Pope: Colorado State finds the right balance with new athletic director

Keegan Pope

Keegan Pope
Keegan Pope

Jack Graham was a visionary, there’s no two ways about it.

The longtime private businessman and former Colorado State athletic director was terrific at one crucial part of his job: getting things done. Under Graham, CSU athletics took a giant leap forward in terms of its reputation as a program and also in its success on the field, the court and the classroom. The four coaches who he helped sign to long-term contract extensions — even if no one will admit it — and three of which he hired, led Colorado State to its most successful year in the major four sports (men’s and women’s basketball, football and volleyball) in the school’s history. Under Jim McElwain, Tom Hilbert, Ryun Williams and Larry Eustachy, CSU has the most wins of any Division I program (91) during the 2014-15 calendar year. Jack Graham played a large part in that, let’s not forget that.

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But as good as he was in overseeing the development of the athletics programs at CSU, Graham was unfortunately just as bad about dealing with the relationships side of his job. Unlike when he worked in private business for more than 30 years, where he didn’t have to worry about the public perception or the consequences of his actions, Graham became a member of the public sphere as soon as he signed the dotted line on the bottom of his contract. He was used to dealing with men and women who thought like he did and acted like he did. He was a shrewd negotiator who didn’t need to wonder whether or not the people he was working with liked him, or whether someone from the outside approved of his decision-making.

When he took the athletic director job at CSU in 2011 though, that all changed. Graham became the face of the University, which coupled with his vision of an on-campus football stadium, rubbed quite a few people the wrong way. There was a procedure for how he was supposed to do things, but Graham believed that thinking was what had failed CSU in the past. So he went about things in his own way.

He reached out personally to donors, when he was “supposed” to allow the athletic department’s fundraising team to do that.

Instead of working with a local business like OtterBox or New Belgium to possibly support the stadium, Graham defiantly announced that he would find half of the $220 million needed on his own if he had to.

He ignored people’s concerns about traffic, noise and other negative factors and instead proceeded to move forward with the project whether people liked it or not. Some of that was necessary, and some of it wasn’t.

But he also alienated his biggest ally, CSU president Tony Frank. Ultimately, it was a poor performance review by his peers and a disagreement with Frank on how things should be done that ultimately led to his demise.

So when Frank and his search committee began looking for Graham’s replacement this winter, they needed someone who could continue his vision, but also do it in a way that would bring people closer to the athletics programs, not push them away. After waiting on the on-campus stadium decision in early February, Frank, his committee and search firm DHR International (whom CSU paid a cool $75,000) went to work in search of someone who could balance all of the responsibilities that come with being the athletic director at a major Division I university.

Eventually, they landed on Joe Parker. Though his calm demeanor and charm might not suggest it, Parker was an absolute dynamo in his previous five stops at spearheading projects and raising the capital to complete them. Between 2003 and 2014, Parker helped raise more than $600 million for stadium improvements, fundraising campaigns and and major gifts at Texas Tech and Michigan. And he did it all while drawing rave reviews from his employees, peers and superiors.

In more than a dozen statements released by CSU from people who have worked for, with and above Parker, words like people-friendly, thoughtful, fair, good listener, impeccable integrity and relationship-builder are used to describe the man now heading the most well-known department as the University. The dollar amounts are surely impressive, but that impressions he’s made on people around may be even more so.

Jack Graham started a “Bold New Era” at Colorado State, and Joe Parker hopes to continue to build that, one relationship at a time.

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The Pope has spoken.

Collegian Sports Editor Keegan Pope can be reached at kpope@collegian.com and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.