Recently, Lisa Love was in the middle of an endurance- and patience-testing day as Arizona State University athletic director when her phone rang.
A compassionate voice on the other end asked Love — one of just six female ADs in the country when she took over the Sun Devil duties two years ago this month — if she needed a hug.
“We’ve had a lot happen, and people will see me and say, 'Are you OK?’” Love said. “My response is always, 'Yeah.’ I think people think that I’m more beleaguered than I truly am, because I know it’s been an action-oriented two years. But I’m doing fine.”
That is a prognosis that Love believes she shares with the department of 162 employees, 22 varsity sports and about 500 athletes she oversees.
When she arrived, ASU was still shaken after being hit with Pac-10 (and eventually NCAA) probation and a shooting death involving ex-football player Loren Wade.
A pair of high-profile coaching changes by Love added to the turbulence, but many aboard the S.S. Sun Devil feel that the ship is on an even keel — leaner (a balanced budget), meaner (broad-based success, reflected in a 10th-place Directors’ Cup finish this past year) and eager to make athletics a key component of ASU president Michael Crow’s ambitious vision for the university.
“We are an institution that has historically been in the A-minus range, which is very good,” Crow said. “But we have the potential to be one of the great athletics institutions in the country. That’s our intention, to be there in the Olympic sports, as well as the revenue sports.”
“We want to go from A-minus to A-plus.”
Significant challenges — such as building the donor base and paying off a service debt of more than $30 million left by previous administrations — remain.
The university is considering its options regarding an estimated $67 million in water-damage repairs needed on Sun Devil Stadium, but that will not be an substantial athletic-department expense, Love said.
“There are no quick fixes,” said women’s gymnastics coach John Spini, who with 27 seasons of service is the school’s longest-tenured coach. “But morale around here is better than I’ve seen in a long time. I think we’re heading in the right direction.”
Love, whose official title is vice president for university athletics, has been touting strides in each of the three tenets she feels comprise a strong department: academics, compliance and championships.
Seventeen teams, including every women’s squad, held steady or increased their multi-year academic progress rate (APR) number — which tracks athletes’ eligibility and retention — after the 2005-06 scores were compiled. ASU’s NCAA graduation success rate, based on the most recent totals with those entering school in 1996, is 70 percent.
The school’s NCAA probation for improper benefits and lack of institutional control expires on Nov. 9. Love believes the compliance deficiencies that led to 61 athletes — most notably, Wade — receiving excessive amounts of financial aid have been remedied.
As for championships, ASU this year won two on the national level, as the women’s track squad claimed the indoor and outdoor titles.
“I feel very strongly about the promise of what can be realized at Arizona State,” Love said. “We have a lot of work to do.
“Whether it’s new coaches in football and men’s basketball, investment and marketing, it’s been one thing after another about changing our profile.”
ASU — which in fiscal year 2006 had $34,767,800 in athletic operating revenues, a $65,400 profit after expenses — is making an aggressive push to raise money and visibility through its two highest-profile sports.
Football and men’s basketball comprise the money engine for programs across the country. They have become even more vital for ASU, with the school banking on Love’s two biggest coaching acquisitions to date.
“Those two programs can get the turnstiles spinning and television calling to put the Sun Devils on the air,” Love said. “Residuals from that are extraordinarily effective to the solvency of the athletics program and what it can do for the university.”
Two-time national championship winner Dennis Erickson has ASU dreaming of double-digit victories for a football program that has won eight games or more just six times in 25 years. And now is perhaps the best opportunity for Herb Sendek and the men’s basketball team to narrow the competitive chasm between the Sun Devils and archrival Arizona.
“Michael Crow and Lisa Love are not standing pat,” baseball coach Pat Murphy said. “By hiring Dennis and Herb and making a commitment to women’s basketball, they are showing (the courage) to take chances.
“It’s been a very hands-on, powerful dynamic. They are not sitting in their offices. They are making things happen.”
Indoor practice facilities for football and basketball are the school’s highest-priority athletic physical plant additions. Any amenities for the men’s basketball program would create coattails for the women’s hoops team that is an emerging national power.
ASU’s Olympic sports programs know their place on the financial food chain.
“Everybody benefits when the big two teams succeed,” 25th-year men’s tennis coach Lou Belken said. “That’s where the revenue is generated.
“It would be my happiest day to walk into the football stadium and have it like when I started, with the stands full.”
That leaves baseball trapped in the middle — not an Olympic sport, but one that evidently does not generate enough revenue to command immediate funding attention. There is no timetable on improvements to Packard Stadium.
“I just don’t want (the administration) to think that because baseball has been going well here for so long, that it will just keep going all by itself,” said Murphy, whose program made its second trip to the College World Series in three years this season.
ASU is expected to reach the $40-million revenue mark in fiscal year 2008. Love said that $50 million in annual funds is most ideal, yet realistic.
She looks at the Directors’ Cup standings and marvels that her school was in the top 10 with Texas ($97.8 million revenue in 2005-06), Florida ($82.4 million) and Michigan ($85.5 million). ASU finished four spots ahead of Ohio State, which had the nation’s largest ’05-06 revenue at $104.7 million.
The 2005-06 revenue numbers are according to figures that schools reported to the U.S. Department of Education.
Using federal guidelines, ASU reported a total of $48.4 million, but that includes about $16 million that the school does not consider operating revenue, such as the cash value of apparel provided by Nike and tuition waivers covered by the state.
“We are incredibly, competitively efficient,” Love said. “Now, you can’t help but dream. What could our university do (with Ohio State money)?”
After his last practice as ASU football coach on Dec. 22, Dirk Koetter stood with reporters in an end zone at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu and delivered parting words that would be dissected by ASU fans for days.
“A lot of people look at ASU on the outside and have a perception of what Arizona State is,” said Koetter, who was 40-34 in six years in Tempe. “That’s not what it is.
“The only way to know is to go on the inside. Arizona State is not what it is perceived to be on the outside. … History has proven that.”
Koetter, now offensive coordinator of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, did not elaborate. But some observers, including those on the inside, believe his assessment has validity , based on the two words most often associated with ASU over the years:
With great weather and attractive coeds, the conventional wisdom went, recruits should be stampeding to wear maroon and gold. That irked some of ASU’s veteran coaches, so much so that Love made sure to never speak the words “sleeping giant” after arriving on campus.
“What I think Dirk meant is the fact that everyone has called ASU a gold mine,” Murphy said. “But this is not an easy environment. The fans are more educated, and they have many choices. So, that doesn’t make it the perfect situation.”
At ASU, it does not get any more inside than the school president and athletic director, who both believe they have the synergy and plan to elevate Sun Devil athletics.
Crow envisions 90,000 students at ASU by 2020 and has developed a master plan to raise $3.4 billion to build and improve facilities campus-wide over the next 30 years.
He talks, almost in romantic terms, about college campuses being a bastion of the competitive spirit that is key to American success. Crow did not go as far as saying that successful athletics can help raise interest in and income for a school, but it has happened on occasion.
After George Mason University’s run to the men’s basketball Final Four in 2006, freshman applications increased by 20 percent. Athletic donations went up by 25 percent, and unrestricted university gifts nearly doubled.
“My engagement is required on everything, from finances to personnel and so forth,” Crow said. “I will occasionally be involved in recruiting athletes. I will occasionally be involved in the recruitment of coaches, as Lisa needs it. We’re very much operating in a team mode.”
Love, whose contract runs through June 30, 2010, at an annual salary of $280,000, has had some arduous days during the last two years, but no hugs are necessary.
The rush and satisfaction of being at the wheel for the Sun Devils is therapeutic enough.
“There isn’t anything that’s happened that has come as a surprise to me,” Love said. “It’s not easy, and I’m not trying to make it sound like it’s a waltz, but I love being in the chair that makes those kind of decisions, even if I’m second-guessed.
“I love driving this. And when I look at our efficiency and performance, I really think it’s about to mean something when the Sun Devils get off a bus and show up to play.”