Q&A with Cary Groth

Northern Illinois University

By Staff

Athletic Management, 14.6, October/November 2002, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1406/qagroth.htm

Debunking naysayers who claimed a woman would be incapable of making the necessary tough decisions, Northern Illinois University Athletics Director Cary Groth has overseen the revival of the school’s football team, which topped Wake Forest to open the 2002 season. It wasn’t easy, though. From 1996 through 1998, the team had a combined record of 3-30, including a 23-game losing streak.

But Groth had both patience and a plan. Hired in 1994, she brought Head Coach Joe Novak on board in 1996, and supported him through those painful first few years. The patience paid off as the Huskies posted a record of 6-5 in both 2000 and 2001, marking only the eighth and ninth winning seasons the program has enjoyed since moving into the major college ranks in 1969.

Under Groth’s direction, NIU has also upgraded many of its facilities, especially for baseball and football, and built other new ones, including a $36-million Convocation Center.

Except for three years of teaching high school, Groth has spent her entire adult life at Northern Illinois—first as a student-athlete, then as a tennis coach and athletic administrator. She is also currently a member of the U.S. government’s Commission on Opportunity in Athletics, which is revisiting Title IX interpretations. Below, Groth talks about the resurrection of the football program, student-athlete support programs, and future fund-raising projects at Northern.

What was your strategic plan to turn around the football program?

Our football program was floundering when I took over. So we made a coaching change after the 1995 season, and hired a coach, Joe Novak, who had a plan and vision of what Huskie football could and should be. It was really important to bring some stability and direction to the program, and that’s what we did.

At the same time, we were looking at entering a conference that made more sense for our institution. Back in 1995, we were part of the Big West Conference [in football only]. But we’re not a part of the West, we’re in the Midwest, so it didn’t really make sense for our program. We rejoined the Mid-American Conference in 1997, which made sense for not only our football team, but for our entire athletic program.

Even after the head coaching change, it took a while for the football team’s fortunes to improve. Was it hard to keep people’s spirits up?

It got tough sometimes, but what I think was really important—and I’ve learned this after the fact—was to share the plan with the president, administrative team, and decision makers on campus. They needed to clearly understand that if we were going to do it the right way, it was almost as if we were starting from zero, and it would take patience and time. And it did.

Too often we’re put in positions where there’s a lot of pressure from naysayers and those who question what we’re doing. But if you believe in the plan and the person executing the plan, it all pays off.

I got an e-mail from a gentleman after we won the Wake Forest game to open this season. He had written to me years ago telling me to get rid of Coach Novak, and that I should be gone. I had responded then by saying, “Be patient,” and he was now apologizing and saying that I was right.

What’s your general philosophy on hiring?

I think it’s really important to hire winners—people who have experienced success and haven’t just dreamt about it. Whether they’re coming from high school or another college, they have to have that experience.

But they also have to be the right fit. No matter how successful they’ve been, if they don’t fit, it’s never going to work. We’re not a Big Ten institution with unlimited resources, so if we hire people who have experience only in conferences or institutions that really have a lot of money, it may not be a good fit.

Do you spend time mentoring and motivating coaches?

I don’t think about it like that. I think we’re all on a team, and that hopefully we all feed upon one another. I know our coaches mentor and motivate me, and I think that our job is to be part of the whole team and the bigger picture.

I do think it’s our responsibility as administrators to provide the coaches and staff with opportunities to grow. We have a lot of young staff who want to go into athletic administration or become head coaches, and I think it’s important for us to provide those opportunities if we can.

What special programs have you developed for student-athletes?

We have a program that just finished its first year, the AIM Program, which was designed after all the attention on the African-American graduation rate, particularly in men’s basketball. We developed a program for our male African-American student-athletes of all sports. The goal is to better their self-esteem. They meet biweekly, and sometimes have a guest speaker. It’s a program to help them achieve success during and after college.

I’m a firm believer that anyone can do well in school if they believe that they can do well. If these young men can do well on their sports teams and understand complicated plays, then they can have success in the classroom. We just have to provide the support they need. But some of them come in believing they’re not very smart, so we’re trying to change the perception they have of themselves. This isn’t true of all our male African-American student-athletes, but a large part of them are like that.

We also have an Academic Excellence program that acknowledges academic success stories in our program. We have the Victory (3.0 GPA) and Huskie (3.5) Scholars, but we also have what we call the Heralded Huskies, who are student-athletes who increase their cumulative GPA by .2 or better over a semester. We acknowledge that those student-athletes are very much deserving of recognition that they’re doing better academically.

How is fan support at your events?

Ticket sales for football our first game were about 20,000, with a full student section. What we’re trying to do is get younger people interested in our events so they grow up being Huskie fans. If the youth come out to the games, then their parents do, too. And we’ve hired a strong marketing and promotion staff so we’re not left behind in those areas. We’re doing a lot of outreach to new people to town, alumni outreach within a 60-mile radius, and other things to meet the market.

Have there been any gender-related obstacles since taking over?

Some people—who are still on board here, by the way—said, “you can’t hire this ‘girl’ to run the athletic program.” But when I made a football coaching change, people felt I was capable of making tough decisions. It was unfortunate that it was my first big decision because no one ever likes to let anybody go. But I think the perception changed a bit because so many people think a woman can’t fire the football coach or isn’t strong enough to do certain things.

What may have made it easier for me is that people knew me and knew what they were getting. If I hadn’t been at Northern already, I would’ve had to prove myself and there would have been more of a learning curve with community and staff.

For women who want to go into this profession, they need to. It’s a great profession, and the world has changed. I’ve never had a problem with my male colleagues or feel that my abilities have been second guessed because I’m a female.

Have you had to make any difficult decisions to comply with Title IX?

I had to cut men’s and women’s swimming this past year, but not because of Title IX. We reevaluated our programs and it was a financial decision. We did drop women’s field hockey back in 1991 to add women’s soccer, because we had no conference affiliation with field hockey and the numbers were dwindling. Soccer was on an upswing, and we felt we could get more participation. When we did that, one of the field hockey parents filed a Title IX complaint, which just ended a couple of years ago.

Our coaches’ contracts and locker rooms are pretty similar, but our participation numbers aren’t—we’re probably about 60-40 men to women. So we qualify by meeting interests and abilities. We added women’s track and field and cross country. We felt they mirrored what was going in Illinois at the high school level.

What was the planning behind your facility upgrades?

When I started here in 1994, we took a look at all our facilities and tried to figure out what we needed immediately and what we might need 10 years down the road. Besides the Convention Center, we felt we needed some work done on our outdoor facilities, especially football. We had a 30,000-seat stadium, but one side was in very poor shape. So back in 1996, we built a $4-million grandstand to replace that. It’s a beautiful addition, and that upgrade has allowed us to attract Kansas State, Iowa State, Wake Forest, and Maryland, and it’s affording us opportunities to negotiate home-and-home and two-for-one contracts with other schools, which enhance the image of our program and lead to more ticket sales.

Since then, we’ve made a conscious effort to enhance something at our football stadium each year. Two years ago, we added a Daktronics video screen scoreboard and new sound system. Last year it was a new FieldTurf surface, a million-dollar project funded by the sales of our premium seats over the years. This year, we tore out the south end zone bleachers and are building a grass berm with fencing and landscaping. Two years ago, we upgraded the outdoor practice facility with landscaping. So every fall, when people come back, they see progress.

Now the big one we need to do in the next three years is build an facility behind the end-zone to house our football program. Too many of our competitors have that type of facility. Also, an indoor practice facility for all our sports, not just football, is in our plans.

Do you spend a lot of time fund-raising?

I think everyone does. That’s part of the job. I thought it would be easy. How fun would it be to just go out and talk about your program? Everyone would give you money! It’s simple!

But it’s so hard. Our institution is pretty new at fund-raising compared to others that have been doing it for years. What I’ve found to be the most important thing is not necessarily how much we’re raising, but how many relationships we’re building. So we’ve spent a lot of time developing relationships that I believe are paying off right now for us. The end-zone facility will be $7-10 million and the practice facility in the $3-7 million range, but we’re comfortable that we have people we can go to.

I don’t want to say it’s easier, but it seems a lot better to fund-raise when you’re winning. And when you have a new building that people can walk into, you can sell rooms within that building—they can see it in bricks and mortar, then they get a positive feeling and want to get involved.

What is the main issue facing Division I athletics today?

One word sums it up: money. I think it is becoming very difficult to keep up with this arms race, and hopefully we can slow it down a bit.

But the salaries and benefits that we pay some of these coaches, and the other money we’re putting into these programs versus the money they generate, is going to catch up with all of us—not just the Northerns of the world, but the top schools in the country as well.

Last night, I was watching a pro baseball game on TV, and there was hardly anyone in the stands. We don’t want that to happen to college athletics, where it becomes too costly to attend our events. Northern has really done well with our finances—we can compete. In football, we beat Wake Forest, and almost beat Illinois last year. But some of these things, particularly in the facility area, are catching up to us. They’re catching up to everybody.

Yet it’s still a great job, and most often I don’t think of it as a job, because it doesn’t feel like one. The only time it does is when we’re dealing with money issues.