Q&A with Dave Blank

Drake University

By Staff

Athletic Management, 15.5, August/September 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1505/qablank.htm

Nationwide, Drake University is known mostly for one event: track and field’s Drake Relays. Dave Blank is trying to change that.

Hired three years ago as athletic director, Blank has revamped the department’s fund-raising program, brought two new basketball coaches on board, and restructured the academic support program for student-athletes. He also has bolstered the flagship 94-year-old track and field event by connecting it more to the community.

The former Athletic Director at Coastal Carolina, where he was previously the Associate Athletic Director for Development and Administration, Blank got into administration after coaching men’s basketball at several levels. He served as assistant coach to Bill Foster at Duke and South Carolina and was head coach at Lock Haven University, where he became the school’s winningest coach over eight seasons.

At Drake, Blank oversees a program that’s a member of the Missouri Valley Conference in all sports but football, which competes in the non-scholarship Pioneer League. In the following interview, he talks about how he developed new strategic plans for Drake’s athletic department, from fund-raising to motivating coaches.

AM: What was your process of goal setting when you took over at Drake?

Blank: The first thing I wanted to do was get to know my coaches and what their goals were, and make sure the department was providing the things they needed to be successful. Just as important, I had to figure out if our teams were funded properly, and if not, how we were going to go about changing that.

I discovered that all the coaches were up to their necks in fund-raising. I wasn’t real comfortable with that approach because I felt that the community was being asked too many times to give to an athletic cause. So I decided to take the fund-raising responsibility from the coaches and put it on the administration, and then work my way back to using the coaches for fund-raising in a controlled manner.

But to do that, and keep the coaches happy, I had to look at spending patterns instead of budget patterns. If the coaches are raising money that supplements their budgets, they’re spending more than the budget would reveal. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t change the student-athlete experience, so I didn’t just come in and say, “No fund-raising; you have just what your budget is.” I had to rearrange the budget and make the commitment on the administrative side to raise the money.

Once the coaches saw we were successful in doing just that, their enthusiasm grew, and they started asking how they could help. That’s the point we’re at now—starting to re-introduce the coaches into the fund-raising part of the job.

Why did you restructure Drake’s booster club, the Bulldog Club?

The Bulldog Club was restructured because it wasn’t really targeted on where I thought the money should be going. It was actually called the Bulldog Scholarship Fund. When I first got here, many boosters told me that wasn’t where they wanted their gifts to go. They wanted them to go to the enhancement of the sport programs and other things that affect the abilities of student-athletes within their specific programs.

So we invited the members of the booster club who had interest in each sport to construct a unified Bulldog Club. This unified club is focused on helping all sports programs, specifically in operations and areas that would enhance the student-athlete experience. So there was a change in philosophy as well as structure, but it was what the boosters wanted.

When you’re fund-raising on any level, you have to listen to the people who are giving you the money—where do they want it to go, and how do they want it used? Then they get more excited about what you’re trying to do. I spent much of my first year and a half getting the boosters on board.

What are some successful fund-raising approaches you’ve tried?

We’ve looked at opportunities as they’ve arisen, because I don’t believe you can forecast what will work without looking at the market. You can’t simply say, “We’ll have a golf outing,” because that might not be the right thing for your market. Again, it’s getting to know your boosters and coaches and trying to unite them on what you’re trying to do.

One major event we’ve added is a dinner auction, which began as a thank you to the Bulldog Club. Members were first invited to a free dinner. Then we added a silent auction, hoping it would cover our expenses for the event. It was an unbelievable success. We raised more than triple the cost of the event because the fans were excited at being invited to something that showed appreciation of them.

But most of our work has been on philosophy and infrastructure and getting people to feel good about what we’re doing. I spent a lot of time that first year doing public speaking. I wasn’t asking for money. What I was asking people to do was come to an event and shake the hand of one Drake student-athlete, just to meet one of our kids. When they get that personal touch, there’s a connection, and that will provide a payoff. We’ve got the type of fans here who like to interact on a personal level with the students, and that’s a special thing. So I’m trying to embrace that approach.

How important are the Drake Relays to the overall athletic program? How do you improve them?

It’s a big deal. It’s really the homecoming event for Drake, even more so than the football homecoming game. We bring in nearly 10,000 high school, college, and elite athletes from around the world. Attendance is a little over 40,000 every year, and we’ve had 35 consecutive Saturday sellouts.

When I accepted the athletic director job here, our Relays Director had just retired after 30-plus years, so my first major hire that October was Mark Kostek as Relay Director. Along with that, I changed the Relays in two ways.

First, I wanted to reconnect the Relays with the city since Des Moines has made a serious commitment to the Relays during their 94 years. We had been using hotels all over the place, so we established a hotel headquarters downtown and centered more activity there. One of the challenges I gave Mark when he was hired was to make sure that connection with the city was made.

The other thing was to make sure that the Relays were part of the athletic department. Previously, it operated as its own venture apart from the department. So we put both together and one feeds the other. My marketing team and my fund-raisers are involved with both. In putting that all together, we’re able to sing a united song, and it’s enhanced both areas.

You hired two new basketball coaches this spring: Tom Davis for men, Amy Stephens for women. How did you go about searching for candidates, and what qualities were you looking for?

When I started my search for men’s basketball, I was looking for someone who could bring us an instant connection to our recruiting base, and the support of the state of Iowa. I called Tom [Davis, retired head coach at the University of Iowa] simply to consult with him, but he immediately showed an interest. Over the course of a week of phone calls we decided that this would be the right thing to do.

I don’t think I did any convincing, because I told him I wouldn’t try to talk him into it. I actually wanted him to convince me that it was something he wanted to do, because he’d been retired for four years. I wanted to make sure there still was fire in his belly. At the same time, I had a vision of what this job could be for him. As I laid those things out for him, I think it was what he had wanted to hear. So I was able to bring him on board without really selling him.

The women’s coaching search was different. Lisa Stone was hired just before I got here, and she advanced to the University of Wisconsin, which was a dream job for her. Before that, Lisa Bluder went to Iowa, so our last two coaches moved on to Big Ten schools.

I felt the bar had been raised with our program, and we were able to go after attractive coaches. Amy Stephens was on my radar before the job was open, but she had just gone to the University of Nebraska as an assistant coach the year before. [She was head coach at Division II Nebraska-Kearney previously.] So I wasn’t sure if she’d be interested in moving that quickly, but fortunately she surprised me.

How do you motivate your coaches?

Coaches are self-driven and usually hardest on themselves. But I do believe an athletic director has a responsibility in motivating coaches, and I think it’s a process, not an event. I like to have the kind of relationship with all my coaches that makes them feel I’m on their team—I hang around their practices and locker rooms and I try to get a feel for what their needs might be.

Here at Drake, I have more coaching experience than a lot of people coaching for me, so I can sometimes offer my coaches suggestions to give them a different perspective. But I don’t cross the line—I try to stay out of decisions that are in the sanctuary of the coach. It’s important for athletic administrators to know where the line is, and to respect it. If you do, then you’ll be invited to cross the line as the coaches gain confidence in the fact you’re trying to help their programs.

What do you think of the current state of college athletics?

I like the fact that the NCAA is looking at academic reform and putting more emphasis on why we’re doing all of this in the first place. I think that’s opened a lot of eyes—to compare what should be the experience of the student-athlete against the business of college athletics.

Economics can be a driving force, and it’s a reality that there are certain things that we have to do in this business. The question is, how do we do that best while maintaining the integrity of the student-athlete and graduation and retention rates? We’ve got to be co-curricular with the university, and that’s a pretty strong description of our role here, which is to educate our student-athletes.

Is there an “arms race” at mid-level Division I schools?

At every level you’re in the arms race, just at a different level of competition. We don’t have to compete with the ACC, but we do have to keep up with other schools in the MVC. As they add facilities, we have to pay attention to that. Fortunately, I’ve spent the past three years doing just that, and I think we’re in pretty good shape. But “arms race” is a term related to the level you’re trying to compete.

Can you talk about the academic assistance program that has been created at Drake?

I worked with the provost’s office to structure an academic assistance program that’s integrated with the campus as a whole. I believe that academic support for athletes ought to be overseen by academicians who understand what’s needed. I structured a couple of positions that work with the provost’s office but are housed in athletics. We’re making sure that the student-athletes are being guided to the same kind of academic-assistance measures that any student at the university can seek.

Where I’ve taken it to the next level is in time management. I believe that academic assistance from an athletic standpoint is more about time management than about academic substance. We’re working to get the first-year student-athletes to understand that a day planner or Palm Pilot is a must. They have to structure their time with balance, and they have to understand the importance of interacting with their professors and seeking help from fellow students to get off to a good start.

The provost’s office has been the best connection to do that, because they’re looking at the best interests of all the students, and they know how the student-athlete fits into that. We have gone through the first year and are looking to see if we need to refine it. But so far it seems to have gone well.