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USC-led Program Preps Future Athletic Directors

USC-led Program Preps Future Athletic Directors
USC senior associate athletic director Steve Lopes

In 1989, there was no simple path to becoming an athletic director. Sports management programs weren’t as prevalent as they are today, and professionals already in the industry often didn’t have time to go through an entire degree program anyway.

That’s why Mike McGee, USC’s athletic director at the time, saw the need for a comprehensive, graduate-level executive program that covered everything from negotiations and decision-making to ethics.

McGee’s initial concept would evolve into the Sports Management Institute (SMI), a seven-month course that allows students to learn a broad range of skills at a handful of participating universities. Rather than a degree program, it’s an educational program designed for professionals already working in sports administration.

To date, it has turned out more than 65 athletic directors currently working at major universities across the country, including Kevin Anderson of the University of Maryland, Mitch Barnhart of the University of Kentucky and Lisa Love of Arizona State University, one of the first female athletic directors in the country. Both Dick Baddour, who was athletic director of the University of North Carolina until Oct. 14, as well as his successor, Bubba Cunningham, are graduates of the program. Cunningham cited his experience with SMI in his press conference.

“There’s nothing like it that I know of in college athletics,” said Steve Lopes, SMI’s executive director and USC’s senior associate athletic director. “This preceded the sports management programs you see these days. Go back to 1989 and there wasn’t anything like this happening.”

The program is housed at USC but conducted at a number of participating institutions depending on the season and the year. USC, Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina joined in the program its first year; the University of Michigan and the University of Texas followed in 2000, along with the University of Georgia in 2006.

The member institutions open up their campuses and faculty to the program at different times of the year, Lopes said. He said there are certain faculty members – like retired USC professor Jerry Jellison, author of Overcoming Resistance to Change – who even travel to whichever campus is hosting classes during each season.

Lopes said Jellison had become so popular that he’ll teach at an institution each year no matter where it is. Another traveling professor is John Daly of the University of Texas, who teaches advocacy.

The range of skills that the institute develops is broad, Lopes said. Besides sitting in on panels and classes, students are expected to complete and present a six-month project under the guidance of a faculty adviser. The courses that are covered throughout the program, such as like management strategy and marketing, can be found in any business program. But they also include topics like media relations, ethical behavior and legal issues specific to the world of sports management. Each of the topics is framed in the context of sports management, giving students unique career insight.

Depending on what the hot topics are each year, different institutions will change or add to the courses they teach, said Josh Berlo, senior assistant athletic director at Notre Dame.

Berlo noted that the flexibility of the program is an asset. In recent years, students have learned different aspects of managing multimillion-dollar budgets and a variety of legal topics. They also get a chance to see how other institutions approach those issues, adding to the variety of their experience.

One of the most valuable things students take away is a network of supportive professionals.

“The bonds they form are pretty significant,” Berlo said. “You almost end up with your own little bench coach. They’re almost peer mentors.”

Lopes added that the two weeks students spend with each other allows them to learn almost as much from each other as they do from their teachers.

“You use this network of people for the rest of your career,” Lopes said.

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