Building a Championship Culture

By Donald Gilpin | Photos by Ben Solomon/Rutgers Athletics

Rutgers is embarking on its fifth year in the Big Ten Conference, and Athletic Director Pat Hobbs, in his third season with the Scarlet Knights, has a clearly defined goal in sight: the creation of a championship culture. Hobbs refers to his “five-year turnaround plan,” which he adopted when he arrived in November 2015, and he looks forward to exciting developments on the field, in the classroom, and in the institution as a whole as Rutgers’ impact on the Big Ten and the Big Ten’s impact on Rutgers continue to grow in the coming years. “One of the reasons I was attracted to the job was because Rutgers is now part of the Big Ten Conference,” says Hobbs, who had previously served as law school dean and athletic director at Seton Hall University.

The challenges are formidable, and the past two and a half years, on the field and off, have been difficult. In addition to overall winning percentages at just around .250 (about three losses for each win) in conference play since 2014, Hobbs also inherited a program afflicted by various scandals entangling two previous athletic directors, football players dismissed from the team for alleged criminal conduct, a suspended head coach, and more.

“When I took the job, I met with the staff on the first day and we talked about the negative feedback loop that we were in, and the need for that to end,” Hobbs said. “There’s lots of different metaphors that people use. ‘If you’re in a hole, stop digging,’ is one. We’re going to think positively, and we’re going to work positively, and we’re confident as we go forward you will start to see more and more moments where we’re performing on the Big Ten level.”

Hobbs emphasized the importance of the Big Ten Academic Alliance and the Big Ten influence on scholastic matters as well as athletics at Rutgers. “It’s the premier athletic conference in the country, with a great focus on the quality of the academic institutions that are a part of it,” he said. “All of the schools in the Big Ten are part of a consortium, where we share research and faculty work together. It’s the power of many.”

He described research projects underway with extensive collaboration among Big Ten institutions. “The Big Ten receives more research dollars than other conferences. There’s great work going on. There’s collective work in the field of cancer research that’s very significant, and we’re a part of that with our Cancer Institute at Rutgers.”

Hobbs continued, “So there’s the simple pride of membership, but also there’s the real academic work and research that’s going on in ways that are benefiting everyone in the country. It’s something we can all be very proud of.”

The 14 Big Ten Academic Alliance member institutions collaborate on a number of programs, collectively educating almost 600,000 students and conducting more than $9 billion in funded research, from which Rutgers has benefited significantly.

Hobbs went on to discuss the exposure, publicity, prestige, and status that Big Ten membership has brought to Rutgers, affecting prospective students and others. “There’s much more interest in Rutgers University on the part of students applying from states where other Big Ten schools reside,” he noted. “We’re getting more applications from the West than Rutgers has ever seen before.”

He emphasized the national exposure and the positive effects of Big Ten Network media coverage. “Because we’re participating in athletics on the big stage, more people are seeing what Rutgers is all about on a football Saturday. We’re nationally televised every Saturday. Watchers are also seeing our basketball participation and our other sports.”

Traditionally benefiting from strong interest and many admissions applicants from New Jersey, Rutgers, according to Hobbs, now has also grabbed significant attention from outside the state. “The Big Ten footprint,” he notes, represents a population of about 85 million.

“We’re recruiting now at a level we were not recruiting at five years ago,” he said. “Some of the best athletes in the nation are now looking at Rutgers and giving the school consideration. This bodes very well for our performance on the fields and the courts in the years ahead.”

Proud of Being Jersey

For Hobbs, the key to the success of Rutgers’ teams, as well as financial success for the athletic department and the success of the whole Big Ten enterprise, revolves around building that championship culture. But he acknowledges that even with positive attitude and focused investment of financial and human resources, it won’t happen overnight.

“That takes time,” he said, “and depending on the sport it can take a little bit more time. We’re now making the investment that’s required in order to develop our student athletes and provide the coaches with the resources they need so that they can be successful, so they can recruit against the best and develop our students when they come here, and then go on to success on the field.”

After taking charge, Hobbs wasted little time in making two major investments in personnel, hiring head coaches Chris Ash in football and Steve Pikiell in basketball.

He noted the investments in facilities that are accompanying Rutgers’ progress in the Big Ten: the RWJBarnabas Health Athletic Performance Center, scheduled to be completed by July 2019, which will feature a state-of-the-art practice facility for the men’s and women’s basketball, wrestling, and gymnastics programs; and this year’s groundbreaking for the Gary and Barbara Rodkin Center for Academic Success, which will consolidate athletic support services and provide a home for men’s and women’s lacrosse and soccer programs.

“We’re really making the investment across our programs in ways that are going to have a dramatic effect in terms of our on-field success as we go forward,” he said. “So we don’t just say we’re going to build a championship culture. We have a confidence about that. And we have a grit about that, and that’s part of being Jersey, right? We’re proud of being Jersey, and we have to make the investment if we’re going to compete against the Ohio States and Michigans of the world.”

Brightening Financial Picture

Though budgetary concerns have been almost as challenging as the daunting competition on the field for Rutgers Athletics in recent years, the financial outlook is brightening. “Our budget and financial picture will continue to improve as we move forward,” Hobbs said. A six-year Big Ten phase-in for Rutgers brings increasing funds to Rutgers each year with the first full-share check from the Big Ten, some $44.5 million, scheduled for 2021 and annual increases anticipated each year after that.

“We become full participants in Big Ten revenue share in 2021, and they’ve positioned themselves well in media rights revenue,” Hobbs said. “But that’s just one source of revenue to us. I say to folks, ‘we don’t have an expense problem, we have a revenue issue.’ Our expenses in terms of our overall budget rank near the bottom of Big Ten teams. We’re not spending at the level of most of the other institutions in the Big Ten, but we’re spending what we need to spend.”

He continued, “We’re very careful about our resources, but as we have success on the field, ticket sales grow and contributions from donors grow. Also, sponsorship dollars to the institution grow, and, ultimately, we get better deals, whether it’s an apparel deal or a media rights deal, all that comes from a championship culture, creating success and then capitalizing on that success as we go forward.”

Hobbs compared himself to a CEO hired to rebuild a troubled business. “When I got hired about two and a half years ago, I told everyone this was a five-year rebuild, not unlike taking over a company that has struggled, making investments that are required to turn that company around. We’re in the middle of year three of a turnaround.”

Excited about the increasing momentum of the rebuilding, Hobbs predicted visible progress in the year ahead and significance success over the next two to three years. “We’ll see some nice success with some of our programs this year, a preview of what’s coming down the road, and by year five we’re going to be percolating along pretty nicely,” he said.

Looking forward to “a very exciting football season in 2018,” Hobbs pointed out the rebuilding that had taken place in the first two years under Ash, but admitted “We’ve not had the success yet that drives ticket sales.”

He did not hesitate, however, to present the solution, with evidence to support his vision. “Winning solves everything,” he said. “We’ve had a significant uptick in wrestling and men’s basketball season ticket sales, and in women’s basketball. As people see more success this year, that picture’s going to look a lot brighter by the end of this academic year. I would say morale is good, and it’s going to get even better.”

Hobbs cited a “great moment” in the men’s basketball team’s performance last spring in the Big Ten Championship Tournament in Madison Square Garden. “I think we surprised some people by getting into the third round of that tournament,” Hobbs said. “We had very significant wins against Indiana and Minnesota in the first two games, then playing Purdue, one of the top teams in the country, in the third game. We were the talk of the town in a very positive way, whether you turned on sports radio or watched the nightly sports report.

“And that affects income and morale, too. We’ve got a long way to go, but people are working hard. They see success in pockets in ways that get people excited about where we’re going.”
In looking back over the past two and a half years as athletic director at Rutgers, Hobbs reflects on the pressures, responsibilities, and rewards that come with the job and the particular challenges of Big Ten membership. “There are no days off for the athletic director at Rutgers,” he said. “This is the State University of New Jersey, and we’re very proud of that. We take that as a responsibility, not just to the folks who have attended Rutgers or are at Rutgers, but to the citizens of New Jersey. We receive tax dollars to support what we do and we want to deliver for the folks of New Jersey.”

He concluded, “I take that responsibility very seriously every day. I like walking around the state of New Jersey and hearing people speaking encouragingly of the vision, the plan we’re putting forward. When we get to a certain level of success then we can take a deep breath and keep marching, because the rest of the conference is not going to lie back and let Rutgers come in and dominate. We’re going to have to earn every piece of it.”