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LINCOLN — As Tom Osborne prepares to step down at the end of this year, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman is faced with the daunting task of hiring a new athletic director.
As football coach-turned-athletic director, Osborne, 75, may be one of the last of his kind. Though Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez — a former Husker — is a notable exception, few athletic directors at top sports universities these days rise through the coaching ranks.
It's more typical for an athletic director to work his or her way up through the back office or come from the business world. (At least five women number among athletic directors at the nation's top sports universities.) He or she is likely to hold an advanced degree in a subject such as business, sports administration or law.
Michigan's athletic director, David Brandon, is a former CEO of Domino's Pizza, for example. He has a communications degree from the University of Michigan.
As Perlman searches for a new Nebraska A.D., he has stressed the need to select someone who matches Nebraska's tradition and its culture.
“It's not just experience and credentials,” he said during last week's press conference announcing Osborne's retirement. “It's a personality and viewpoint that has to fit with Nebraska and what our history and culture is.”
A key part of that tradition is maintaining a highly competitive football program — one that will keep the seats at Memorial Stadium full, Perlman acknowledged.
“We expect to have a highly competitive program across all sports,” Perlman said. “But I'm not going to tell an athletic director that he has to win a national championship within X number of years.”
Several observers said it's going to be hard to fill Osborne's shoes.
“The truth of the matter is he cannot be replaced,” said Grant Teaff, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, based in Waco, Texas. “I don't know that there's anybody who has his background with the state and the university, having been a successful football coach and a wise and enduring leader, in and out of athletics.”
Joe Moglia, former CEO at TD Ameritrade, credits Osborne and Husker football coach Bo Pelini with helping him get back into football coaching. He's now the coach at Coastal Carolina University.
“Tom was already an icon when he decided to step down from coaching (in 1997) after three national championships in four years,” Moglia said. “Instead of going fishing, he went on to become a congressman, and he was effective in doing that.”
Osborne is the epitome of Nebraska tradition who righted the ship when the athletic department was in chaos after a 5-7 season in 2007, Moglia said.
Though it once was common for a football coach to crown his career by stepping up to athletic director, few coaches today have the array of skills needed for a job that's evolved into the equivalent of a CEO, Moglia said.
“You need to have a good understanding of people, and you need to have a good understanding of money management,” he said. “You need to know how to allocate resources, you need to be able to unite and excite, you need to be able to hire and fire.”
Pay is another way in which Osborne could be described as a throwback. His 2011 salary of $321,538 was the lowest reported A.D. pay in the Big Ten, according to a USA Today survey of the NCAA's top 120 football schools. It also was lower than that of any A.D. in the Big 12, from which Nebraska departed last year.
Wisconsin's Alvarez, with $1 million-plus in salary in 2011, is among the nation's top-paid athletic directors. According to the USA Today survey, A.D. pay for top football schools ranged in 2011 from the $165,300 paid to Hans Mueh at the U.S. Air Force Academy to the $2.56 million paid to David Williams at Vanderbilt University.
Perlman was unwilling to talk Friday about how much a new Husker athletic director might be paid, but it seems reasonable to assume that Osborne's successor will get a bigger salary. Steve Pederson, the athletic director Perlman fired in 2007, was paid $599,807 at the University of Pittsburgh last year, the USA Today survey reported.
Athletic directors today require more sophisticated business skills than they did when Bob Devaney served as head football coach and athletic director at the same time. After his 1972 retirement from coaching, Devaney continued as athletic director until 1992.
In an interview last week, Osborne agreed that the A.D.'s job is more complicated than it once was.
“When I first came to the athletic department (as an assistant coach) in 1962, the total budget was around $800,000, and all the employees could be listed on one sheet of paper,” he said. “Today the budget is around $85 million and there's 250 employees.”
It's only going to get bigger in the next couple of years. Osborne expects the Cornhusker athletic budget to exceed $100 million by 2014 because of new revenues resulting from UNL's Big Ten Conference membership and a 6,000-seat addition to Memorial Stadium.
The job involves licensing and marketing. Also, there are construction contracts to negotiate, boosters to woo and athletes to recruit. Facilities need to be updated and services for athletes — from academic support to nutrition and medical care — need to be kept on the cutting edge.
Bill Byrne, who brought a business-oriented approach to Memorial Stadium when he took over from Devaney in 1992, said the A.D.'s role has changed even more since then.
Byrne recently retired as athletic director at Texas A&M University, a job he took after leaving Nebraska in 2002.
Some of the changes:
» Communications: “In the last year, I found myself doing something I never considered doing before,” Byrne said. “Before I even read the newspaper in the morning I'd look at the Twitter accounts of people I followed to get a feel of what happened overnight, not only in athletics but across the globe.”
Athletes, coaches and fans use the social networking site, and he needed to keep abreast of what they were saying and doing. He posted columns on his website to answer fan concerns and squelch “outlandish” rumors.
It's hyperdrive communications compared with when he appeared on a weekly call-in radio show in Nebraska to answer fan questions.
» NCAA compliance: University chancellors and presidents have taken stronger control over the NCAA during the past decade, placing more requirements on athletic directors, Byrne said.
Osborne said college sports are much cleaner than they were in the 1980s — but more resources are required to make sure departments remain in compliance with NCAA regulations.
» Keeping the seats filled: With athletic conferences now offering TV coverage of nearly every sporting event, Byrne said he worries that stadium attendance will drop. A person with an HDTV, a great sound system and a refrigerator full of snacks and beverages may decide it's more fun to stay home and watch the game on TV — particularly when there are 12 cameras catching every angle of every play.
“You look at price points for tickets, and I think we're getting very close to the point of diminishing returns,” he said.
For Wisconsin's Alvarez, the job description included escorting 80 Badger boosters to Lincoln this weekend to see Wisconsin play Nebraska.
“There are so many different types of duties that fall under your purview,” said Alvarez, who coached 16 years at Wisconsin before becoming athletic director in 2005.
“The most important thing is you have to understand that culture, understand the tradition and embrace it,” he said of Nebraska and any sports-oriented university. “You'd be a fool not to.”
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Video: Harvey Perlman on Osborne's retirement