four times a year.

We also host other social events where the families come, like at Christmas time and Thanksgiving. And then in August, prior to school starting, we have a big four-hour party where everybody gets to know each other again.

How did you make the transition from a student-athlete welfare and compliance background to director of athletics?

I've worked in many programs over many years. And in each job I've had, we've had financial issues and struggles to make ends meet. So managing a budget wasn't anything new to me. It was just a bigger budget.

One of the biggest challenges I faced, however, was fund-raising. The other thing that magnified itself was the enormity of people issues this position faces. Human relations and human resources was something I did not anticipate being so demanding. But in this position, there are so many issues that pop up with people, and you are constantly dealing with individuals while trying to keep their trust level and motivation up.

How do you retain great coaches at your institution when you don't pay the biggest salaries in the nation?

We provide incentives through performance bonuses. So rather than giving a coach a $10,000 salary increase each year, if they have a great year and win the Big Ten conference or go to the NCAA Tournament, they get a bonus that's a percentage of their salary--up to eight or nine percent. Then we have camps that our coaches manage and operate, and they keep most of those fees. And that allows us some flexibility [with salaries].

But those things alone will not keep a coach here. So the other thing I feel is essential is building loyalty through respect, trust, and social events, and making staff feel wanted and appreciated. Those things are just as important as the money. Our coaches have had opportunities to go elsewhere, and they've said, "No, I really like it here."

What are your strategies for a major sports hire?

The first thing you have to do is look for a world-class coach. A world-class coach, to me, is someone who has a history of integrity. It's somebody who understands the student-athletes, has demonstrated wisdom and leadership, and made progress in their program annually with consistency and without any major negative issues. It's also somebody who knows how to get along with people, both internally and externally, because a coach is a salesperson.

You also want to find someone who thinks about what "can be." They have to have a vision and be someone who looks to the future to improve on what they've done.

And you can't underestimate their focus on winning. They must have that mentality where they're always striving to be the very best they can be, always trying to find the best opportunity for student-athletes to excel both on the court and in the classroom.

Where do you look for candidates?

You look at programs that are already successful, because success breeds success. We keep a list of people who we think have the potential to move in here, and we keep track of them.

Tell me about the Women's Athletics Varsity Letter Celebration.

The celebration came about in part because of the anniversary of Title IX, but also because we had received so many correspondences over the years, from husbands and some women, too, asking that they or their wives be honored by a varsity letter. Many of these women felt that was one thing missing from their career--that even though they had done exceptionally well in their sport, they had not received the reward they felt they deserved. And that was because at the time, as part of the old AIAW, the university was forbidden to give women varsity letters.

So we decided to bring all these women back to campus for a two-day event where we would honor them with varsity letters. About 300 former female athletes came back to campus to attend the event, which included a women's basketball game and a banquet, and some were MSU athletes from 50 years ago.

And I'll tell you, of all the things I've done in my life, that was probably the most enlightening and joyous thing I've been involved with. I have never seen that many people so spirited, so thankful, and so appreciative for the opportunity to receive their varsity award in front of a packed house. It is something I'll never forget.

What student-athlete welfare issues do you see emerging on the horizon?

I see student-athletes getting more involved and having more of a voice at the NCAA. I envision an attempt by the NCAA to be more flexible in the grants-in-aid for student-athletes to improve the amounts they receive. I also think we may see more restrictions on the number of hours student-athletes participate in their sport.

Another change I think we'll see is a strengthening of academic standards. I don't know exactly which way that is going to go, but I think the issue of low graduation rates is still a major problem in this country.

Speaking of more voice, what are your views on the non-NCAA affiliated Collegiate Athletes Coalition?

I think the CAC has some issues that are truly legitimate. But now they are facing how to address those issues with the NCAA. When you have SAACs in place that are poised to receive more empowerment from the NCAA and a greater voice in the association, an external group like the CAC simply will not have the opportunity to communicate its views through the system.

Do you think the scrutiny by critics of athlete graduation rates is fair?

I've always felt that each institution should measure its own graduation rates and not be compared with another university. Because, in terms of the standards for admissions, support services, and the nature of the academic majors, each institution is unique, and to measure A against B, in my opinion, is not fair.

I think each institution must look at its graduation rates and establish its own internal criteria for measuring whether a subgroup of students is making progress or graduating in numbers that satisfy the institution. If they did that themselves, we'd see some improvements. Because the question is: Once you admit people, what are you doing at your institution to make sure they have an opportunity to graduate?

I also disagree with the suggestions to place disadvantages on programs with low graduation rates. It penalizes the coach more than anything else. But the coach did not admit the students, he doesn't teach them, and he has a very small role in making sure they comply with going to class, going to study sessions, etc. It seems a better formula should be developed to enforce that without focusing the end on the coach.

In 1997, you wrote an opinion piece in The NCAA News that advocated doing away with the NCAA rule book. What prompted these thoughts?

The point I was trying to make was that each institution needs to be responsible and accountable for monitoring its own integrity. They need to educate staff about what is wrong based on established rules, guidelines, and procedures at their university. And they need to enforce those. When something goes awry, they need to apply sanctions.

But in the NCAA, we try to hide problems and we don't really address them. Then, when there's an investigation by the NCAA, it really highlights a lot of things the school should have done initially. So we abdicate our responsibility and just let the NCAA find out about it. And I think that's the wrong way of going about it. I think each school should have its own integrity and character, and establish right and wrong based on school policy, laws, and procedures, and enforce them.

How do you ensure compliance by your coaches?

I think the biggest thing is you have to educate staff, and you have to have a systematic procedure for talking to staff about aspects of rules and regulations. But all of that means nothing unless you have a leader at the top who's also going to enforce compliance, who is going to say, "If you violate the rules, these are the consequences you must face regardless of who you are."

We have three full-time compliance staff members who, every other month, educate every coach and administrator on some aspect of the rules in person as well as in writing. Staff also meet quarterly to talk about the rules and regulations and enforcement. And when administrators meet weekly, compliance issues are addressed then, too.

What will you miss most and least when you retire?

What I'm not going to miss is the lack of flexibility in my schedule right now. What I'll miss most is the student-athletes. All my adult life I've worked with student-athletes, students, and student programs. Seeing young people develop and grow, graduate, and then come back and thank you for helping them reach their potential--I'm going to miss that a lot.