John Wildhack

Q&A with new Syracuse AD John Wildhack: Changes in college athletics, in-game student experience and more

Courtesy of Keith Kobland

Syracuse announced John Wildhack as the university's 11th Director of Athletics on Tuesday. He sat with The Daily Orange to answer questions about college athletics and SU.

Syracuse University announced John Wildhack as its new director of athletics on Thursday. Wildhack left ESPN to come to SU after 36 years with the network.

He sat with The Daily Orange and answered questions on change in college athletics, taking lessons from ESPN to SU and the student experience at games.

The following is edited for clarity. 

The Daily Orange: In 1980, when it was a fledgling network, why ESPN?

John Wildhack: Because they offered me a job (laughs). And I had graduated, and I was off the payroll. And I needed a job. I always loved sports … I actually interviewed in Rochester because ESPN was up for PBA, a professional bowlers event, Ellen Beckwith was the production executive who ultimately interviewed me and recommended me to be hired. I thought it’d be a great place, frankly, to get experience. I told my parents at the time I’d be there no more than three years. Obviously I’m not very good at keeping track of time.

The D.O.: What type of perspective did being there 36 years and seeing ESPN and Bristol, Connecticut rise from the ground up?

J.W.: When you do that, I think there’s an incredible sense of pride, right, that you can have and your team can have. This is something we shepherded from conception to conclusion. I think that’s pretty neat.

Things here, we’re in a really good spot here. … Now it’s fun, when you have really good success like that, how do you build on and sustain it and make it even better? Those are fun challenges to have and fun opportunities.

The D.O.: Jim Boeheim said he didn’t think the role of the AD has changed all that much since he started at SU. Do you think it has changed and how has it changed?

J.W.: Back in the 70s and 80s, a lot of the time, the AD was the football coach or the former football coach. It’s just like anything else: The world of college athletics has gotten more complex, just like our world is.

You see people with more varied backgrounds rather than coming up through the coaching ranks and the coaching tree or what have you. The role, ultimately what our job is to take young people and provide them a world-class educational opportunity, support them to achieve their maximum athletically and when they leave here they can have success and be productive in whatever endeavor they choose. To Jim’s point, I think that was probably the goal 40 years ago and it’s certainly the goal today.

The D.O.: Just a couple years ago, the athletic department faced the NCAA sanctions. How can you help SU progress from the scars of that process?

J.W.: A lot of that has been resolved. Now, it’s important for us, one of the things that we’ll stress, we’re going to be as compliant a program as there is in the country. … To me that’s in the past and it’s, what are we doing in fall of 2016? That’s my focus.

The D.O.: When you were at SU, it had a few different sports, including wrestling, swimming and gymnastics. Is adding a sport something you will look at down the road?

J.W.: We might at some point. My own personal philosophy is we should not add a sport unless we are adequately prepared to compete and compete at a high level, as we’re doing now. Adding sports just to add sports, I’m not sure what that accomplishes.

If we’re going to do something, let’s do it first class, let’s go all in and do so in a way that we can compete at a high level.

The D.O.: Where do you see college athletics going in terms of broadcasting?

J.W.: As new platforms, new technology’s come to market, we should look along the ACC to see where we can aggressively utilize those platforms to connect with Syracuse fans all over the world.

I think ESPN3 is a good example of that. Broadband service, it’s got infinite capacity. We’ve been able to program so many thousands of hours of Olympic sports on ESPN3. And that’s all driven by broadband technology. Technology we should look at as our ally in terms of how we get more content out, we should use it as an ally in how we connect and engage with our fans.

The D.O.: How much of a focus is improving the student experience at games and how much do you know about what Mark Coyle was working on with them about student activity fees and things like that?

J.W.: I need to get up to speed on that, but our students are incredibly important … Students are important, really important. We need their support, as we do the entire community.

The D.O.: How did ESPN stay ahead of other broadcasting and sports companies, and how can you apply those methods at SU?

J.W.: I think we’ve always had a pretty entrepreneurial culture at ESPN, and it started that way out of necessity early on. … We’ve always embraced risk-taking. I think you need to do that. You can’t win all the time playing defense, you gotta take some chances. If something works, fantastic. If not, you learn from it. Maybe you can tweak it and it’ll work. Or, if not, hey, you tried it, it didn’t work. No harm, no foul.

The D.O.: You’ve said before you and Dino Babers have to do a download of the football program to evaluate it. Coming in, what is one thing you can hone in on and say you want to improve?

J.W.: It has to be built the right way. I look forward to getting with coach Babers. I like that he has a definitive system that he runs and he’s had success with both offensively and defensively. I think the brand of football that we play is, particularly on offense, very well suited for the Carrier Dome.

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