TAMPA – When Mark Harlan embarks on his new job as University of South Florida athletic director – as he seeks to improve an overall program that is suffering from dwindling attendance, substandard performances in the revenue-producing sports and uncertainty over its ability to compete at the highest conference level – he will first utilize an age-old technique for success.
“Over the coming days, weeks and months, I’m going to do something that Carolyn (his wife) reminds me to do a lot more often around the house – I’m going to listen,’’ Harlan said Tuesday during his introduction at USF’s Lee Roy Selmon Athletics Center.
Harlan will seek input from USF’s student-athletes “for they are at the center of everything we do.’’ He will listen to staff, coaches, faculty, alumni, donors and students.
“Listen, listen, listen,’’ said Harlan, 44, formerly UCLA’s senior associate athletic director. “Then evaluate. Then I will act. I want to learn what’s working, what’s not working, then make some decisions. There are some decisions that need to be made.’’
Harlan, who was given a five-year contract and an annual base salary of $500,000, was identified as the top choice from a wide-ranging pool of 34 candidates, which included 13 sitting athletic directors. It was comprised of 28 percent women and minorities. The candidate pool was assembled by a Texas-based search firm, Eastman & Beaudine, which was retained by USF for $100,000.
“We found absolutely the best person in the country to lead us to the next level,’’ said USF College of Business professor Bill Sutton, chairman of the six-member AD search advisory committee that interviewed Harlan on Tuesday morning before USF president Judy Genshaft gave her final approval.
Harlan succeeds Doug Woolard, USF’s AD since 2004, who announced his retirement on Jan. 16. Woolard’s USF legacy centers around a massive upgrade in facilities and Harlan already has taken notice.
“These facilities are beautiful,’’ Harlan said. “If my basketball coach at UCLA saw this practice facility, he’d kill me!’’
But Harlan said his charge goes far beyond USF’s recently glistening infrastructure.
“Facilities? Check! There are a lot of great things here,’’ Harlan said. “But what’s on the inside? What about the people? That’s where I’m going to spend a lot of time.’’
And he will do so with Genshaft’s blessing.
USF football went 2-10 last season, its third straight bowl-less performance, in Coach Willie Taggart’s first year. USF men’s basketball, two years after earning an NCAA Tournament at-large bid and finishing one victory away from the Sweet 16, has dropped 30 of its last 36 conference games.
“It’s hard to tolerate mediocrity, it really is,’’ Genshaft said. “Especially with a university that’s on the move upward. Everything else is moving forward, except for our revenue sports. I’m real confident about Willie (Taggart) moving forward. We’ve got to get our basketball team to move forward as well – men’s basketball.
“I think he (Harlan) is top of the line. He’s going to be great fit for USF. He’s going to make people accountable and have high standards. It’s all about winning.’’
Harlan made it clear that winning had many definitions.
“We are not here to make excuses,’’ Harlan said. “We are here to graduate our student-athletes, help them win conference and national titles and that’s what’s going to drive us. It is time to compete. It is time to win. And it’s also time to have a lot of fun.’’
Harlan couldn’t speak specifically about some of the changes he might be contemplating. Those will come in time, he said. Meanwhile, his approach drew appreciation from some of the athletic program’s most loyal supporters.
“I think he’s the right balance of listening, learning, taking a nice aim, then firing – and having the energy to really fire hard,’’ said John Ramil, chairman of USF’s Board of Trustees. “He’s a good hire for us.’’
Harlan, scheduled to officially start at USF on April 7, touched on a variety of subjects regarding USF athletics.
* On-campus football facility: Not impossible. He wants to join that conversation. “For now, we play in a great place and I want to maximize that.’’
* USF’s place in the next potential round of conference realignment: “We’re in a conference right now and we need to worry about winning everything in that conference. We need to win everything we do and fill every venue we have. … When that happens, if change happens, we’ll be right there on the forefront (of being accepted into a more prestigious conference).’’
* Student support: “Why aren’t the students coming to the games? We need to dig deep and find that out. If they’re not coming as students, guess what happens when they become alums?’’
* Fundraising: “Times are tough, but they’re getting better. You can’t just assume someone won’t give. You have to ask. They have to feel like they’re investing in something great. And they want to see progress.’’
* Selling college sports in a pro sports town: “You roll up your sleeves every day and get the brand out. Are we calling every day? Are we reminding people about the Bulls? The key thing is every day, all year.’’