In the Group of 5, a good athletic director is just like a good coach. You always want someone who is capable and can take your school to the next level, but run the risk of them making that jump to the Power 5 on their own. With that in mind, we combed the entire G5 to find the best AD in each conference, and even tried to identify who from the P5 might be looking to poach them. After all, like a good coach, a good athletic director is always in demand.
American Athletic Conference- Tom Bowen, Memphis
(Power 5 ties: Notre Dame graduate, worked at Cal)
Many of the Athletic Directors in the American Athletic Conference have been hired within the past four years, none have been able to make the dramatic turnaround that Tom Bowen at Memphis has. When hired back in 2012 (previously AD at San Jose State), he walked into a department that's football team had finished 2-10 (wins over FCS Austin Peay and conference mate Tulane) and had an average attendance of just over 20,000. Now there have been some slim crowds at the 61,000 seat Liberty Bowl, but no doubt this was one of the worst. Fast forward to today and Memphis is changing the outside perspective of being a basketball only program.
The 2015 football team is expected to win the AAC title and possibly earn the Group of 5 Access Bowl berth. Last week on national television, over 45,000 Tiger fans filled the Liberty Bowl to watch Memphis defeat Cincinnati. Over the years Memphis basketball had to learn to deal with success, but Tom Bowen provided the resources to head coach Justin Fuente to enter these previously unchartered waters. During his time as AD at San Jose State, the Spartans achieved also tremendous success when Bowen hired Mike MacIntyre who led them to an 11-2 finish in his third year including a bowl win and finishing in the Top 25.
Aside from football Bowen has also been working on showcasing Tiger Athletics to possible Power 5 Conferences. He has led the charge on the recently announced the "Time to Shine Capital Campaign", a goal of $40,000,000 for athletic facilities enhancements (includes new football and basketball practice/training facilities), to properly position Memphis for a Power 5 invite. This included the largest commitment in program history to the tune of $10,000,000.
In his three-plus years at the helm, Bowen has not only steadied the ship, but has also has been upgrading its parts. Expect him to continue his already impressive charge and possibly get Memphis into a P5 conference. Tiger fans should hope that a current Power 5 institution does not lure him away, which nearly happened as reports indicated that Cal and Bowen were in discussions
Conference USA- Mike Hamrick, Marshall
(Power 5 ties: Worked at Kansas)
Marshall Athletic Director is the first of two AD's on this list currently running the show at their alma mater. The former Marshall linebacker is entering his 6th year at the helm of the Thundering Herd and has transformed the athletic program. Hamrick lead the charge on the Vision Campaign that brought in resources to upgrade athletic facilities. During his tenure, the athletic department has raised over $42 million while reinvigorating the fan base.
Facility renovations/upgrades include; new soccer complex, new indoor athletic facility, academics center, new football turf, new football suites, and a hall of fame museum. These facility upgrades have led to last year's football team finishing in the top 25 in the country, along with coach Doc Holliday (which was hired by Hamrick). Additionally he has established the Football Enhancement Fund, record membership to the M-Club (former student-athletes), and brought the annual fund to top three in CUSA. All of these have aided not only football but all sport programs.
In the classroom, Marshall's student-athletes excelled under his leadership. In the 2013-14 school year, 157 Marshall student-athletes were named to the Conference USA Academic Honor Roll with grade point averages of 3.0 or better, and 37 earned C-USA Commissioners Medals for posting cumulative GPAs of 3.75 or higher. Football scheduling has also been elevated as he has landed home-and-home football series with Louisville, Purdue, East Carolina and Navy. He also revived the rivalries against Miami (Ohio) and the "Battle of the Bell" series against Ohio. In men's basketball, Marshall has scheduled Syracuse, Kentucky, Louisville, Cincinnati and Villanova in recent seasons, and has gotten rare home-and-home deals with two power conference programs in Penn State and South Carolina.
Leading the charge for the Thundering Herd was not his first time in the head chair, he previously served as Athletic Director at UNLV from 2003-2009, East Carolina from 1995-2003, and Arkansas-Little Rock from 1990-1995. That is a combined total of 25+ years of being a sitting AD, which is impressive knowing how much the business has changed in the past 25 years. Being a Marshall Alum, expect Hamrick to stay in Huntington for years to come, as he continues to build the program and attempts to restore the glory from the past.
Sun Belt Conference- Brian Wickstrom, ULM
(Power 5 ties: Worked at Missouri and Michigan)
Some may consider ULM to be the toughest job of all 128 programs trying to compete in a state dominated by LSU. It has not slowed Brian Wickstrom from making significant progress for the Warhawks into his 3rd year. In terms of academics, the football program had the third-biggest increase in APR over the last four-years in Division I while the men's basketball program just won its third consecutive Sun Belt Team Academic award.
Wickstrom's outside the box thinking has reenergized fans and brought in new supporters to the fold. Wickstrom launched the first-ever "Camo-Out" game, P-40 Warhawk uniforms, throwback basketball jerseys, and even began a new tradition of camping out with the students the night prior to the home football opener. He is building relationships with the student-athletes by running sprints with the football team, blocking spikes with the volleyball team and playing goalie with the soccer team.
His fundraising abilities have not disappointed as in his time here he has raised more than the previous five years combined (if you have ever visited Monroe, you would understand this is quite a feat). He secured nine of the top 10 largest donations ever made to ULM athletics, including the five largest in program history. Facility enhancements include new football field turf, weight room renovations, tennis facility renovations, hitting facility for baseball, and scheduled sand volleyball court expansions. His greatest project has been a new football end zone facility which was the first new athletic facility to be built in over 20 years and the only facility on campus to be 100% funded by private funds. Additionally cash donations were up by over 60% in his first-year and increasing every year.
The fan base has responded as football attendance risen from 2013 to 2014, even though the team dropped to 4-8. Men's basketball attendance has soared, including the first sell-out since 1982. The athletics department generated revenues increased by 20% and set an all-time ticket revenue number in his first-year. ULM is Wickstrom's second AD job, as he previously served as AD at division I non-football institution UC-Riverside. Look for the Warhawks continue to rise and contend for Sun Belt championships with Wickstrom at the helm.
Mid-American Conference- Mike O'Brien, Toledo
(Power 5 ties: Kansas State and Pittsburgh)
The MAC AD decision came down to Danny White of Buffalo and MikeO'Brien, with O'Brien's sustained growth edging out White.
Mike O'Brien is the second longest tenured Athletic Director in the Mid-American Conference, and he has not wasted his thirteen years leading the Rockets. Currently Toledo is receiving votes for the Top 25 in football while knocking off two Power 5 opponents (Arkansas and Iowa State). Athletics success at Toledo did not happen overnight, as the Rockets head man has built the department into one of the top programs in the MAC (27 conference championships) and established national competitiveness.
Capital projects have been on his agenda including renovations to the outdoor track, tennis courts, and the soccer field. The crown jewel of the facility enhancements is the $30 million renovation to Savage Arena, along with the new athletics complex attached. His most recent project was the $5.5 million renovation to the Larimer Athletic Complex that supports the football program. Another key upgrade came in 2010, when The Fetterman Training Center indoor multi-sport practice facility that includes a 100-yard Field Turf playing surface, a regulation basketball/volleyball court, sprinting lanes and a long jump pit for track, a golf practice area and new golf locker rooms.
During his tenure, UT has made six bowl appearances in football, three NIT appearances in men's basketball and five WNIT appearances in women's basketball, including a WNIT championship crown in 2011. In 2011-12, the Rockets took home the Jacoby Trophy as the MAC's top women's athletic program for the first time in school history. Academics have also been a priority as UT has produced overall department grade-point averages above a 3.1 in each of the past 11 semesters. The record GPA of 3.210 occurred under O'Brien's leadership in the spring of 2013.
Toledo was Mike's second AD job as he previously led FCS- Southland Conference member Lamar. In June of 2012, O'Brien was named the NACDA Football Bowl Subdivision Northeast Region Athletic Director of the Year. He has over 17 years' experience leading division I athletic departments. His work with the Rockets can be used as a blueprint for success by all current and future MAC Athletic Directors.
Mountain West Conference- Tom Burman, Wyoming
(Power 5 ties: Worked at Kansas State and Pittsburgh)
Like the AAC, the Mountain West has seen eight new AD's take over full-member departments (nine if you count Hawaii) in the past 3.5 years. Tom Burman has become the second longest tenured Athletic Director in the Mountain West, and can definitely be seen as the guiding example for all the newcomers.
Not to be confused with Bowen, Tom BURMAN has overseen a tremendous amount of facility enhancements in his almost nine years leading Wyoming Athletics. Burman has spearheaded over $100 million in facilities projects during his time and the number keeps growing with the recently announced High-Altitude Performance Center ($24 million to be fundraised and $20 million in matching funds from the state). The $30 million renovation of Arena Auditorium has supported last year's Mountain West Conference Men's Basketball Tournament champions and NCAA Tournament participants. Football is also situating itself for future success, as Burman was able to lure Craig Bohl away from FCS powerhouse North Dakota State.
Academic success has been a focus for Burman as he has increased resources in the areas of academic success and student-athlete well-being by over 100 percent. The 2014-15 academic year saw several academic highlights, including 233 student-athletes across 63 different academic majors achieving a 3.00 or better spring semester grade point average. Of those 233 student-athletes, 131 achieved a 3.50 or above spring semester GPA and 43 earned perfect 4.00 GPAs for the spring semester.
The Cowboy Joe Club (fundraising arm) annual fund has grown from $2.1 million in 2006 to over $5 million this past year. Ticket sales have also seen a steady climb as Wyoming football achieved 10,000 season ticket holders for football for the first time in history. His marketing and fundraising background has significantly aided the advancement of Wyoming Athletics.
Leading his alma mater's athletic program is he second AD gig, he previously served as AD for FCS- Big Sky member Portland State from 2000-2006. Even with all of the success, do not expect Burman to be leaving Laramie anytime soon, as an alumnus of the university there is still much more work to be done.