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Advancing Athletics

June 17, 2009
Photo by Photo illustration by Sean Cook | The State News

By now, you’ve seen the Pure Michigan advertisements on TV. In the commercials, there usually are images of Michigan’s Great Lakes, lighthouses and fresh harvests coming in. It shows all the openness, the nature of the state, the beauty that shines through the mere landscape and topography. But all the nature, as beautifully mesmerizing as it is, cannot hold the attention of the most freewheeling minds. The innovator’s and big dreamer’s minds are not usually satiated by a picturesque waterfall.

So when MSU’s Athletics Director Mark Hollis was growing up in less populated backwoods areas near Port Huron, he had little to turn to. An only child, Hollis was left to his own devices in the rural areas that Pure Michigan has made look so appealing.

And that’s how the mind that put MSU athletics in the national spotlight was born.

“At times we lived in … some rural areas, so your best friend was sometimes yourself,” Hollis said. “It created situations where you had to think creatively in order to have a good day.”

Hollis, the man behind the BasketBowl — a 2003 men’s basketball game between Kentucky and MSU at Ford Field, which remains the most attended basketball game in history — and the Cold War — a 2001 hockey game between MSU and Michigan, the first outdoor and highest attended hockey game in history — is a little more than 18 months into his post as athletics director. Known for his illustrious events, marketing success and spokesmanship for MSU, he has been called an innovator by his peers and earned considerable praise.

“I think I brought some of that into the workplace: of thinking to please, thinking to entertain, thinking to provide a good return to the university,” he said. “And I think if you walk through each one of those, there’s some who have compared me to the Ringling Bros. or a circus-type atmosphere.”

But Hollis’ role has shifted since he came back to MSU in 1995. The role of athletics director, despite all his accomplishments, is entirely new to Hollis.

“Once I got this job it was, ‘What happened to the Ringling Bros.?’” he said. “As a marketing person, you could step out of the box and make suggestions and recommendations, and now you’re making decisions. A little of that creativity has been set aside in regards to becoming a better leader versus a manager. It’s a part that I wrestle with a little bit because I really enjoyed that creative side.”

Leader of the pack

Hollis had worked his whole life to get to where he is today.

“It was sitting with President (Lou Anna K.) Simon … there was about a two-second sense of relief, and (then) kind of a gratifying (feeling). You’ve worked your rear end off for these last 25-plus years and you have now achieved,” Hollis said of the moment he first learned he would be athletics director in September 2007. “And it quickly went to responsibility and weight on shoulders and what you’re accountable for. Every action that you take virtually impacts so many different people.”

As commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, Jim Delany has seen plenty of athletics directors in action. He said Hollis has made one of the “smoother transitions” to leader of the athletics program.

One of the factors that might have helped Hollis is that he was a student at MSU and worked for the university for more than a decade before taking the post, Delany said. He explained that many athletics directors come from other schools and are out of touch with the campus culture, but Hollis has been a part of East Lansing and MSU since he was a student.

Still, the job Hollis called a “dream come true” — a position he aspired to hold even during his days as student manager for Jud Heathcote’s men’s basketball team — doesn’t come without its obstacles.

“Being a leader is different (from) being a manager,” Hollis said. “That’s the transition that’s very difficult for anybody that goes from assistant coach to head coach, from manager to president. That’s a process (where you can’t) just snap your fingers and it happens. It has to evolve.”

If there has been a learning curve, though, Hollis’ peers haven’t noticed it.

The possibility of Hollis succeeding Ron Mason as athletics director factored into MSU football head coach Mark Dantonio’s decision to leave his post at Cincinnati to return to MSU. Dantonio has known Hollis since 1995, when Dantonio was secondary coach under Nick Saban. Hollis was a lead negotiator in contract talks with Dantonio before he was hired in November 2006.

“From my standpoint, it was everything I wanted in an AD,” Dantonio said. “It was a very big component of our decision to come here as a family.”

Not only has Hollis been a key figure in negotiating with coaches — he also has helped bring in women’s basketball head coach Suzy Merchant, who took MSU to the Sweet 16 in her second season, and baseball head coach Jake Boss Jr., who coached the Spartans to their first Big Ten Tournament appearance in five years — but Hollis also has been influential in securing funds for facility upgrades.

Dantonio said the construction of the Skandalaris Football Center — a $15 million upgrade to the Duffy Daugherty Football Building — was “crucial” for MSU’s football program. Since Hollis has taken his new position, Old College Field has undergone a transformation as well, as it is now home to the brand new McLane Baseball Stadium, and DeMartin Stadium for the soccer teams.

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“The soccer stadium which we have now here, I have talked to some past ADs about that, and they almost thought it was a pipe dream,” said former men’s soccer head coach Joe Baum. “I thought I would be in heaven before that stadium would be built.”

But that’s just Mark Hollis. It’s not often that a school’s athletics director will be able to push such bold proposals with as great a rate of success, but Hollis learned early on that it’s important to stay well connected and build personal relationships. His time as an administrative assistant for the Western Athletic Conference, where he worked under former MSU Athletics Director Joe Kearney, taught Hollis the value of working closely with bowl officials, radio and TV networks, and the like.

Hollis has taken that same approach as athletics director, as he constantly makes presentations before the MSU Board of Trustees and the East Lansing City Council. The trust that the city and trustees have in Hollis has helped expedite many of his plans.

“He’s well-organized, and I guess you have to give President Simon some kind of credit to let him make some kind of presentation to the board,” said George Perles, an MSU trustee and former football coach and athletics director. “That hasn’t been done that often in the past.”

But it’s not a difficult decision for Simon to send Hollis before the Board of Trustees. She said Hollis’ values and vision for the athletics department coincide with those of MSU’s, and that she is comfortable with his approach for the department and MSU.

“He is able to speak about things in the three- to five-year horizon in respect to the implications those actions (have, not just) for today but for tomorrow,” she said.

Selling MSU

Coming from a marketing background, Hollis has experience in giving a product appeal. And when it comes to sports, there’s one sure way to manufacture a bestseller.

“I think winning is the best marketing tool that there is,” he said.

And that’s all MSU has done since Hollis took over as athletics director. The football team has made it to bowl games in each of the past two seasons, the men’s basketball team made it to the national championship game, the women’s
basketball team got to the Sweet 16, the men’s soccer team won its second Big Ten Championship in program history and the baseball team made it to the Big Ten Tournament, to name a few achievements.

“When you listen to him and watch him, you can tell how excited he is and the vision he has for the department and success level he wants to reach,” MSU hockey head coach Rick Comley said.

It became much easier to market MSU athletics and academics because of Hollis, as he was instrumental in obtaining a five-year contract with Detroit-based WJR (760-AM) — the most powerful radio station in Michigan. It also meant WJR’s long-standing partnership with U-M was dead.

“They’re ‘The Great Voice of the Great Lakes,’ and I think we’re the great university of the Great Lakes, so I always felt like the two kind of went together in a very positive way,” Hollis said.

Russ White, communications manager at University Relations, was a producer at WJR before coming to MSU. He said carrying MSU broadcasts on such a powerful station has positives that go further than the average listener being able to hear Spartans games.

“It’s easily the strongest station in Michigan, and that benefits recruiting when a lot more people can hear your games even beyond where your campus is,” White said.

People all over the nation heard about MSU with Hollis’ inventions, such as the BasketBowl and Cold War. Both events were the first of their kind, but not the last. The NHL now plays an outdoor hockey game every season, and the NCAA adopted Hollis’ format for the NCAA Tournament, allowing games to be played in front of larger crowds at football stadiums. The fact that those events have been repeated is what gives Hollis the most satisfaction, he said.

Hollis also is a traveling MSU salesman, as his soles have hit soil in virtually every state. Whether it’s going to California to appear at an alumni event or Indianapolis to speak to high school football coaches, Hollis is always on the move.

“He’s all over the place,” Perles said. “He’s at any function that’s going on.”

But all of the commuting, communication and coordination is part of the job.

“The ultimate responsibility of the athletic director is to get the best that you possibly can from everybody engaged in Spartan athletics,” Hollis said. “The students, the cheering sections, the teams, the student-athletes, the coaches, the alumni — you’re kind of that rallying source (that’s) trying to get everybody moving in the same direction.”

Work over pleasure

It’s not possible for Hollis to be a die-hard Spartans sports fan. Doing that would put his performance in jeopardy.

“When you see me at games you’ll never see me get too depressed and you’ll never see me get too excited about anything,” he said. “I just kind of have that even-keel mannerism. (I realize) that if all of a sudden you’re on a four-game losing streak, you need to do something to adjust. It’s not time to drop to the depths like you would as a fan.”

But you will see Hollis at MSU games.

Baum recalls a time when Hollis stood out in the pouring rain during a men’s soccer game, protected by his umbrella. Baum, who has coached at MSU for more than 30 years, said there had been athletics directors who never attended one men’s soccer game. Instead, Hollis is a regular at Old College Field.

“Can you imagine how that makes coaches feel, to see (Hollis) behind them cheering all the time?” Baum said. “It makes you want to die for MSU.”

The gratification of Hollis’ job doesn’t rest solely with athletic accomplishments. His pride for MSU swells with every MSU milestone.

“I’m a Spartan; I’m an alumnus,” he said. “I’m as big a fan as when Lou Anna is able to negotiate these deals with IBM or FRIB as I am going to the Rose Bowl.”

A self-proclaimed and widely anointed family man, Hollis said he views his athletics department as a sort of family. He said one of the best times he’s had was on the May 27 stop of the MSU Coaches on the Road tour in Grand Rapids, as Dantonio, Merchant, Comley, men’s basketball head coach Tom Izzo and several other coaches all piled onto the same bus for the trip.

“A friend of ours runs a country club over there and they asked us to come over and (I said), ‘OK, family, here’s where we’re going. We’re going to stop and just say hi,’” Hollis joked. “You want to be shoulder-to-shoulder with them, but at the same time you have to lead and make decisions in a fatherly type way.”

And in reality, Hollis is the current father of MSU athletics. He is the man at the top, the leader who is making the hard decisions in an unforgiving economy. And his job will never stop being tough — that’s just the nature of the position.

“You have to continue to push everybody in order to get better,” Hollis said. “In a quest for excellence, you never achieve excellence. You’re always striving for it, and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”

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