Q&A with Joe Baker

University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

By Staff

Athletic Management, 17.2, February/March 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1702/qabaker.htm

The athletic program at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse has a long tradition of success. And some of La Crosseís greatest accomplishments have come since the arrival of Athletic Director Joe Baker in 1998.

The program earned a seventh place finish in the 2004 NACDA Directorsí Cup for Division III and has won the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conferenceís All-Sports Award and All-Academic Award for the past four years. In 2004, the menís track and field team won its eighth straight national title (indoor and outdoor), the womenís gymnastics team captured the National Collegiate Gymnastics Association championship for the fourth year in a row, and the volleyball team reached the national quarterfinals for the second straight year.

Before heading the department at UW-L, Baker served as Head Menís Basketball Coach at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, where he also spent seven years as Assistant Athletic Director for Operations. He was Head Menís Basketball Coach at Colgate University from 1986-89. At UW-L, which fields 19 intercollegiate teams, Baker has piloted the department through difficult fiscal times, instituted a drug-testing program, and actively fostered student-athlete leadership in campus government.

AM: At the end of last semester, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse was second in the standings for the Directorís Cup. As the athletic director, what part do you play in that success?

Baker: Our program was successful long before I ever arrived on campus. I just try to assist our coaches and our student-athletes in their efforts. I would like to say that they have all the money they need, but thatís not true. I would like to say they have all the staffing that other schools have, but thatís not true. I would like to say we have better facilities than everybody else, but thatís not true either.

In spite of all that, we have great coaches and great kids. Athletes come here because they know our tradition and they want to be part of it. So Iím here to support them, whether that means raising funds, talking to people in the community, or attending games. Iím at every home game in every sport from August to Mayóthatís a priority for me. I want our coaches and student-athletes to see me there, so they know Iím here to support them.

How do help your coaches with recruiting?

First, I keep our staff updated on the latest trends on our campus. We have a monthly staff meeting where I bring in someone from campus, like the director of financial aid or the director of admissions, who talks to our coaches about the profile for next yearís class, because every year Iíve been here, the academic profile has gotten higher. So in October, our coaches know exactly what the admissions office is looking for, and they donít waste time recruiting folks who wonít get in. Then, when recruits and their families come to campus, I meet with them, and if the coach isnít available to take them on a campus tour, Iíll take them myself.

How do you motivate your coaches?

All our coaches are very, very competitive. Weíre in a very competitive program in a very competitive league and everybody wants to win. My goal is actually to relieve that pressure to win. I spend a lot of time reminding our coaches why theyíre here. Itís not about winning the championship, itís about running a good, solid program. Winning is a byproduct of running a good, solid program, just as losing is a byproduct of not running that type of program.

What are you doing to show your commitment to diversity?

Thatís a subject the state system, the campus, and our program are all dealing with. The system and campus each have initiatives to increase minority enrollment, making dollars available for recruitment and adding staff to help reach the targeted populations. Weíve tapped into those resources to make our coaches aware of whatís available on campus. We donít have a recruiting budget, so I canít say, "Iíll give you more money to go to these places." But I will tell them, "The new minority recruiter in the admissions office is going to be at the following high schools, and they can either bring back names or you can give that person names of student-athletes to seek out when theyíre there."

Itís not easy, but weíre making strides. I think the campus and athletic program realize that this is the direction we need to continue going in. Weíre making the effort and hopefully weíre going to start seeing results in the near future.

What are you doing to increase diversity in your coaching staff?

After my first year here, I went to the Final Four and spoke to the BCA membership, saying, "Iíve got two positions open, head menís basketball coach and head womenís basketball coach. But youíve got to have a masterís degree in physical education." I left there with only one resume.

Any time we have a position open, Iím on the telephone trying to find leads. But weíre all fighting over the same small pool of minority applicants, and Division III is the last place those people are going to consider, because they can get more money in Division I and Division II. Having spent years in Division I and Division II, I know those folks are out looking for the same people we are. So again, weíre trying to do our best and make some inroads, but if youíre a minority coach trying to decide between a school in Chicago or a school in La Crosse, Wisconsin, which are you going to choose?

The university has some new initiatives to increase diversity, so we partnered with other units on campus to add two new part-time positions this year: an assistant menís and an assistant womenís basketball coach. The menís assistant also works as a fundraiser for the university foundation, and the womenís assistant also works in the admissions office. We were able to get two additional assistant coaches without having to pay the bulk of their salaries.

How have you responded to the budget crunch?

Weíve become more responsible. Weíve gone out and negotiated better deals for ourselves than we had in the past. And weíve made coaches more responsible for their budgets, so if they go over budget, weíre going to take that money from another area of theirs.

Our school has a different fiscal set-up than most places. All the operating dollars for our athletic programs come from student government. So unlike athletic directors at most places, I donít sit down with the vice president of finance to discuss my budget, I sit across the table from a bunch of students. And every time I ask for an increase, they look at me and say, "That means my fees are going to go up."

Itís a totally different dynamic, because I have to educate the people in student government about what weíre trying to do. So starting in September, we have weekly or bi-weekly meetings to bring them up to speed, and in mid-November, we start the first round of budget talks. The students keep changing from year to year, but over time weíve established a very good relationship with student government, and weíve done a good job of explaining things to them.

How much of your time is spent fundraising?

Probably 25 to 30 percent. In the past, we were very tied into raising funds through events, and it took months to put an event together that would raise X amount of dollars. Now, weíre targeting sponsors in the community instead. I can spend 30 minutes with a banker in town and raise twice as much money. We have a ton of different sponsors, from banks to restaurants to hotels to car dealerships, and they all do something different for us.

A lot of people have accused us of acting like a Division I program by becoming more commercialized. But the fact is that thereís money out there and all you have to do is ask for it. Thereís no harm in talking about what youíre going to do for the money and what your sponsors are going to do for you. As long as itís moral, ethical, and legal, we donít have a problem discussing it.

To obtain these sponsorships, itís important for people to see that weíre community players, and thatís really been helped by the fact that our programs have been very successful and our student-athletes havenít gotten in trouble. Being a state school, about 85 percent of our kids are from Wisconsin, and the majority of them are from the surrounding area. So businesses can see the value in being associated with our institution and our program.

We also do work in the community. We conduct a community cleanup day and a campus cleanup day. We collect food for the local food kitchen and used sneakers for the local Boys & Girls Club. Our teams go out to the elementary schools and read. We hold camps during the summer, and during the school year we have Junior Eagle programs where our coaches offer clinics to kids in the community. Having our student-athletes working in the community has been very, very helpful in promoting a positive image and securing sponsorship dollars.

For three years, La Crosse randomly tested athletes for drugs. What did you learn?

When we were putting together the program, some of our coaches were afraid that it would deter recruits from coming here. But those very same coaches came back after we started and said, "You know what? When I sit down with a parent, and the parent knows that we test, the parent tells the kid, ĎThatís where youíre going.í" So it wasnít a deterrent in recruiting, it was actually very positive.

Once we started the program, we got a lot of positive press on campus, in the community, and within our league. We had a random selection process and an observation-based gathering process, and our student-athletes understood how it worked. There were some athletes who didnít want it, but whenever they were called in to be tested, they came in, and the process worked well. Over time, it got to be more and more expensiveówe were probably spending between $12,000 and $15,000 a yearóand the chancellor decided that we could no longer bear the expense. Fortunately, the results were pretty good. It was obvious we didnít have a problem, so people felt we didnít need to continue spending money on it.

What changes would you like to see in Division III?

Iíd like Division III to get to the point where, when we look at a field of 32, 48, or 64 teams for nationals, that itís truly a championship field. Right now, with the automatic qualifiers, if you win your conference your team automatically gets in. But if youíre the second place team in a leagueóeven if itís a very strong leagueóyou donít. I think that if weíre going to call it a national championship tournament, we should have the best teams in it.

I understand that out of the 430 Division III teams, a small number of us are public schools, and the private schools outnumber us five to one. I understand that everyone doesnít aspire to be national caliber, but weíve given them a spot in the national tournament anyway. Iíd like to see us come up with a better way. Part of that solution will be put into place next year when we expand the brackets in most team sports to incorporate more at-large spots for those second- and third-place teams from the stronger conferences, but we may need to do more.

Iíd also like to see the NCAA continue to give back to campuses. Every fall, we invite speakers to talk with all our athletes, and in the last couple of years weíve been able to tap into NCAA grant money to pay for that. Iíd like to see the NCAA continue to provide opportunities for campuses to do programming and give back to the kids who perform in our programs.

Whatís the most difficult part of being a Division III athletic director?

For me, itís telling somebody "No." A coach comes to me and says, "I need more money in my budget." And I have to say, "No. I would like to be able to put more money in your budget, but I canít."

As an administrator, Iíve got to be able to step back and look at the big picture. I tell people all the time that the old adage about treating everybody the same is not necessarily right. I donít treat everybody the same. But I try to treat everybody fairly.

I donít give 12 women on the tennis team the same budget that I give 100 men on the football team. To treat them the same means that Iíd have to give them both the same budget, and thatís not the case. So I treat them fairly, making sure I give each team as much as I can, based on what they actually need. Thatís always my objective: to treat everybody fairly. That way, everybody on your staff buys into your mission.

Do you ever think about moving up to Division I or Division II?

No. Iíve worked in Division I, so I know the problems they have, and Iím not interested. Iíve worked in Division II, I know the issues they have, and I donít want to be there either. My personality, the way I operate, best fits where I am. I enjoy being involved with our students. I started out as a schoolteacher, and Iíve never wanted to lose my contact with students. The higher up you go, the more removed you are from the students, and thatís not a lot of fun.

I think Division III is closest to what our forefathers envisioned college athletics to be. Itís pure, itís simple. Our kids pay to come to school and participate because they want to. Itís not TV and scholarship money and all the things that go with it.

As a young man, I went to Montclair State, back when there was no Division I, II, or IIIóthere were small colleges and major colleges. I remember competing against those major colleges. Sure, they were getting some money, but that didnít make any difference to us. We just wanted to play. And to me, thatís still the kind of kids I want to be around.

Iím always asked, "Whatís next for you?" I tell everybody, "The day they change the locks on my office door, thatís the day Iíll turn around and go back home." I enjoy doing what I do, and I donít see any reason not to continue doing it.