With the news Tuesday that University of Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage is retiring, one big question looms in the minds of many Cavaliers: who’s next?
There’s one thing we can say for certain as the search begins, and that is that Jon Oliver will not be the head kahuna in the McCue Center. Oliver’s departure last month spurred plenty of speculation about Littlepage’s future, and the announcement of Littlepage’s retirement so close on the heels of Oliver leaving would indicate that perhaps it was made clear to Oliver that he would not be in line to replace his boss.
So where does the University turn, if there is no heir apparent? A look at the athletic department’s current priorities and past hiring practices could give some hints at the types of candidates Virginia will seek out.
- Money. With a full-fledged push for a new football facility now underway after the Board of Visitors gave approval in June, whoever occupies Littlepage’s seat next will need to be able to bring in the bucks. Sixty million dollars won’t just raise itself. And in addition to the capital campaign for facilities, the new athletic director will have to build a budget that works around the main revenue driver at most other schools—the football program—not pulling in the same cash as might be expected.
- All-sports excellence. We poke fun at the Uncompromised Excellence mantra, especially given some of the decisions made about prominent programs. But since Littlepage took the helm of the athletic department, Virginia’s non-revenue/Olympic/”other” sports have become a juggernaut. Seventy-six ACC titles and 13 national championships in 15 years represents an unquestioned commitment to the athletic department as a whole.
- Academic standards. This is the first principle on which everything else is built. Full stop. Littlepage, and Terry Holland before him, have been staunch supporters of the University’s stance toward academic standards for its athletes, both for admission and for maintaining eligibility. Don’t expect the Board of Visitors to sign off on someone who won’t do the same.
Those three areas would seem to be what the next athletic director will have to tackle. But how will the University assess whether a candidate has the ability to take on those priorities effectively?
Past hiring practices
One of the most prominent recurring themes in big hires for UVA sports during the past decade has been success in the same position at a different school. For example:
- Tony Bennett: head coach, and had won national coach of the year
- Bronco Mendenhall: head coach, and had won almost 100 games in nine seasons
- Lars Tiffany: head coach, and had taken Brown to the Final Four
There are a few exceptions. Brian O’Connor had been an assistant and not the head coach at Notre Dame. And new tennis coach Andres Pedroso does not have prior head coaching experience.
But generally, it looks like the University administration is most comfortable judging a candidate’s likelihood of succeeding at UVA by how they’ve done the same job elsewhere.
One other element that may be more important for the AD hire than for coaches is a pre-hire connection to the University. Terry Holland was, of course, the men’s basketball coach during the program’s greatest years (up to then). Littlepage was a long-time Holland assistant and worked his way up through the ranks of the athletic department before getting the head job in 2002.
If you genuinely believe the University of Virginia is a special place that presents both unique challenges and unique opportunities, then it makes sense to hire someone who can understand that duality from day one, instead of learning the hard way after they start.
Profile of a candidate
Putting together the things the new athletic director needs to do, with what they may need to have already done, suggests four types of candidates the University might pursue.
- The Big-Money Guru: Someone with a SERIOUS track record of raising cash and leading facilities development campaigns.
- The Rising Star: Someone who has been the successful athletic director at a smaller school—or at least a school with a smaller athletic department—that has some of the same characteristics as Virginia.
- The Better Jon Oliver: Someone who has been the second in command at a bigger athletic department and is waiting to pop up to a top job.
- The Superstar: Someone from outside any current athletic department that would get major headlines and spark fan/donor interest.
But who fits the bill for these candidate types?
Four possible names
These are not based on inside information or persistent rumors. They are four names, each of which is a fit for one of the candidate types above. One of them could be the next athletic director in Charlottesville, but it’s at least equally as likely that none of them are.
Definitely fits The Big-Money Guru mold, and has Virginia ties for days. (Both figuratively and in the literal, wear-it-around-your-neck sense.) He’s had supervision of actual programs since 2013, when he took oversight of men’s and women’s swimming and diving. But it hasn’t exactly been the smoothest four years for those programs, which could draw question marks about Katstra’s ability to lead the entire department. It also may not be a great idea to make the Virginia Athletics Foundation’s top gun split his attention until a VAF replacement is hired.
To the extent any family name is athletic administration royalty, Corrigan is just about it. Boo is the youngest son of former Virginia AD and ACC Commissioner Gene Corrigan, and Debbie Ryan is his cousin. So Virginia connection: check. As the current athletic director at Army, Corrigan is in charge of an athletic department for a school with admission and retention standards that are more stringent than anywhere that isn’t a service academy. And still, he was the 2017 NACDA Athletic Director of the Year, thanks in part to multiple conference titles for the Black Knights in the 2016-17 seasons. The biggest drawback is whether Corrigan could effectively lead an aggressive fundraising campaign as quickly as Virginia will need.
Williams is the Deputy Director of Athletics at Georgia, making her the second in command for the Bulldogs’ athletic department. She oversees football and women’s basketball, two of Georgia’s most prominent programs. She has facilities and business operations responsibilities. She spent four years in the athletic administration at Vanderbilt. Williams’ profile reads top to bottom like the resume you would want for the athletic director at a flagship state university, with one notable exception in this case: no prominent ties to Virginia, either the University or the Commonwealth.
This would be the splashiest of the splashy hires. Ackerman is currently the commissioner of the Big East. While it would be unusual for a conference commissioner to become a single school’s athletic director, it might make some sense here: the Big East only sponsors 22 total sports, men’s and women’s; Virginia has 27 by itself. Thanks in large part to her stint as the first president of the WNBA, Ackerman is certainly the most prominent Virginia alumna in athletic administration, and may feel the call of alma mater if asked.