Athletic Management, 16.4, June/July 2004, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1604/qawaggoner.htm
Since taking the helm of Western State College athletics in 1994, Dr. Greg Waggoner has led the department’s teams to eight national championships, seven consecutive top 11 finishes in the NACDA Directors’ Cup standings, and 56 national top 10 finishes. At the same time, he’s greatly expanded the department’s economic base by beginning a program of corporate partnerships and launching a series of fund-raising events.
A 1980 graduate of Western, Waggoner has been a high school wrestling coach and was Head Wrestling Coach at Western as well as an associate professor of kinesiology and recreation before his athletic director duties became full time in 1997. He currently serves as a member of the NACDA Division II Athletic Directors Association Executive Committee, a member of the NCAA Division II Wrestling Committee, and chair of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference’s Athletic Directors Council.
In this interview, Waggoner talks about fund-raising, team-building, and the importance of producing multi-dimensional student-athletes.
What are you most proud of in your work at Western State?
The first two things that come to mind are our rankings in the Directors’ Cup and our student-athletes’ overall academic success. In the last five years, we’ve had three top five finishes in the Directors’ Cup standings. This past year, our student-athletes’ graduation rate was 19 percentage points above the general student body at Western, which ranked us second in NCAA Division II. In large part, we’ve had that success because our coaches recruit the type of students who fit our program, and they facilitate an environment where it’s understood that athletic achievement should not come at the expense of academic achievement.
As an athletic director, how do you foster that success?
My role is to help create a team approach within the department. Working in this department is like being part of a team, and when one program isn’t having a great year, the other programs step up to keep us competitive. We’ve got a great group of dedicated coaches who truly believe they can win, regardless of having modest financial resources. They work extra hard at recruiting, coaching their student-athletes, and raising the resources they need to close the funding gap. Everyone in this department—athletic trainers, equipment managers, sports information directors, support staff—works together as a team in everything we do here.
What can athletic directors do to improve their graduation rates?
When you’re hiring coaches, it’s important to make sure they understand the importance of academics at your institution and in your athletic department. That’s been an important part of the conversation in every hire I’ve been involved with. It’s unfortunate there are people in the collegiate ranks who believe that good academics and good athletics are mutually exclusive concepts, because they’re not. They’re mutually beneficial, and there’s no better example of that than Stanford, which has high academic standards and wins the Directors’ Cup in Division I almost every year.
The same concept can be applied at public colleges and universities that have more liberal selection standards for their students. At Western, some of our students come from backgrounds that may not place the same emphasis on higher education. They may be first-generation college students or they may have athletic talent but haven’t made that same level of commitment to their academics. That’s okay, as long as they’re ready to make that commitment when they arrive on campus. If they are, we’ll do our part to facilitate their success.
We also have a cradle-to-graduation approach. From early on, we’re targeting people who fit our program and identifying potential Western student-athletes, in some cases years in advance. When our students matriculate, their coaches are immediately involved in knowing what their classes are and checking to make sure each student has the right balance of work.
We don’t have an athletic academic advising system, but each coach has his or her own approach to emphasizing academics, and they all do a great job of it. Some require that all freshmen do mandatory study table, and some don’t. When I was coaching the wrestling team, my goal was not to force the student-athletes to form a study table, but to teach them to force themselves to form a study table.
We also teach the importance of being multi-dimensional—being good students, good athletes, good people, and good citizens. We talk a lot about values and goal-setting. Ultimately, if you’re creating a healthy competitive environment in which there are high expectations for your student-athletes and a high degree of accountability, you can motivate student-athletes to get more serious about their schoolwork.
How have you improved athletic fund-raising?
One of the reasons we’re able to be successful fund-raisers is that we’ve got a great product. Our student-athletes are very involved and integrated into the campus and the community. When you have a product like that, it’s a lot easier to talk to people about participating in a corporate partner program or to solicit funds for our booster club. You hear a lot of people say, "Everybody loves a winner," and that’s true. But not every team is going to win every year, and that’s why we’re creating multi-dimensional student-athletes. People want to see that what we’re preaching is really what we’re delivering: good student-athletes who are actively involved in their community.
The corporate partner program allows businesses to use Western athletics as a marketing vehicle. With these sponsorships, we’re able to communicate what "Mountaineer Magic" is all about. We have 70-some corporate partners affiliated with the athletic department. The majority of our corporate partners are locally based, ranging from a couple of orthopedic clinics to a sand and gravel company. We also have some national partners, including Verizon Wireless.
What have been your most successful fund-raisers?
We do a golf tournament, which we build corporate partnerships around, utilizing alumni invitations and community booster cultivation. Three years ago, we started a Crab Feed Auction Dinner and Casino Night, where we fly crab in from California and sell tickets, corporate tables, and title sponsorships. We’re also looking to host a golf tournament and auction dinner in the Denver area, where we have a large alumni base.
But these events are not just fund-raisers. They build an esprit de corps, where people are excited to come back and participate in an event on an annual basis. People want to feel good about your program, and any time you can get them involved with your student-athletes, it’s a positive thing. So our student-athletes caddy at the golf tournament and they serve the crab dinner.
Once a year, we conduct a Thank-a-thon, where all our boosters and corporate partners receive a phone call from a student-athlete thanking them—not soliciting them. We thank them for everything they’ve done for our program, and it’s one of the most successful things we’ve ever done.
Do you conduct any sport-specific fund-raising?
We do a blend of both general and sport-specific fund-raising. If you coordinate them properly, the combination can really increase your net gain with minimal conflicts. With the sport-specific, you’re reaching people who otherwise might not participate. And by combining it with the general, you create a synergy of everybody pulling in the same direction, which almost always leads to more success.
When I first took over as athletic director, the booster association was called the Century Club, which was started in the early ’60s, when tuition wasn’t much more than $100. Each booster gave $100, which at the time was a significant contribution for most members of the Gunnison community. But by the ’90s, tuition was $2,000, and all the other costs of doing business in collegiate athletics had risen exponentially. So we changed the name to the Mountaineer Athletics Association, then put some systems in place to target, solicit, cultivate, and service our boosters in a more personal fashion.
In a small community like Gunnison, where there is a deep sense of tradition, it was very important to keep our grassroots base. So we used the transition to honor all of the charter members of the Century Club, giving them some very memorable items with the Century Club name on them as we launched our new association.
We’ve put some systems in place to make the association run more smoothly. For example, we make sure that our volunteer boosters are well educated on our solicitation strategies, and that they’re well informed about the school and the athletic department, because it’s important that we’re all spreading the same message.
How do you promote student-athlete leadership?
A year or two before the NCAA mandated that every school have a Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, we started one on our campus. We began to really stress the importance of fostering leadership to the coaches, and they in turn would encourage their student-athletes to become involved in campus affairs. I also engaged the SAAC in campus governance issues and things of that nature. Our athletes are now very involved in student government—half the people in student government are student-athletes, and the past two presidents have been student-athletes. And one of the results is that people on campus are seeing athletics in a different light.
As we created the charter for the SAAC, we set some goals, one of which was to become more involved in community service projects. So each year, we do at least one project collectively, and also have each of our coaches conduct some sort of service activity on their own. Each team finds a niche in which they can give back to the community. I highly encourage these efforts, because our community has been so supportive to us, and it’s very important that they see us giving back.
How has your research into the economic impact of Western athletics on the community affected your approach to fund-raising?
The days are gone when an athletic director could tell his community, "We won our game last Saturday, so we’re doing well." More than ever, it’s important to quantify your department’s impact both inside and outside your school.
With internal fund-raising, you might be trying to obtain more funding from student fees or from the college’s general fund. You might need to justify the money you already have or protect your department during budget cuts. The bottom line is we in athletics need to quantify our value to the institution and the institution’s mission in a way that we didn’t have to years ago. And I think it’s important that we don’t take our role for granted, that we understand exactly what we contribute in the overall scheme of things.
With external fund-raising, it’s important to build a corporate partner program where you’re not asking for a donation—you’re offering your sponsors something valuable in return for their financial support. Western State College athletics is a significant part of the college and the local economy, where we contribute between $10 and $15 million a year. The college is the largest driving force in the local economy. When I demonstrate that quantitatively, people in the community respond.