SDSU’S MARY ALICE HILL : Athletic Director Says the Future Is in Football
February 03, 1985|CHRIS COBBS | Times Staff Writer
On a good day, when she is able to slip away from the office by mid-afternoon, Mary Alice Hill drives to a stable near her home in the country setting of Rancho San Diego.
After shedding her business suit in favor of jeans and boots, she throws a saddle on one of her horses, Midnight and Cowboy, and gallops off into the hills.
Along with cycling and weightlifting, horseback riding is a form of therapy for job-induced ulcers. Even as she sits astride her horse, Hill can’t always relax. She can’t shake thoughts of work. Often she is struck by the irony of her life.
Here she is, as San Diego State’s athletic director, the only woman at an NCAA Division 1-A football-playing school to hold such a position.
It wasn’t so many years ago that she was regarded as a feminist troublemaker who was fired from a job at Colorado State for being too outspoken on the issue of women’s athletics.
And now she finds herself trying to propel a struggling Aztec football team into national prominence–a very traditional objective for an athletic director.
Has the radical feminist in her died?
No, but it has given way to a new outlook. Hill now believes the best way to improve athletics for men andwomen is to build a prosperous football program.
The school’s $3.1-million athletic budget, which is about one-quarter the size of some major colleges, is in precarious shape. Hill, who hopes to balance the books this year, says the athletic program lost $2 million in the four years before she became A.D.
Hill, who succeeded Gene Bourdet, was named acting A.D. on Aug. 15, 1983, and the appointment was made permanent on Jan. 1, 1984. Two weeks later, San Diego State’s basketball program was placed on probation by the NCAA for recruiting violations.
Immediately faced by such problems, Hill hopes to turn around Aztec athletics by drastically upgrading the football program.
Her ambition is to move San Diego State out of the Western Athletic Conference and into the Pacific 10 in the next few years. UCLA appears on the schedule through 1994. A four-year contract with Stanford begins this season.
She is negotiating games with Nebraska and Miami, Fla. She also entertains notions of being part of a national Super Conference, composed of 25 or 30 powerhouse teams with a desire for greater control over their destinies, including the freedom to award greater numbers of scholarships.
But first, the football team has to gain some respect. The Aztecs were 4-7-1 last year, and there have been only two winning seasons in the last five. It’s been more than a decade since the glory years under Coach Don Coryell.
This year is central to Hill’s plans. A winning season capped by a bowl appearance could produce an upswing in attendance, and revenue, she reasons. The team averaged 23,378 fans at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium last season, but an average of 35,000 is needed for a healthy budget. The crowd of 52,000 at last year’s UCLA game was SDSU’s third-largest ever.
“If football doesn’t turn around this year, we are in trouble,” Hill said. “The dice are rolling. I know it will take a few years for the public to really believe in us, but I don’t think our reach exceeds our grasp.”
And what if there is no turnaround? Well, the school’s athletic program could find itself in the same predicament it faced when Hill succeeded Bourdet.
It was then she went with outstretched hands to potential corporate sponsors, saying San Diego State might have to downgrade to Division 2 if the budget didn’t get a boost.
Her message got through, sort of. She says fund-raising efforts produced $1.5 million last year, more than twice the 1982 level. She expects to increase contributions to $2 million this year, $3 million next year and $5 million within three years. But there is still a $750,000 deficit to be retired over several years.
Hill’s grandiose scheme is all predicated on football success. That’s universal in the NCAA.
But some think San Diego State may be in for a rude surprise if it expects to follow other upstarts, such as Miami, Boston College and Brigham Young, into national prominence.
Boston College Coach Jack Bicknell, whose team rose to a Top 10 ranking behind Heisman Trophy quarterback Doug Flutie, is skeptical of Hill’s goal of achieving high ranking in the near future.
“If you want to play UCLA, you have to play others of that caliber to get continuity and credibility,” Bicknell said.
“And if San Diego State has dreams of getting national attention, a lot of things have to happen. Upgrading the schedule is just one of them. It doesn’t make sense to look at us, for example, and say if we did it, anybody can. It’s a long process.
“Having a widely recognized player helped. Circumstances fell into place. We beat Texas A&M in Jackie Sherrill’s home opener, then later we beat Alabama and became an attractive bowl team. It wasn’t a fluke thing, but maybe we couldn’t do it again.”
BYU Athletic Director Glen Tuckett calls the lack of an on-campus arena and football stadium one of Hill’s biggest problems.
“That’s a monumental headache,” he said. “How she can keep her sanity under those conditions is beyond me.”
Michigan Athletic Director Don Canham, who presides over a $14-million athletic budget, sees other problems for SDSU.
“If San Diego State wants to become a UCLA or USC, their chances are remote as long as they are in the WAC,” Canham said. “It might be a different story if they were in the Pac-10.”
Certainly, attendance could be expected to improve if the Aztecs were regularly playing major West Coast rivals. And there would be lots more money. For example, as Canham pointed out, the Big Ten and Pac-10 just signed a new TV deal that will yield teams in both conferences about $400,000 annually. A supplemental cable TV deal would be worth another $150,000 or so per year.
Unlike Hill, however, he doesn’t think a Super Conference will materialize. And, if it did, it “would be built on the wreckage of the NCAA,” he predicted.
In general, Canham worries about the temptation among emerging powers to bend the rules, risking NCAA sanctions for the sake of winning a big trophy. And he deplored the trend among schools, greedy for money, to make multiple appearances on TV in a season. Attendance is bound to suffer, he said.
Such are some of the dangers facing a school attempting to grow too fast.
Canham said he had heard good things about Hill, but he added one other note of caution.
“She has a tough road, particularly in scheduling,” he said. “Schedules often are made in bars. A woman might not be included in a group (of male athletic directors) going out at night.”
Even some of the Aztec program’s big financial backers, with whom Hill seems to have clout, doubt that a sudden transformation is likely.
A major supporter, who requested anonymity, believes Hill is a strong administrator, but questioned if the university is united behind her. Specifically, he said hard-nosed professors are making it tough to keep athletes academically eligible.
SDSU President Thomas Day doesn’t think that there is an unusual amount of friction between the two groups.
“To the extent any university has Rhodes Scholars for athletes, the academic and athletic sides are together,” he said. “I believe our faculty are reasonable, and I detect no antipathy or intrusion.”
The same Aztec booster may have had a more telling point when he spoke of apathy among Aztec alumni.
“Only a small percentage of our graduates seem to care,” he said. “There’s not a lot of common spirit in this town. Most of us are from elsewhere, and we tend to be front-runners.
“It bothers me that I deal with a lot of alumni businessmen who give nothing back to the school. Maybe if the team wins, that will change.”
Terry Brown, president of Atlas Hotels, who contributed nearly $100,000 to SDSU last year, is more optimistic.
“I wouldn’t invest if I didn’t think Mary Hill was capable or I thought she would fail,” he said. “I think she is dynamite, fully capable of living in a man’s world, and I also believe she is realistic in her goals.
“It can be accomplished with an awful lot of arm-twisting. I believe she can pull it all together. Mary does not fit the good ol’ boy category, and she certainly won’t be lulled to sleep or quieted. She is witty and smart and aggressive.”
Both Day and football Coach Doug Scovil believe Hill’s goals are reasonable.
“She believes in us and understands what it takes to build a program,” Scovil said. “I think we have laid the cornerstone and will get better. Her goal of a 7-5 season this year seems realistic to me.
“Mary also feels we belong in the Pac-10 . . . that it would help us get players we can’t get now. I want that, as well.”
Day said he sees 1985 as critical.
“We’ve covered our (recent) bills, but we have to persuade people that we have made a good transition to the future,” he said. “We can only maintain (on an upward course) if the community pitches in. Mary certainly has my respect and backing.”
Day has been a supporter of Hill for years. She arrived at San Diego State in 1976 as a track coach after she was fired as associate athletic director at Colorado State for being too outspoken on the issue of money for women’s athletics. In 1979 Hill was placed in charge of non-revenue sports.
In her current position, Hill knows she is being watched closely because she is the only woman to preside over a major athletic program.
She suspects many hope she will fail.
However, she would like to think some are rooting for her.
Hill has earned respect from her peers in the WAC.
“The athletic director’s job is the second-most difficult at a university, behind only the president,” Wyoming Athletic Director Gary Cunningham said. “It used to be a gravy job, but no more. Now you are responsible for budgets, TV and radio contracts, dealing with boosters and interfacing with the university. It’s not a job for the timid.
“From all I can see, she is doing a fine job. She has contributed to our WAC meetings, for instance, with the drug program she has instituted. We’re looking at implementing something like it.”
She also is gaining some national recognition. Hill is one of 44 members of the NCAA Council, a policy-setting body for college sports. The council, which meets five times a year, sets the agenda for the NCAA convention, among other business.
Still, the job has taken its toll, as evidenced by the resurgence of ulcers.
Day has cautioned her against too many 12-hour days.
“These are tough times for Aztec athletics, and being A.D. would tax anyone,” Day said. “But she has to learn to pace herself, get away and think. It helps no one to walk off a cliff into a grave.”
Hill, who was raised on a farm in Missouri and was driving a tractor at age 6, retains the vestiges of her upbringing. Her experience at Colorado State hardened her and contradicted her parents’ teaching that people never lied or cheated. But she still prefers to take people at their word, and insists her word is her bond.
Her desire is to make college sports more humanitarian for the participants.
She has created programs to help students deal effectively with the media, de-emphasize athletics once their eligibility is up and plan for their futures. Her drug counseling and testing program includes a student advisory group to set penalties for violations.
Hill is pushing for a new campus arena, which would seat 8,000 to 10,000, to replace Peterson Gym. A student referendum is scheduled next fall. The $15-million facility could be ready in two years, if approved. She says it would create office space for the athletic department, help morale and improve recruiting. A new arena also would free Peterson Gym for more intramural activity.
Hill’s other targets include an increase in scholarship aid for non-revenue sports. Some non-revenue sports are limited to two scholarships, divided among a dozen athletes. And she would like to add four assistant coaching positions, distributed among various sports.
Discussing this agenda, Hill is drawn back to the importance of football.
“I have talked with a lot of people, and the underlying cry is for black uniforms, night games and winning,” Hill said. “We have taken care of the first two and we are working on the third.
“We think the WAC is right for us at the moment, but there are problems with remaining in the WAC. The time and money involved in traveling to road games is a problem, and let’s face it, Wyoming, Texas-El Paso and Colorado State just don’t draw in San Diego.
“Our worries would be over if we got into the Pac-10. I don’t see any reason we can’t compete with the West Coast schools, our natural rivals. I believe we could become a Top 20 team, but we need a stronger program to make a bid. Isn’t it ironic to base so much on football?”
SDSU’S MARY ALICE HILL : Athletic Director Says the Future Is in Football
February 03, 1985|CHRIS COBBS | Times Staff Writer